Is there life | after death?

Science suggests 'no' but maybe these kind of things are beyond what we can prove? Besides, don’t some people live on through what they contribute and discover? This needs some more thought…

At what moment are you dead?

Humans have always been fascinated with death and the idea of coming back to life. But is it really possible to come back from the dead? And what's the difference between a living creature and a dead body anyway? Randall Hayes delves into the scientific theories that seek to answer these age-old questions.

Deathly stats - make your life or death decisions!

Preparing for death – rituals from different cultures

The only certainty in life is death. For centuries, humans have been trying to find ways to come to terms with this, which might explain why many believe in an afterlife. From ancient tribes to the modern Western world, people have important rituals and beliefs around death… 


What is death?

It may seem strange to ask this but the first question we need to address is what death actually is, says Dr Jonathan Jong from the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. “There are rituals around death that can vary enormously across different cultures but there can also be different definitions of what death is. Even in scientific communities, there is not complete agreement on this.”

So is death the brain or the heart stopping? What about if someone has a terminal illness and parts of their bodies die before they do as organs shut down and stop working? “When you start to think about this across different cultures, the question gets even bigger. For example, in some parts of Indonesia, families dig up the bodies of their dead relatives and rebury them. They speak of a person not being properly dead until the second burial. For them, death comes in stages,” says Dr Jong.

Caring about a dead body

In some parts of Tibet, corpses are left on a mountain rather than buried. For some, this may sound rather heartless. “But when you think how hard it is to carry a dead body up a mountain, it becomes clear that it’s a deliberate and meaningful act,” says Dr Jong.

Similarly, in Ancient Persia (now Iran) some tribes like the Zoroastrians, used to build towers of silence where they placed their dead to be eaten by birds. “Again, at first glance, this may look to us like cavalier (casual) abandonment, but there is nothing cavalier about building costly structures just for the dead,” explains Dr Jong.

All cultures care about dead bodies but they care in different ways. Perhaps some people might think dressing a corpse - even performing cosmetic surgery on it as American undertakers are often expected to do - is strange? Increasingly in the UK too, dead bodies are drained of their natural fluids and filled with embalming liquid to preserve them. These practices may seem normal to us, but bizarre to others.

The practice of hanging coffins on the side of the cliff dates back hundreds of years in Sagada, Philippines.

Andrewhaimerl via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0

Abebuu adekai or "proverb boxes" have become a unique tradition in Ghana - coffins are decorated to represent a loved one's interests or dreams. 

Jean-Michel Rousset via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

As part of Japanese Buddhist funerals, the altar is decorated with beautiful flower displays and lanterns. 

Katorisi via Wikicommons CC BY 3.0

Bringing together West African, French and African-American traditions, jazz funerals in New Orleans strike a unique balance between joy and grief as mourners are led by a marching band.

Derek Bridges via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND

As part of a funerary dance ritual by the Kapsiki people (North Cameroon), a blacksmith carries the dressed body. 

W.E.A. van Beek via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

How we feel about death

Rituals may have evolved to help us deal with death. We need these rituals, says Dr Jong, because our feelings about death can be ambivalent (mixed). “We’ve evolved to avoid physical threats, which is partly why corpses repulse us. Not only do they represent reminders of our mortality, but can also be sources of infectious disease. We are therefore torn between needing to dispose of a corpse that might bear germs and wanting to hold on to the body that is still recognisable as belonging to someone we have known and loved. This contradiction may be why we surround death with pomp (dramatic displays) and ceremony. A funeral means we aren’t just disposing of a corpse as if it were nothing. We’re saying goodbye to granddad. We still see him as a person. That’s the kind of explanation evolutionary anthropologists give, anyway.” 

A good death?

There is little evidence that the question of what a good death is occurred in early human hunter-gatherer societies. It is something that developed culturally over time. There is certainly a long Western tradition of thinking about this, starting as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. In the European Middle Ages, the Church even used to publish manuals for dying well, called ars moriendi, the art of dying.

Over the centuries, there is less reliance on the Church as a singular institution, and so death was, like so many things, privatized, and people had to make their own judgements about how to die well. 

