When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

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