Is There Anything More Than This?: Thoughts on Death and Dying

After a week in which too many good people died, Bronwyn Meyrick reflects on death, drawing on some very different books that debate the existence (and dubious comfort) of an afterlife, and blend neuroscience and experience.

Image by 55Laney69, Flickr.

Last week, a friend, not a close friend, but a friend all the same, died suddenly. He was not even 30 years old. Earlier the same week, the famous actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was a bloody genius, but is also said to have had his demons. He was just 63 years old. This week, on Wednesday, BKS Iyengar, the founder of the eponymous Iyengar form of yoga, died. He was 95 years old.

I read a book recently about near-death experiences — Proof of Heaven — by American neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander. A few years ago, Alexander caught a strain of bacterial meningitis so bad that he was left in a coma. In fact, he was in such a bad state that he was expected to die. While in the coma, Alexander says that he observed himself journeying beyond this world, passing through a white light into the ‘deepest realms of super-physical experience’: an ‘immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting’. Apparently this is reasonably typical for near-death and out-of-body experiences, but Alexander claims his was an encounter with heaven. During the coma, a part of his brain, the cerebral cortex, had stopped functioning. And so, reasons Alexander, because it’s the cerebral cortex part of your brain that creates such near-death experiences, his experience offers proof of heaven, and so grants the book its title.

Eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks is not very satisfied with Alexander’s reasoning. Being the party-pooper that he is, Sacks argues that a person needs a functioning cerebral cortex in order to create a near-death experience and therefore his experience was a humanly one (as opposed to a divine one). However, it’s quite probable that Alexander’s experience occurred while he was coming out of the coma – i.e. when his cerebral cortex was starting to work again – thus making it nothing extraordinary.

Another, very different, book on death is Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published essay collection On Mortality, which is really about dying. Hitchens depicts his experience of being diagnosed with, and eventually subsumed by, oesophageal cancer. But as he bears witness to the loss of his instrument — his voice — Hitchens is not soothed at all by the possibility of an afterlife, fictitious or not.

I’m no scientist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. But I have to say that I found the conclusions that Alexander drew from his experience somewhat tenuous. I’m not religious either. I remember trying, and failing, to explain this to my second-grade teacher.

Nevertheless, in a way I felt an affinity with Alexander in feeling that there must be something more to this, this universe. I think it’s beyond the realm of scientific proof, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant – it’s just that no amount of triangulation will get you the answer. It’s not necessarily something pre-determined or orderly, but there are definitely greater forces at play in this universe than I’ll be able to compute. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because sometimes things happen that are extraordinary and you just can’t work out how they happened.

But also, maybe it’s because sometimes people die — really good people — for seemingly no good reason at all, when there really should be one.

Bronywn Meyrick is a Melburnian writer, currently based in South Korea.