“As you would imagine, most people when asked about what a good death is say they don’t want pain or loss of control. It’s become the dominant idea in the West that people should face death bravely, which is not unlike how the ancient Greeks thought about death. But why should people be brave and accepting of the end of their lives? Isn’t there something to be said for 'raging against the dying of the light' (poet, Dylan Thomas)? This is why some in the hospice movement (which helps people at the end of their lives) question the very idea of a good death. Good for who?” asks Dr Jong.

Believing in life after death

The belief in an afterlife runs psychologically deep and probably comes from our intuitions about the relationship between bodies and minds, Dr Jong adds. He points to the work carried out by Bruce Hood, a professor of Psychology at Bristol University. 

Bruce Hood and his colleagues ran studies on small children aged around four to five. He showed them a hamster then said he could clone an exact replica. When asked if the cloned hamster shared the same physical traits as the original, the children generally said ‘yes’. But when asked about the psychological traits of the clone (e.g. “Does this hamster know that you tickled him”?), they more often said ‘no’. 

In another set of experiments by Jesse Bering and colleagues, children were told about a mouse that had been eaten by an alligator. When asked about the mouse’s biological traits, like ‘Does his brain still work?’ or ‘Is he still hungry?’, the children typically said ‘no’. But when asked about the mouse’s feelings like ‘Is the mouse still scared of the alligator?’, they more often said ‘yes’. And so it would seem that the children thought your biology ends when you die but some of your psychology lives on. This was true regardless of whether the children were brought up in religious or secular (non-religious) homes.

It’s often assumed adults tell children what to think. But research by people such as Hood and Bering suggests that children naturally develop these beliefs, and sometimes keep them as adults.

This basic and deep-seated idea, that our minds - our memories, our emotions, our desires - are somehow distinct and separate from our bodies is what enables us to believe that while our bodies might die, we might somehow still go on, perhaps as immaterial souls.

Soothing belief in the afterlife

Some people find belief in an afterlife very soothing. It can help with grief, loss and sadness. It’s comforting to think that one day we’ll be reunited with a loved one who’s died, in a world better than this one. Especially for people who have a very harsh life, thinking it will be better after death can help. For example, African-American slaves often sang songs about the afterlife to soothe their brutally cruel existence. 

It is a small step from believing that humans consist of bodies and souls to believing in an afterlife and a smaller step from that to believing in a pleasant afterlife in which we are reunited with our loved ones. Not all afterlife beliefs are pleasant, but they often are. Plus, “It’s not just the traditionally religious who possess afterlife beliefs,” adds Dr Jong. “For as religious beliefs are declining in countries like the UK, belief in heaven declines much more slowly. God goes, but heaven remains.”  

And there are other ways that we keep the dead alive, without literally believing in heaven. By talking about someone who has died, looking at photos and films of them, and maybe even “talking” to them, we keep them alive in our minds, memories, and hearts. So in this sense, there is life after death. 

Is there life after death? What world religions say…

  1. A question with two possible answers
    1. If you ask a biologist what happens to you after death, they will probably tell you all there is to know about what happens to your body after your heart stops beating. But is that really a full answer to our Big Question? By life after death, don’t we mean something different than biological or natural life? The major world religions have generally answered this question in one of two ways:

      Answer 1: Heaven and hell
      The three Abrahamic religions – those that recognise Abraham as their first prophet (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) –  all answer this question in a similar way. They say that you are not only your body but you are also your soul. After the death of your body, your soul lives on in a world beyond the physical world.

      Answer 2: Rebirth
      The major Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) also teach that there is something about you that survives the death of your body. It does not leave this world though. Instead, it finds another body to go live in. We call this movement from body to body, reincarnation or rebirth (Saṃsāra). 

  2. Christianity
    1. On the basis of the New Testament - which tells us how Jesus died and returned to life - Christians hope that God will give them a new and eternal life after death. They also believe that, at some point, their lives will be judged by God. Those who have put their faith in Jesus will go to heaven and those who have rejected him will go to hell. Hell is often depicted as a place full of pain and suffering. But it shouldn't be taken too literally. Suffering means the anxiety we feel when we are doomed to an eternal life without God - the creator of life and all that is good – by our side. In the same way, heaven is not a place high up in the sky. It is where we are reunited with God, the source of our life. 

