The Moment of Death

On Thursday I read a chapter out of a new Brazos book we’ve just bought at my library – Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, by Terrence Nichols. The chapter was on Near Death Experiences. I think years ago I read a scathing dismissal of NDEs and filed them away as a combination of junk science, parapsychology and pop psychology. But Nichols is a believer in them as evidence for an afterlife. He claims there are common elements to NDEs across cultures and times in history, which is what one would have to show to counter the claim that NDEs are a psychological phenomenon depending on the dying person’s expectations of the afterlife. It sent shivers down my spine reading some of his descriptions. I want reassurance about an afterlife; I have this suspicion I shouldn’t be looking for it in NDEs but in the resurrection of Christ. (Nichols does this too; he spends chapters on more conventional Christian approaches to the afterlife, but I flicked straight to it.) He spoke of many people coming back from NDEs with a strong, lasting sense of peace and reassurance, and a desire to lead a more holy life. But I seem to remember Kerry Packer coming back the first time and saying there’s nothing.

I was reading another book about death, Death in the Victorian Family by Patricia Jalland, a fascinating cultural history, the sort of book I would quite like to write. Her opening chapter is on the way the strong evangelicalism of the 1860s shaped cultural expectations of death in Britain. A good death was testimony to the truth of the gospel, the believer radiating with joy and hope as they approached death and the glory of God. One prominent evangelical magazine featured in every issue the testimony of a believer’s good death. Jalland exposes the gap between these public accounts of death and the truth of the pain, agony and lack of transcendence revealed in personal letters and diaries from the same period. The embellished accounts made everyone else feel that death in their family should be like this too, leaving them privately devastated, but also needing to maintain the public face of a proper, good death. There was an obsession with the look on someone’s face as they died; they believed they could tell a person’s final destination by their countenance at the moment of death.

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