Fear of death crosses all racial, political, economic, gender, age, religious, and geographical boundaries. Many of us are afraid of that great unknown. Does life continue in another fashion, or is “the end” really the end? The documentary After Death doesn’t have the answers to those questions, although it certainly offers tantalizing evidence of what might be. We’ve all heard about people having near-death experiences wherein they’re drawn toward a bright light. Dismissing that is easy. The film invites us to look at case studies a little more closely.
Directors Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke bring together a diverse group of interviewees. They include Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist who takes a scientific approach to studying near-death experiences; Dr. Amjal Zemmar, a neurologist who was part of a team that unexpectedly recorded a patient’s brain activity as they died; Don Piper, the author of 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book that documents his own near-death experience following a car accident; Dale Black, an airline pilot who claims to have floated above the EMTs trying to save his life after his plane hit a mausoleum; and Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon who briefly died after her kayak went over a waterfall, leaving her trapped underwater for half an hour.
After Death uses actors to dramatize the survivors' stories and intersperses their on-camera interviews with testimony from the medical experts. Intriguing facts emerge. One of them is that people who have had near-death experiences often report the exact same elements, regardless of what culture they originate from and regardless of whether they’re religious or not. The requisite bright lights are part of that, as is a sensation of intense mental clarity. Other commonly reported events are increased vision and hearing, colors beyond what we recognize, and a feeling of overwhelming comfort and love.
Skeptics have offered alternate explanations for these shared phenomena. But then you have cases like that of Pam Reynolds. The subject of the most fascinating section of the film, she was clinically dead on the table. No brain activity, no heartbeat. Upon being revived, she recounted floating above the doctors working on her body. Reynolds was able to provide details she could not logically have known, from a song playing in the background to the specific actions taken by her medical team. What that indicates can’t be definitively quantified. Surely, it indicates something, though.
The documentary presents the possibility that life may indeed continue in a different form once our earthly bodies are worn out. That form may also involve a Heaven, as many religions have long claimed. Lest you think the picture is all angels and miracles, there are two stories from men who had very opposing journeys. They describe falling into a dark, scary realm where they were mentally tormented and overcome by crippling feelings of guilt. If Heaven is real, Hell might be, too.
Regardless of where you land on the issue, listening to the stories related in After Death is consistently captivating. Your opinion on the concept of an afterlife will be challenged and brought into greater focus. Even the guy who says he spent two hours getting answers to life’s mysteries from God, then declines to divulge any of them on-camera is riveting because his conviction is so strong. You come away with enough thought-provoking ideas to keep your mind active for days.
Perhaps the tale of Mary Neal best sums up the movie’s impact. Her time in what she believes was Heaven was so fulfilling that when her son died a short time later, she grieved for the loss while simultaneously feeling comforted by the notion that he was perhaps feeling that same happy fulfillment. What an uplifting contemplation that is. Seeing After Death might just make you a little less afraid of the Grim Reaper.
out of four
After Death is rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent descriptions, some bloody images, and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.