  3. Islam
    1. Because Islam and Christianity both worship the Abraham's God - Allah being the Arabic word for God – these two religions understand the afterlife in a similar way. Like Christians, Muslims think that we have a soul that survives the death of our body. And the idea that there will be a day when God judges humanity is one of the six core beliefs in Islam. On this day, everyone will either be sent to paradise (Jannah) or hell (Jahannam). The faithful go to paradise, which is depicted as a garden with seven layers of heaven. The top one is the garden of Eden and home to Adam and Eve. In the lower ones, your neighbours will be people like Jesus and Abraham. Hell also has seven layers, each with a different punishment for a different class of sinner. But this punishment isn’t necessarily eternal, like in Christianity. It is possible that, after serving their sentence, a sinner is welcomed into paradise. 

  4. Judaism
    1. The Hebrew Bible – the earliest Jewish texts – is not entirely clear when it comes to the question of the afterlife. There is an underworld called Sheol. But this is not the hell of Christians or Muslims. It is where all dead people go – whether they lived a good life or not – to spend eternity as a shadow of themselves. There is no punishment or suffering here, but neither is it the home of God. The later texts of the Talmud develop the more familiar ideas of judgement, hell (Gehenna) and heaven (Olam Ha-Ba). On the day of judgement, those who followed the laws of Judaism move from this world (Olam Ha-Zeh) to the world to come (Olam Ha-Ba). This is the garden of Eden where God’s throne stands. But Gehenna is home to most ordinary people. Here they’ll be either be punished or cleansed – depending on which scriptural scholar you ask – for a period of twelve months at most. After this period, they’ll be ready to join God. But the truly evil – again depending on which scriptural scholar you ask – will have to spend eternity in hell or be completely destroyed.

  5. Buddhism
    1. The Buddhist tradition is different from the three religions described above in two key ways. First, after death you don’t go to some other world but stay in this one. When your body dies, you are reborn in a different one. Secondly, there is no self or soul, there is no you. Confused? Don’t worry, let's delve deeper... If there is no soul or self, what is there to be reborn? According to the Buddha, your sense that you are the same person throughout your life is an illusion. For Buddhists, everything is always changing, nothing is permanent. So when you die, not you but the energies that shape you take on a new form. The bits that made you you, are arranged slightly differently and form someone else. This next life is connected to your previous one through something called karma. This is the idea that an action in a previous life has a reaction in the next. Did you do something horrible in a previous life? You might be reborn as a cockroach! The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to escape this cycle of rebirths by reaching enlightenment or Nirvana.

  6. Hinduism
    1. Similar to Buddhism, Hinduism also sees life as a cycle of death and rebirth connected by karma. If you have bad luck in this life, you must have done something wrong in the previous one. To break free of this cycle is again the goal. Hindus call this state of freedom moksha. But unlike Buddhists, Hindus do believe that there is something that makes you, you. They believe that every person has an atman, a soul or spirit. This spirit is always the same, no matter what body it is temporarily living in. 

  7. Sikhism
    1. Just like Buddhists, Sikhs believe that life is a cycle of death and rebirth connected by karma. The goal is again mukti, or the freedom from this cycle. Just like Hindus, Sikhs believe that there is a soul that is passed along in a series of rebirths. As you may change into a different set of clothes, so too your soul is reborn in a new body. Sikhs achieve mukti when the soul becomes one with God. The soul originally came from God, but has been separated from him. Because of this it has become impure. But through remembering and meditating on the name of God, the soul can find its way back. 

  8. Chinese folk religion
    1. Chinese folk religion’s understanding of the afterlife also centres around the rebirth of souls. However, If you have sinned in your previous life, you are not just reborn in an uncomfortable body in the next. Instead, your soul first goes to hell or Diyu. Souls are taken to this underground labyrinth so they can be punished for their sins. Once they have received their punishment, they are ready to be reborn in a new body. All will have to spend some time here, but how long it takes before you are allowed to enter a new body depends on how serious your sins are. 

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells became the first immortal human cell line. Her legacy has made medical history saving lives but all without her knowledge.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells became the first immortal human cell line. Her legacy has made medical history saving lives but all without her knowledge. 

