For an anthropologist studying the afterlife – or beliefs and practices concerning the afterlife – presents a particular challenge. I am interested in what individuals and cultures think happens when we die – where we go (or don’t go), what happens (or doesn’t happen) and why. An assumption in the West is all to often that we can’t ever know, or even that to suppose there is any component of an individual that survives death is simply wishful thinking. This position, sometimes referred to as materialist or skeptical, is supported by rather less evidence than the supposition that consciousness is independent of, and more durable than, our material bodies. A dominant perspective in many if not most cultures, and of many individuals in the West, is that they do not believe in life after death, they know. Exactly what they know and how they know it varies from one person and culture to another, but the degree of consistency that exists across time, as well as across cultural and geographical space, is at the very least intriguing. Some version of the law of kama (all thoughts and actions have consequences beyond those of our immediate circumstances) appears to be universal. The notion of all life as energy vibrating at different frequencies, is common and entirely possible from quantum physics. Descriptions of the geography of the afterlife as planes of existence corresponding to spiritual values, increasing in vibrational lightness with distance from the material world, are also very widespread. If, as many religions, mediums, clairvoyants, sages and mystics tell us, we create our world through thought, what we think and believe is a key determinant of our immediate post-mortem experience. Individual and cultural variations are therefore to be expected. Those who die believing that they will go to hell might well, for a time at least, find themselves wandering in a state of torment or confusion. Martyrs who die for a cause may unwittingly recreate the religious vision they had eagerly anticipated. On the other hand, the process of leaving the body, of a period of rest and recuperation, meeting with deceased loved ones and with a higher self, seem to recur whatever the cultural and religious beliefs the individual might have held (if data from hypnotic regression, mediums and NDEs are to be believed). An attempt to outline some of these possible scenarios is the purpose behind my book Tales from the Afterlife. The ten different ‘stories’ it presents distill data from many sources, with the message that how we live and what we believe affects our experience of death and re-awakening.
My methodological approach is to put concern with questions of proof to one side, but not to bracket out ontological questions altogether as they are of central importance in most people’s lives (it does surely matter whether we live one life as a meaningless, random physical accident, or a number of lives in which we progress along a path of love and unity until we reach the divine source of existence). To state the issue in this manner itself indicates my conviction that our attitude towards, and beliefs in, what happens when we die have a profound affect on the ways in which individuals and societies live their lives. A network of people interested in ethnographic approaches to the afterlife has been formed via the Afterlife Research Centre.
As a methodological tool I have proposed adopting a stance of cognitive, empathetic engagement. I ask what the world would look like if I were to take the data from a variety of sources as ‘true’ and see the world through those categories. In trying to write an ethnography of the afterlife I treat the data as I might when researching a new culture or group – I listen to stories, cross-reference information, interpret meanings, note actions and above all aim to produce an accurate, holistic description of the territory. My experience to date is that such an approach helps make connections and see the world though new eyes, without forfeiting the critical distance needed to interrogate the data. In a field in which the weird and wonderful can overlap with the plain nutty, a sense of humour and default conservatism is also useful, but that is part of the fun! I also observe in myself the cumulative effect of my reading, thinking and personal observations, noting that what appeared fanciful and absurd a couple of years ago sometimes finds a place in my ethnographic landscape as the weight of evidence in its favour mounts. Studying the afterlife is also like working a tapestry in which the underlying picture is already known, if faded. I add colours and tie the ends, but rather than surprise at what is emerging there is a sense of familiarity. It rings true. Of course I could be wrong – all these folk could be deceiving themselves, but empirical evidence is out there, and anyway there are worse ways to spend one’s time.