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"Surviving Death" Spurs Existential Wonder

From a young age I was exposed to death. I could understand but not process what happened, and I asked what came after death. My father told me I could travel through the entirety of the cosmos and learn everything I didn’t learn about life. This is how my lifelong fascination about the afterlife began. After my father passed, I pictured him visiting the stars and it brought me peace.

Netflix’s new series Surviving Death tackles the afterlife with six well-presented episodes of straight-forward investigation, historical review, case studies, and interviews with researchers in the fields most closely associated with the subject. There are no experts or single line of study in the afterlife, but there are practitioners that specialize in everything from mediumship to ghost hunting to doctors who study end-of-life dreams and visions. The show offers no judgment or opinions about the validity of process, but it does feel supported, avoids unnecessary spectacle, and offers some compelling case studies that believers will see as proof and skeptics will see as coincidence. One participant mentioned the following quote by Stuart Chase, an American economist, social theorist and writer:

"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible."

I was most surprised at how deeply the show affected me on an emotional level. I found myself in tears many times, and really, the study of the afterlife begins with death. Along with death comes grief, regret, unfinished business, and survivors seeking answers from the beyond. It’s this universal feeling of sadness and hopelessness where empathetic viewers will find common ground, at times somewhat overwhelmingly so. I am no stranger to deep grief and have experienced profound loss. I recognized those moments where one is desperate for answers, seeking signs in every detail, and turning to charlatans for answers to quell the pain.

These topics are covered in the second and third episodes dealing with mediums, which also gives a brief but fascinating historical overview of the seances. I’ve never heard that ectoplasm, a substance released from the body of a medium during a seance, can hurt or burn the medium or participants. The episode also features a dubious trance session with the medium from the Netherlands that is likely to suspend the belief of most viewers. I implore you keep going past this admitted silly segment that would test the most ardent believers.

The tone shifts to the most expected episode about ghost hunters and the endless pursuit of gathering evidence using what is admittedly pseudo science. However, there’s a very compelling segment about a man with a Polaroid camera that makes you want to get one yourself (after ceasing production the Polaroid now offers new cameras and film!).

The series is book-ended with two episodes that present impossible stories of people who have died and come back, either to their own bodies or reincarnated into new ones. The episode on reincarnation presents two stories of children, 5 years of age, who were able to produce details of their previous life with jaw-dropping accuracy. Jim Tucker, M.D., the Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia meticulously researched and fact checked the stories with surprising details.

In the most questionable moment for the series, a teen is subjected to meeting adults from his “previous life” on camera and perform acts of recollection on demand. He is clearly not interested in doing so and the awkward exchange seems to add insult to an already injured boy. It was unnecessary and exploitative, and shameful for the producers of this documentary to put a child in that position. His mother was present but one wonders how this family was coaxed into cooperating.

As a devoted paranormal enthusiast, my interests are broad but usually circle around ghostly matters. Undoubtedly, the topic scares many people, but dig a little deeper and the quest becomes clearer. It’s not whether ghosts exist, but rather why would they exist, why do some individuals see or photograph them, and what how does this fit into our greater understanding of life and death and the afterlife. The scientific community is not really interested in entertaining these topics and leave it to fringe researchers to figure it out. Yet some cultures are not as quick to dismiss the afterlife and perhaps even honor it more than we do. It’s human to question our existence and our eventual destination and this show, even with its ill-suited melodramatic title, reinvigorated my wonder of the afterlife.


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