Life after death: the big questions in philosophy

It’s pretty natural to want to know whether there’s life after death and to actually want there to be life after death. That’s because many of us assume that death is a bad thing - something to be feared. But not everyone. Some philosophers have argued that death isn’t such a big deal after all... 


Suppose for a moment that there's no life after death and that when you die, that’s it. Some philosophers would ask: is it bad to be dead? 

Now, it’s important to add that nobody denies that dying, the process that leads to death, can be unpleasant. When philosophers say that death isn’t an ill or that death is no harm to the one who dies, they aren’t denying the suffering that some people face. Instead, what they’re suggesting is that the state of being dead isn’t actually a bad one. 

So who would say such a thing? And why?

The idea that death isn’t bad is associated with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-272 b.c.e) and his followers. He realized that many of us fear death, but he thought this fear was irrational. He offered arguments for this conclusion, which he hoped would put people’s minds at ease. 

The first one goes like this: if death is bad, for whom is it bad? Well, it’s hard for those left behind, but we aren’t worrying about them in this instance. We’re talking primarily about it being bad for the one who is dead. But, Epicurus says, that doesn’t make sense. Death is annihilation (the ultimate end of everything). At a minimum, for something to be bad for someone, the person has to exist. Think of it like this: Epicurus has been dead for a long time. It wouldn’t be very nice to step outside and shout, “Epicurus was a crazy old philosopher!” But would this comment be bad for Epicurus himself? It’s hard to see how it would be as he isn’t around to have his feelings hurt. And so if death really is the end of everything you can experience, this suggests that when you’re dead you aren’t around to feel anything unpleasant. So being dead isn’t bad.

A man using a megaphone.

However, not everyone is convinced by Epicurus’ reasoning. Some philosophers argue that Epicurus went wrong because he had a mistaken picture of what it is for something to be bad for someone. He assumes that something is bad for someone only if they have a negative experience similar to how if a bee stings you, you’re very likely to feel discomfort. But is there another way for things to be bad, another way that a person can be harmed?

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that there is. For example, suppose that all of your friends throw a party but they don’t invite you. And somehow they manage to keep it a complete secret from you. Was it bad for you that you weren’t invited? 

You never find out about the party so you don’t have any negative feelings or pain because of it, so in this sense, some would say this isn’t necessarily a bad situation. But others would suggest that you were harmed by not being invited because you missed out on all the good things that come with a party (e.g. having fun, meeting new people etc.)

And Nagel thinks that this can explain why we think that death is bad. It’s not because we think that it will be unpleasant to be dead, but because death deprives us of the good things that we would be able to do and enjoy if we hadn’t died. 

Life before birth 

Epicurus’ follower, Lucretius (99-55 b.c.e.), a Roman philosopher and poet, offered a different argument known as “the Asymmetry argument”. This can be best explained by thinking about the time before you were born. You were born at one particular time, and not earlier. If you had been born earlier, then you could’ve enjoyed things during that earlier time. But not many people believe that it’s a bad thing that they were deprived of the time before their birth. Yet, in all the relevant respects, the time before your birth and the time after your death are the same. Both extend out toward infinity and neither includes you. So if you don’t mind having missed out on one, surely you shouldn’t mind missing out on the other?

What mattered most to Epicurus and Lucretius was convincing people to let go of their fear of death. If death causes you no pain when you’re dead, then it’s a mistake to let it cause you pain when you’re alive. Instead, they were hedonists, who thought what mattered in life was pleasure. Rather than worrying about our death we should “eat, drink, and be merry”, as the saying goes.

What do you think? Which Philosopher has the most compelling argument from your point of view? 

Handwritten notes around an image of a light bulb

6 of the spookiest ghost stories

  1. A playful prankster
    1. Although Peeves (a troublesome poltergeist) was left out of the Harry Potter film series, he plays a prominent role in the books. The name 'poltergeist' is German in origin, and roughly translates as 'noisy ghost'. The story goes that Peeves has lived in the Hogwarts castle since it was founded in 993. Poltergeists usually appear in places where lots of young people are living, and given how bustling Hogwarts was with students, Peeves was noisier, more destructive and harder to expel than the average poltergeist. He’s known to cause havoc for the school caretaker by smashing vases, messing up potions and toppling bookcases, to name a few misdeeds. Not many at Hogwarts can control Peeves, but he’s been known to respect fellow pranksters, like Fred and George Weasley, and is deathly afraid of the Bloody Baron, the Slytherin ghost. 

