It’s funny that the afterlife is the subject of so many jokes. I’m tempted to say that if I had a dollar for every New Yorker cartoon that ever dealt with heaven or hell, I’d have enough money to buy the magazine as its publisher. Hell never seems too bad in those cartoons, nor heaven too much fun. And jokes about three people arriving at the gates of heaven simultaneously and not having the experience they expected are as numerous as the curious phenomenon that people seem to die in threes.
21st-century American culture doesn’t seem to take death very seriously. It doesn’t think about the people dying overseas thanks to its drones and bombers, or the black men and women shot by police on the flimsiest pretexts, or the elders dying alone in overheated apartments or bland nursing home rooms, or the citizens suffering from cancer, AIDS, depression, PTSD, and all the other ailments mortal flesh can acquire and unable to get adequate health care because they can’t pay for it. We don’t want to think about unpleasant things like that. If a certain type of fundamentalist Christian is convinced that everyone except their fellow churchgoers is headed for hell, a certain type of liberal Christian is convinced that Jesus’ teachings were all about living a good life right now, using your wealth wisely, treating people well, being grateful for your blessings.
The fact is that religion has always been about what happens when you die. It’s also about living well while you’re alive, maintaining good relationships with the gods and spirits, doing well by your neighbors, cultivating virtue, but the afterlife is never far out of sight. A number of religions have bequeathed to us manuals for navigating the experience of death, starting with the Egyptians. They buried texts with their honored dead and painted pictures of the afterlife on the walls of tombs; we call their instructions The Book of the Dead, but they called the process Coming Forth by Day. If you were properly mummified and entombed with the proper instructions, you could pass through the dangers of the afterlife and experience a happy ever after.
Tibetan Buddhism produced a text that Westerners also call the Book of the Dead, but its editors called Instructions on Hearing in the Between. Tibetan Buddhism regards death as a process which is by no means over when the heart has apparently ceased to beat and the breath to move. Instructions for navigating the confusing, frightening appearances of the bardo, the space between life and rebirth into another life, can be read to the dead and dying to help them through it into a good rebirth, favorable to attaining enlightenment.
The Orphic tablets of ancient Greece amount to much the same thing, a map of the post-mortem territory marked with what to avoid and which roads to take. You must make sure to drink of the right spring, not the one that will wipe out your memory of the life left behind. People flocked to Eleusis year after year because they wanted the advantage the Mysteries gave them, a pre-mortem introduction to the Queen of the Dead and the process of eternal life.
When my father-in-law died, I read appropriate prayers from the Book of Common Prayer but also selections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I sang at his funeral and toward the end, as we performed the Kontakion for the Dead from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, I felt his transition away from us. He passed through the gates that the “In Paradisum” mentions, and they closed behind him. He was no longer in this world.
We all die. We probably do not all have the same destination after death. But most religions say we have some sort of continued existence, whether rebirth into another life, happiness in the company of a deity, punishment for heinous transgressions, or just shadows drifting, half-remembering and half-forgetting the lives we led. If you want to be sure of what’s coming, live well now, and learn the mysteries as soon as you can–get the map, the keys, the passwords to the afterlife in your tradition. I think my father-in-law is with Jesus. I’d like to join Antinous on his Boat of Millions of Years. It has a sort of Star Trek resonance: We’ll boldly go where mortals cannot go alone.