THE BLOG

Is it Possible to Get a Healthier View of Death?

30/04/2013 12:56 BST | Updated 29/06/2013 10:12 BST
Flickr: therovingpicture

Have you popped into your local, neighbourhood Death Café recently?

No, it's not a new franchise with baristas offering to add a dash of arsenic to your daily caffeine spike. Nor is it a high street variation on Dignitas where you can enjoy an espresso with your euthanasia.

Death cafes do not promote anyone's demise. Instead they seek to reduce the mystique surrounding a "taboo" topic by encouraging constructive conversation about it.

"They're a place to talk about the issues surrounding death while drinking tea and eating delicious cake'', explains Lizzy Miles, a hospice worker who has imported the idea from the UK into the USA.

British founder Jon Underwood recently reported that the concept has also found favour in Canada, Italy, Wales and Australia. And far from being morbid, he says, Death Cafés are for people who "want to live more fully".

"They think that by fearing cessation they can't be spiritually alive. The more we talk about dying and what it means about ego and self, the more we add to life."

Reducing the "fear of cessation" wrapped up in common assumptions about death makes a lot of sense to authors such as Dr Wayne Dyer. His works on nurturing a spiritual life pinpoint how overcoming the dread of dying is a key factor in good health. Rather than talking about the death process, however, he discusses what transcends it - namely "an essential immortality that is the birthright of every human being".

At first blush this might seem far removed from the everyday experiences of death in hospitals and care homes. Yet the received wisdom on dying is being challenged by clinicians such as Sam Parnia MD, a British physician who has served on the medical front lines in both the UK and USA.

The resuscitation specialist, described by the Observer as "the man who could bring you back from the dead", told BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live (see March 30):

"We are going towards an understanding that there is no moment of death, that death is a process that can be reversed...What we've discovered so far is that at least in the first period of death a person has not become annihilated. Their consciousness, their psyche, the soul - whatever we want to call it - continues to be in existence, which is what enables us to bring them back."

If this sounds like religious talk, that is by no means Dr Parnia's intention. To him, these are scientific truths which form the basis of innovative medical techniques he uses as head of intensive care at the Stony Brook University Hospital in New York - techniques which impressively outperform the decades-old CPR practices.

Indeed, far from being religious, he's convinced that "every area of inquiry that used to be tackled by religion or philosophy is now tackled and explained by science". Consequently, he goes no further in his assumptions about the continuing existence of a "psyche" or "soul" than his own observation and medical records allow.

Yet if science is pushing back its own frontiers and finding a person is not "annihilated" during "at least" the initial period of death it's logical to ask: "How much longer might such existence, independent of brain and body, eventually be proved to continue?" It seems likely that further inquiry down the years will dig ever deeper into the question of an afterlife that has more traditionally been the preserve of faith.

Dr Parnia has written a book about his ideas. Describing it, in Observer's Tim Adams wrote that The Lazarus Effect is 'based on Parnia's intimate knowledge of the newly porous nature of the previously "undiscovered country from which no traveller returns."'

No traveller returns? The book's title refers to a man who, according to the Scriptures, was brought back to life several days after his death by the spiritual insights and prayer of a Galilean carpenter, Jesus. The Bible also relates the restoration of Jesus to life after his own death. While many don't accept the authority of such "anecdotal evidence" others have found that quietly contemplating such stories can be life-changing and health-giving.

What would we learn today, if we could somehow sit down with Jesus over coffee and cake and ask about his understanding of death? Like Dr Dyer he would most certainly point our thoughts in the opposite direction to seek out our "essential immortality". He might even say to us, as he said to a woman by a well in Samaria: "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water."

Welcome to the Life Café!