      Hogwarts Castle as depicted in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, located in Universal Orlando Resort's Island of Adventure.

  2. An Irish trickster
    1. The Murphy family lived in a remote cottage in Cooneen in County Fermanagh in Ireland. In 1913, shortly after Mr Murphy died in an accident, their rural idyll was disturbed when a poltergeist moved in and started tapping on windows, spitting, hissing, lifting the bed from the floor and throwing things across the room. Even the local MP came to witness the strange goings-on. The family invited 3 different priests to try to exorcise the evil spirit, but the first priest had a nervous breakdown, the second became ill with spinal meningitis and the third suffered facial paralysis. Eventually, the Murphys moved to the USA – and the Cooneen ghost house has been uninhabited since.

  3. A haunted road
    1. Haunted houses are found across the globe, but few countries have as many tales of haunted streets and roads as the United Kingdom. Streets are often haunted by ghosts of highwaymen - robbers who stole from travellers - but one street in Oxford has an unusual tale. It’s said that a man named Napier was found guilty of several terrible crimes and sentenced to death. His wrongdoings were considered so awful that he was subjected to a particularly cruel punishment: his limbs were torn apart and cut into small pieces which were scattered across the city. Napier is thought to have returned as a ghost after his death and spent his afterlife searching for his missing body parts. Over time, he managed to find most of the pieces but is still searching for his severed head, which he believes to be on Banbury Road. To this day, Napier haunts this road determined to find the final piece of his body puzzle. 

      Banbury Road, Oxford


  4. A ghostly castle
    1. Chillingham Castle in Northumberland is considered one of the most haunted castles in Britain. One of its tales is of the blue boy, a phantom who appears as a little boy dressed in blue, thought to be the resurrection of a boy whose bones were found in the walls of the castle with some remnants of blue fabric. Another famous ghoul is that of Lady Mary Berkeley, the wife of one of the old Lords of the castle. In a 17th century scandal, Lady Mary’s husband left with her sister and she was left alone in the castle. She wandered the hallways waiting for her husband to return, and eventually died. Visitors today say they feel a cold chill and hear the rustle of silk as she wanders past, still awaiting her husband’s return. 

      Chillingham Castle, Northumberland

  5. A vengeful ghoul
    1. Ghosts are often thought to return to this world so they can seek revenge and haunt those who have wronged them. One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth, includes several supernatural events. One of the key characters, Lord Banquo, is an ally of Macbeth and joins him in visiting the three witches. The witches prophesise that Macbeth will become king and that Banquo won’t but his children might. This should be a relief for Macbeth, but he is overcome by his desire for power and has Banquo murdered. Later in the play, Banquo returns as a ghost to haunt Macbeth for his wrongdoings and appears at a great banquet Macbeth is holding to celebrate him becoming king. This is pretty embarrassing for Macbeth, as he is overwhelmed with shock. No one else at the banquet can see Banquo’s ghost, so they assume that Macbeth has gone mad – not a great start to his reign!  

      Painting showing Elizabethan era men at a dining table, with Banquo's ghost sitting on one of the stools.

  6. Past, present and future
    1. Ghosts aren’t all bad - in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts who prompt him to change his ways. His first visit is from the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. He is bound in chains and warns Scrooge that he will face the same fate if he doesn’t change his miserable, mean ways. This visit is followed by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge the past events that led up to his current gloomy existence. Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the importance of the true meaning of Christmas. Finally, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the most frightening of the spirits. This ghost shows Scrooge the depressing and lonely death that awaits him if his greed and selfishness continue. The moral of the story? Embrace the generosity, goodwill, and celebration of Christmas, unless you want a visit from a ghost (or four)! 

      "The Ghost of Christmas Present" - illustrations by John Leech, 1843.

What do Humanists say?

Humanists look towards scientific methods when trying to understand how the Universe works, and they reject the idea of the supernatural. They don't believe in an afterlife and as a result, Humanists feel that we should strive to find happiness in this life and help others to do the same.


Gets you thinking…what’s the meaning of it all?

Academics at the University of Oxford share their insights on the age-old question: what is the meaning of life?