Well, after discussing all the things you were just dying to know about dead people in Stiff, (“dying to know” — see what I did there?), in this book, she talks about dying. Well not exactly the act of dying, but investigates the possibility of knowing what happens after we do the dying part.
What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that — the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness, persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my laptop?
She covers reincarnation, a topic that has always fascinated me. Reincarnation is one of the reasons I try to stay on the straight and narrow, just in case it is actually a thing. I would like to avoid coming back as a cockroach. Or dung beetle. But as she says, proof is an elusive quarry.
Of late, I find myself wondering about the mechanics of it,[reincarnation], the unfathomable blending of metaphysics and embryology. How would the suddenly homeless soul get itself situated someplace new? How does spirit, for want of a more precise word, infuse itself into a clump of cells quietly multiplying on a uterus wall? How do you get in there?
Scientists and philosophers of bygone years had a name for the impossible moment. They called it ensoulment, and they debated it for centuries.
There is her look into how people have tried to weigh a Soul. Because a lot of people felt — and still do believe — that a Soul is an actual thing, and if so, it has mass. Lots of discussion of folks trying to see the soul as it leaves the body. Lots of goofy experiments. Lots of disappointment.
Then, we turn to ectoplasm. I was born too late for ectoplasm, much to my sorrow. The day of ectoplasm was the late 1800s up until about 1940 or so.
Ectoplasm lived during the table-tipping, spirit-communing, strange-goings-on-in-the-dark heyday of spiritualism. It was claimed to be a physical manifestation of spirit energy, something that certain mediums exuded in a state of trance.
The roster of scientists, statesmen, and literary luminaries who held great belief in all of this is stunning: William James, William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (also known for believing implicitly in the fake fairy photos created by a couple of young sisters), physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, chemist Sir William Crookes, two prime ministers, and Queen Victoria.
Mediums were doing great business and everyone was trying to talk to the dearly departed. What a time to have lived.
She examines the efforts to talk to the dead. Did you know that people have created puzzles that can only be solved by a key which only they know. When they die, their friends or family or colleagues try to communicate with them to get the key to the puzzle. That would prove that a person is still mentally intact after death and can communicate with us. Sadly, it hasn’t worked out so far.
She takes a look at the possibility of electromagnetic fields making one hallucinate; the out-of-body experiences of those having near death episodes; trying to record afterlife voices on tape; a great story of how the ghost of his father visited a man to tell him of a second will and where to find it, and how the law found in favor of the ghost.
All in all, a great read, with the ending we all expect: that elusive quarry. Bottom line, nobody knows. And whoever knows in the afterlife is not telling.