To wonder what lies beyond the end of life is to be human. Is it heaven? Reincarnation? Oblivion? Something else? Death’s door is tightly shut to us, and those who pass through give us no clues as to what awaits us.
Or do they?
When people are close to death, their language changes. They sometimes begin to say things that don’t quite make sense to us. But what if they know something we don’t? What if those nonsensical words and phrases that we so often discount are a clue to what lies beyond?
Linguist and educator Lisa Smart, in her book, “Words at the Threshold,” explores just how the language of the dying might help us better understand the afterlife. To do this, she spent a four year period collecting transcripts and accounts from health-care providers and family members of the dying, creating the Final Words Project. Gathering over 1,500 utterances, Smart then consulted professionals in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and more in order to gain insight into what happens during the process of dying.
Smart’s own father was the inspiration for her Final Words Project—in his final weeks of life after a battle with prostate cancer, his language and worldview began to undergo a transformation. An atheist all his life, he began to speak of angels, even predicting the date of his own death after saying that those angels told him he had gone through enough.
So she began to write down what he said. And once she had collected the last utterances of others, she was stunned to find that the language patterns of every one of these cases bore striking similarity to one another. And from that pattern, Smart began to see a bigger picture.
The Language of Near-Death Experiences
One of the clearest windows into the afterlife lies in the testimonies of those who undergo near-death experiences. The problem, though, is that we lack the ability to fully understand these experiences.
How would you describe the smell of freshly cut grass to someone who had never lived outside a city? How would you explain a sunset to a blind man? This is exactly the kind of difficulty that those who have experienced temporary death have in explaining what they’ve been through.
But when Smart investigated these cases, she found some threads that may just begin to describe the afterlife.
“There was time, but no time,” said one patient who had come back from death. “I felt more alive when I was dead than when I was living,” said another. Another reported that “It felt like it took a minute, but it also felt like a thousand years.”
These sentences don’t seem to make sense. They contradict. They’re paradoxical. But what they have in common is that they describe some sort of journey that occurs outside of physical reality—these statements are evidence of existence outside of time and space. They're only nonsensical in that they do not follow the conventions of reality as we know it.
But, as Smart surmises, they may be following the conventions of a wholly different reality—we may be looking at linguistic confirmation of an afterlife.
The Language of the Journey
Both those in the process of dying and those who have been through a near-death experience have described the sensation of “moving up and out of one’s body, moving through tunnels and valleys, and meeting with deceased relatives or friends or spiritual figures and having a life review,” according to Smart.
There is a remarkable similarity between the stories brought back by those who have been to the brink of permanent death. There is movement, independent of their lifeless physical body. Those who experience this feel as if, as one of Smart’s examples puts it, “I was leaving my body, and I could see down below.”
The tunnel or valley is another recurring image in the language of the dying—many report heading toward the stereotypical light. But these images are clichéd for a good reason—multiple people report the same thing.
Does this mean, then, that these images are an intrinsic part of the dying process? Is this journey up and out of the body, and then through the proverbial tunnel not merely the random firing of elections in a dying organism, but the experience of liberation from the body?
The fact that so many of the experiences collected by Smart are so similar would seem to say so.
The Language of Metaphor
A few paragraphs ago, we reflected on the difficulty of conveying the smell of cut grass or the visual splendor of a sunset to those who have never experienced such things. At first, this kind of communication might seem impossible, but there is one linguistic tool that can reliably do this.
That tool is metaphor, and it can convey the nature of the afterlife.
The difficulty of conveying the experience of a near-death experience is revealed in the thoughts of one of Smart’s interviewees.
“Well, when I was taking geometry, they always told me there were only three dimensions, and I just accepted that. But they were wrong. There are more. And, of course, our world…is three dimensional, but the next one definitely isn’t. And that’s why it’s so hard to tell you this.”
And so figurative speech that sounds like nonsense to our ears—descriptions like “living inside the colors of a high-definition television,” or like “arriving home” convey a reality we cannot quite comprehend. It is through these metaphors that we glean clues concerning the afterlife.
The Language of the Afterlife
This kind of language appears at the end of life, and we must take care to listen carefully. What we regard as nonsense language may very well be evidence of an approaching transition—an assurance that our loved ones really are going somewhere.
And from the language of the dying, Smart thinks that this somewhere, with its associations with “home,” and “life,” and “light,” and “up” is a wonderful place. The evidence for this is overwhelming.
Language may be the only window through the living might glimpse this final hereafter. Listen carefully.