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The Great Beyond

Is There Life After Death?

We asked people 50 and over to share their most deeply held beliefs. The result is an illuminating glimpse into America’s spiritual core.

Life After Death

— Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

“It’s controversial here [in the United States], but reincarnation is a mainstay of the Eastern religions—Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism,” says Ishani Chowdhury, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. “You see more and more people of the younger generation weighing it at the same level as Western religions and not dismissing it.”

Adds Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of "A History of Heaven" (Princeton University Press, 1998): “If you took this study 50 years ago, the belief in reincarnation would be down at about one percent. Generally, the traditionally clear Christian vision of heaven has declined, while the vaguer visions of the continuation of life have taken its place.”

One true believer is Linda Abbott of St. Louis. “We have to come back,” she tells me. “We come back over and over until we get it right!”

More than half of those responding reported a belief in spirits or ghosts—with more women (60 percent) than men (44 percent) agreeing. Boomers are a lot more likely to believe in ghosts (64 percent) when compared with those in their 60s (51 percent) or 70s or older (38 percent). Their belief is not entirely based on hearsay evidence, either. Thirty-eight percent of all those responding to our poll say they have felt a presence, or seen something, that they thought might have been a spirit or a ghost.

“We’ve had some strange experiences,” says Ed, who once lived in a house he suspected might be haunted. “Doors closing that shouldn’t close, things falling down when you know they’re stable. Kind of like someone on the other side was trying to get our attention.”

Still, despite all those great stories about old haunted houses in the Northeast and Deep South, it was respondents from the West (50 percent) who were especially likely to say they’d felt the presence of a spirit or a ghost.

No Place to Go

Nearly one quarter of those responding agreed with the statement “I believe that when I die, that’s the end.” It’s not the sort of statement that invites a lot of questions for clarification, but Tom, a friendly, outspoken fellow I chatted with from the Lake Champlain region of upstate New York, took a shot at it.

To the question “Is there life after death?” Tom responds, “Nope. I’ve always felt that way. Life’s short enough without having to worry about something you can’t do anything about anyway. It’s just reality, you know? I mean, I’m a Catholic.”

Tom waits while I lift my jaw from the table. A Catholic?

“Sure. They preach life after death, you know? I just say, hey, people preach a lot of stuff. You just gotta make up your own mind about things. I go to Mass. I live my life like there’s life after death, but I don’t believe there is. If it’s true, well, hey, it’s a plus. But if it ain’t, I didn’t lose nothing.”

He laughs, and I laugh with him. (He does ask that I not divulge his last name, and I wonder if that’s to cover his tracks just in case God picks up this issue of AARP The Magazine.) Nonetheless, it’s interesting that Tom tries to live as if there were an afterlife, even though he doesn’t believe in one. It seems to echo what others tell me about how their beliefs in the hereafter—or lack thereof—impact the way they live their lives. Surprisingly, few confess their beliefs have any effect at all. And everyone I talk to agrees we should be living our lives according to a moral code—which many would define as God’s code—whether there’s a God at all, or a reward awaits.

As 90-year-old Leona puts it, “I just want to be faithful to Jesus every day and do what’s right.”

The sentiment, I discovered, is echoed across a wide spectrum of belief—and disbelief. “Atheists celebrate life, but we know death is a reality,” says Margaret Downey, president of Atheist Alliance International. “We believe the only afterlife that a person can hope to have is the legacy they leave behind—the memory of the people who have been touched by their lives.”

No matter what your belief, adds Omid Safi, former cochair for the study of Islam at the American Academy of Religion, “even though we use words like afterlife, or the next life, the life beyond, it is actually a great mirror about how people like to see themselves now, and the way they see God, and the way they see themselves interacting with other people.”

For my money, there have been two great books written about the afterlife: Dante’s "The Divine Comedy" and C.S. Lewis’s "The Great Divorce." Of course, Lewis’s book is funny, and shorter, so it’s better: a guy gets on a commuter bus and finds himself on a tour of heaven and hell. Still, both writers seem to reach similar conclusions: whether we choose to take any side in the afterlife conversation, the reality is heading relentlessly toward us. We can straddle the line between belief and unbelief all we want, but in a world where we love to split the difference when it comes to spiritual matters, where inclusiveness often means reaching consensus on conceptual matters, the answer to the ultimate question of life after death leaves no room for quibbling. The position you took during your earthly life is either spot on or dead wrong.

The figures on Michelangelo’s monumental fresco seem ready to tumble over me, and I figure it’s time to make room for some new tourists. At the back of the Sistine Chapel, I notice two doors: a large one to the left and a smaller one to the right. I ask an English-speaking tour guide which way I should go.

“That way”—he points to the right—“is a lovely long staircase. And if you keep going, there’s a shortcut to St. Peter’s Basilica. That way”—he jerks his head to the left—“you snake through a dozen more galleries and stand on a two-hour line to get into the basilica.”

He pauses, then adds, “It’s Hell.”

Additional reporting by Emily Chau

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