I Was Worried About Death – Until I Found Out What Happens When You Die
Although my mother says he wasn’t afraid to die (he was just “sad because he was going to miss us”), I have no idea what happened to him the moment after he took his last breath. He doesn’t visit me in dreams or move objects around the house letting me know he is watching. And yet again, I start to notice a pattern in the way my fear works: It’s all about the unknown. It’s hard not to think: What happened to my father? What will happen to me?
Growing up Catholic, I thought it would be good to first check in with the faith that raised me. I know that when someone dies, it could take as long as a week for the body to be buried. Some Christians opt for one or two days of viewing the body, known as a wake. It’s here that the family comes together to pray for the deceased. A funeral mass may or may not take place, but either way, the body is usually buried (some families go down the path of cremation). But I needed to know more about what happens next.
It’s important to know that there are many Christian denominations and interpretations of the Bible vary, but when it comes to death, there is a common belief that comes strictly from the resurrection of Jesus. To break it down in the simplest way possible, Christians believe that on Good Friday, or the Friday before Easter, Jesus died. On the third day, a.k.a. Easter, he rose from the dead. During his time on Earth, he shared his spirit with his disciples, and then he was taken into Heaven. “As believers, we think a similar thing is going to happen to us,” says James Cappabianca, Associate Director of Development at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
Cappabianca says that reason comes from the doctrine of incarnation, which teaches that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Christians trust that God is like humans in all ways, including in death. “That’s why the resurrection is so powerful and beautiful to believers — we can connect to God because of the hope that we can be raised up, made perfect in the fullness of love and goodness, like (and with) Jesus himself,” says Cappabianca.
But when it comes to our resurrection, there’s no specifics about how or when it will happen. “The how or the when of our resurrection is in God’s hands,” Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America‘s presiding bishop, told me. “I think of it this way: When I was a little girl my parents would take my brothers and me to the drive-in movies. We would fall asleep in the back seat of the car. When we got home, our parents would carry us up to bed. When we woke up, we were safe in our own beds. We had no awareness of how long we had been asleep, nor of how we had arrived, but we knew we were home.”
So, what does “home” look like? Well, the notion of white robes and a golden gate could be accurate, but it’s still a mystery. Being afraid of that mystery is natural, but Cappabianca says it’s important to remember what’s to come. “I think as a believer — and I wholeheartedly believe this — that at the moment of death, I will feel some sense of peace in knowing that it’s just a different stage of my life. And I hope that in the last moment of my bodily life, I remember that this stage is going to be so beautiful and so perfect and so filled with love.”
Dr. Syeed says it’s important to note that Muslims are prohibited from praying to God to give them death, harming their bodies or self-inflicting wounds. “Our bodies are a trust from God. We have to take care of them. We should not waste them or harm them,” he said.
Also similar to Christianity, Islam believes there will be a resurrection (Yawm al-Qiyāmah), but has its own unique process. But when a Muslim dies, he or she is buried right away. “I believe it’s to move them along and help them start their trial,” says Kareem Hagazi, a host and producer on The Bridge, a bilingual Arab-American talk show. Some Muslims believe that when we die, we enter Barzakh, which is a realm where our souls are kept until the Day of Resurrection (some refer to it as the Day of Reckoning). Although, Dr. Syeed says the concept is a bit controversial. “There is so much of folklore and myths in popular culture in Islam to fill the gaps. But those tales have no actual role in the identifiable stages in life: our birth, our journey through life, our death, our accountability, our final abode.”
The waiting period for the resurrection could be days or years, but for the dead, it will seem like a brief moment. On the actual day, a trumpet (it may also be a bell or a horn) will sound, and we will all rise from our graves to be judged by God. Those who are righteous will enter Paradise, or Jannah. “We know that it is a beautiful place that has rivers of honey and rivers of wine,” says Hagazi. “Imagine the best honey, meal or wine you’ve ever had — it will not compare at all to what you’ll have in Heaven.”
Of course, the why and how is only known to God, but instead of being afraid of the mystery, it is a driving force for Muslims to do the best they can in life. “Death is not our enemy. We should not be scared of it. Its presence is a constant reminder for us to live meaningful lives and not to waste the great gift of life given to us by God along with death,” says Dr. Syeed.
This thought stayed with me as I explored another religion, Judaism. In the Jewish religion, the dead are also buried as soon as possible, sometimes within 24 hours. The simplest explanation can be because the Torah says so, but of course, there are exceptions. For instance, a body might not be buried on Sabbath, which takes place between nightfall on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. The moment one dies, it is believed that the soul will be judged. Every soul will go through a purification process — for some it will take longer than others — however the body remains in the ground and will not be reunited with the soul. After being purified, the soul will be uplifted and peacefully wait for Olam Ha-Ba or “the World to Come,” when the Messiah will come. As in other religions, there is no way to know for sure when or how this will happen, but Jewish people do believe, when it does, it will be blissful. “It’s the absolute best scenario that you can imagine yourself in,” says Beth Garfinkle Hancock, a cantor and educator based in Morristown, New Jersey. “Everyone will be reunited, there will be no sadness, war or evil – just perfect peace.”
The afterlife is not a huge focus in the everyday lives of Jewish people. Judaism teaches that God put us on Earth to make it as good as we can. During the time we have here, our energy must go to this world, with the one afterward as a bit of an afterthought. “We never want to put our focus on the afterlife because there’s nothing we can contribute to it,” says “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach. “If you asked me how I can use my spiritual teaching as a Jew to: feed the hungry, cloth the naked, absorb the refugees — I can give you specific answers on that — where I can make a difference, and that’s why the emphasis is on that.”
My takeaway from learning about reincarnation was that although the death process can be quite different from the other religions, there’s a very real connection we all share when it comes to death: What we do with our time while we’re alive will greatly impact what happens afterward, whatever that may be. Our spirits right now are far more important than what will happen to them later on.
After that realization, I started to remember my dad’s wake, when people who knew him came up to me and told me how good of a man he was — he was funny, generous, a good listener. So I can’t help but think the reason he wasn’t afraid to die was because he realized he did all he could with what he had. I wonder if I’m a good person or if I’m doing everything I can quite often, which explains why I still get panicked when I think about dying. But I think (I hope) I have time to continue growing as a person and before my last day comes. And even though there’s trepidation, I know I have to continue to do the best I can with what I have — which is what my dad taught me when I was growing up. So despite the fact that he doesn’t send me signs or visit my dreams, and although I still can’t be 100% sure of what happened to him after he died, I can for certain say this: He is definitely with me, especially in that lesson.