In Search Of… S01E19 Life After Death
We open in a hospital ward, with a ‘code blue’ in progress. People in white uniforms running about in that wonderful sort of disciplined panic you see with trained emergency people. Leonard Nimoy’s narration adds a suitable note of urgency to the proceedings. It’s a good, solid opening but I have a sinking feeling about where it’s going.
Sure enough, Nimoy tells us that people who have been resuscitated sometimes come back with stories ‘about what it is like on the other side.’ My fears come true. We’re looking at near death experiences (NDEs).
Let me lay my cards on the table. I’m not a believer in… well, in most of the things that this show is about. I’m not a believer, but I am an interested observer. I don’t think there’s a Bigfoot, but I find the idea fascinating. I don’t think there are ghosts, but I love ghost stories, and so on.
Near death experiences are an exception. I find the spiritual explanation unconvincing. On the other hand I also know very little about neurology. So while I tend to prefer the materialist explanation, I also find it incomprehensible. Consequently, when listening to a debate between the two sides, my eyes tend to glaze over and I usually end up changing channels.
But I have committed myself to reviewing this series episode by episode, for reasons that kind of made sense to me at the time. Thus committed, I must continue reviewing this episode as best I can given that it’s a topic that I find seriously uninteresting. So look forward to a lot of comments on the production and writing, and relatively few comments on the key ideas presented.
We are introduced to Dr Thomas Rockwell at Santa Monica Hospital. For once, I don’t feel the need to check Wikipedia to see if he’s a real doctor, because we see him working with real patients in a real hospital. And it is a real hospital — it has that depressing look that you only get in real hospitals. TV hospital sets never quite get that sense of low-grade despair right.
Dr Rockwell’s talks over footage of what I’m guessing is a simulated resuscitation. He talks about the medical definition of ‘death’, and how this has changed over the years. Many of the people who would once have been declared ‘dead’ could have been resuscitated by the 1970s. Does our definition of the point of death need to be changed?
Now, this part is an interesting argument, but Dr Rockwell is making an argument within medicine and medical ethics. He says nothing about NDEs. Still, his argument is relevant in laying the groundwork ideas to come.
In the studio, Nimoy asks the question ‘what is it like to die’? He says that this was once a religious question because there were no firsthand accounts of the experience of dying. Now, though, he says we can ask people who have come back.
We cut to a graveyard, a funeral, some thoughts on death and then the promise that accounts of NDEs show that death is actually quite pleasant. Nimoy reads accounts of NDEs over some charmingly cheap footage that’s meant to be a reconstruction of a terrible car crash that actually looks like a mild fender bender. Another account, this time from a drowning victim, with reconstructed back yard swimming pool horseplay. And a heart attack victim with a less interesting reconstruction.
I’m sorry for concentrating on the crappy reconstructions, but I find them more interesting than what’s actually said. Tunnels, floating, out of body. You know the drill.
A longer account, direct from the woman who was resuscitated. At one point, you can see the microphone in shot. Do I want to be snarky about her seventies fashion? No, that’s not fair. I might not find this interesting, but I do understand why this is so important to her. She’s lucid and tells the story well, and her speech is illustrated with more shots of nurses rushing about and of course the famous white light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of this tunnel, the woman saw God—a vision which the In Search Of… people wisely decline to recreate.
Her story is nicely counterpointed by the testimony of a friend who was at the hospital, who describes the act of resuscitation. The violence of the pounding and shocking contrasts nicely to the airy spirituality of the victim’s account. The victim says that God sends her back, and that she was angry about this.
Having said that all this bores me, I have to admit the skill of the editors here. The way that cuts between the woman, her friend and the hospital are all set off nicely with some surprisingly low-key electronic music. It works. It works as a scene.
Next up is Dr Charles Garfield, a psychiatrist at the University of California Cancer Research Institute. He tells a story about a story he heard from a guy who looks like a professional Abraham Lincoln impersonator. This guy says that his experience with death changed his life and so he become a professional cancer councilor. Garfield talks about how people deal with the news that they are likely to die in a variety of different ways, and talks through some of them.
I’m finding this more interesting than the NDEs, honestly.
The Abe Lincoln impersonator tells his story of an out of body experience. He’d had a life-saving surgery under general anaesthetic, but needed a follow-up procedure under a local. As a mental exercise, he imagined himself looking down on his own body and then felt that his consciousness was actually outside of the table. It’s an unusual variant on the NDE story, not least because he was not near death.
Garfield talks further about out of body experiences. Abe is a true believer that what he felt is what actually happened. Garfield hedges a little — but only a little — before suggesting something genuinely supernatural. Their joint conclusion is that Abe survived because he willed himself to live, and this belief in the power of positive thinking formed the basis for his cancer counseling.
This idea of a positive attitude aiding healing is a popular one, but I understand it’s been brought into question lately.
Garfield says that he doesn’t know for certain what’s happening with NDEs. Abe believes that the out of body experience is genuinely transcendental. Nimoy says that it may have great significance. He goes on to say that the experience ‘cannot be adequately explained by science’, which I’m not sure is true. He goes on to say that it may prove that ‘death is not an ending, it’s a beginning,’ which is certainly a more dignified take on the concept of the afterlife than anything we saw in last week’s Ghosts episode.
Next week, we’re looking at the Loch Ness Monster. There is no way, no way at all, that I’m not going to enjoy the hell out of that episode. Just not going to happen. Nessie is just that awesome. But, as I say, the topic of this week’s show doesn’t even interest me enough to want to debunk it. You’re interested, go Google. But I will say that it speaks to the artistry of the documentary makers that even though it’s a subject that I fund dull as dishwater, they kept my interest for the full episode.
Dr Garfield: “If you ask me what I know for sure, I’m in the same ambiguous position as the rest of the human race.”
I don’t think that’s funny or anything, I’m just always happy to see an expert who knows the limits of their understanding.
Reenactments: 6/10, Use of Montage: 8/10, Hospital Footage: 7/10, Lucid Interviewees: 8/10, Nimoyness: 7/10. Overall: 36/50. Credit.