INTRO: The Swiss-American psychiatrist and author of the ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, spent her life teaching students her theory of the five stages of grief. This comes about after one receives the news of one's impending death. These are those stages in the sequence in which they occur: first there is denial — "it can't be happening to me." Then there is anger — "Why didn't I do something sooner?" This is followed by bargaining — "Dear Lord, I promise to live a life in service to you if you spare me now." Then depression sets in and finally, even if just in the last few moments of life, there is the acceptance of death.

Most of us have a morbid fear of our own mortality — we are generally petrified to die — but what we dread more is having to be with someone else as they prepare to die. I've been with many people as they die and I have a strange sense of joy that comes over me as the person sheds the body. For me, it's like being with somebody at their graduation ceremony. Awkwardness comes about when you don't quite know what to do or say when you visit a terminally ill patient and the last thing a dying person wants to hear is you talking about the weather, the bouquets of flowers in the room or gifts they've received. Dr Kübler-Ross says that every dying person knows that they are dying and that they have other very important issues on their minds which need to be spoken about — if only you could set aside our personal fear and engage with them.

Here's the Doctor's advice to us when we visit a dying person:

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I guess that most of our fear about death is admitting that science might be right when it suggests that there is only total oblivion after death. Science requires greater scepticism than is found amongst religions regarding the belief in the continuity of consciousness after death. Regarding the mind-body problem, most neuroscientists believe that the physical phenomena such as neuronal activity occurring in the brain stops functioning at death and that consciousness fails to survive and ceases to exist. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and author of the book, The God Delusion debates some of these issues with the Australian Cardinal of the Catholic Church, George Pell in the Australian TV programme, Q&A:

But religion provides some glimmer of hope, holding out different types of beliefs in an afterlife, a realm in which an essential part of your individual identity or consciousness continues to exist after the death of your body.

There are a number of key beliefs regarding the hereafter: There is the belief that you are born into this world to begin a cycle of repeated lives, each with no memory of what happened to you in the past. Another belief is that after your death you will go to a specific plane of existence determined by God, such as heaven or hell, limbo or purgatory.

CATHOLICISM: Catholics believe that if you are unbaptised yet innocent, virtuous or have influenced others to do good you could go to a state of limbo. All those souls who lived before Jesus was born on earth, or who died before baptism, exist neither in heaven nor hell in any proper sense because they don't merit beatification nor are they subjected to any form of punishment. In limbo, they exist in a state of eternal natural happiness. Another Catholic notion is one of purgatory. All souls who die in God's grace and friendship but who are still imperfectly purified are assured of eternal salvation. But, in order to achieve holiness, it is necessary for them to go through a refining process, a cleansing fire. This intermediate state between death and resurrection is said to give you a chance of growing in holiness through the helping prayers of others.

AFRICAN: African traditions are very diverse in their beliefs in an afterlife. Ancestor cults are found throughout Africa. In most African societies there is a marked absence of such clear-cut notions of heaven and hell but there is a widespread belief that God judges the dead. One cross-cultural theme is that one's ancestors are part of the world of the living, regularly interacting with it.

Here's a clip from Laura Robert's chat with Howard, a Park's Board Ranger:

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EGYPTIAN: The afterlife played an important role in ancient Egypt and its belief system is one of the earliest known in recorded history. When the body died, parts of its soul would go to the Kingdom of the Dead. Arriving at one's reward in the afterlife was a demanding ordeal, requiring a pure heart and the ability to recite the spells and passwords from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They also believed that having the mummified body placed in a sarcophagus was the only way to guarantee the afterlife. Only if the corpse had been properly embalmed could the dead live again. Because of the many dangers the afterlife posed, the Book of the Dead was placed in the tomb with the body along with food, jewellery and other useful artefacts for the journey to the other side.

GREEK: In ancient Greek beliefs Hades is known as the King of the Underworld, a place where souls live after death. Hermes is the messenger of the gods who would takes the dead to the underworld. He would leave the soul on the banks of the River Styx, the river between life and death. Charon, the ferryman, would take the soul across the river if the soul had gold.

JUDAISM: In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible mentions Sheol as the place of the dead. The traditional interpretation of Sheol is not quite certain but it might literally imply that it is underground. The Talmud offers a number of thoughts relating to the afterlife. After death, the soul is brought for judgement. Those who have led pristine lives enter immediately into the World to Come. Many do not enter immediately but experience a period of review of their earthly actions and they are made aware of what they have done wrong. After this period of re-schooling for a year or less, the soul then takes its place in the World to Come. There is a concept of soul extinction reserved for a tiny group of malicious and evil leaders whose deeds go way beyond what is normal and for those who coerced large groups of people to perform deeds of utmost evil. The Zohar describes Gehenna not only as the place of punishment for the wicked but also as a place of spiritual purification for souls.

CHRISTIANITY: Mainstream Christianity professes a belief in the resurrection of the dead. This is at the time of Christ's Second Coming, a rapturous event at the end of the world when a new heaven and a new earth are formed. The belief is that the time will come when the dead hear the voice of the Son of God, and all who are in the tombs will come out. Those who have done good deeds, to the resurrection of life but those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

ISLAM: In the Islamic belief, as stated in the Koran, the afterlife depicts a level of comfort while resting in the grave. This depends wholly on the level of faith by which one lived. Islam teaches that the life we live on earth is nothing but a test for us in order to determine each person's individual ultimate abode later on in the eternal afterlife, be it one of punishment or paradise. The central doctrine of the Koran is the Last Day on which the world will be destroyed and Allah will raise all people from the dead to be judged. Until then, deceased souls remain in their graves awaiting the resurrection. Those bound for hell will suffer eternally in their graves and all those bound for heaven will be in peace until the end of time.

INDIAN: Many Indian religions believe that the nature of your continued existence is determined directly by your actions in the life that you just ended — this is known as Karma. Acharya Shree Yogeesh speaks of karma this way:

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HINDU: For Hindus, the Bhagavad-Gita talks extensively about the afterlife. Lord Krishna says that just as a man discards old clothes and puts on new ones, so the soul discards the old body and takes on a new one. The belief is that the body is but a shell and that the soul is immutable and indestructible and takes on different lives in repeated cycles of birth and death. The soul leaves the body and reincarnates according to the karma accrued in the life that that just ended. Rebirth would be in the form of animals or other lower creatures if one performed bad karmas, and in human form and in a good family with a joyous lifetime if the person was good.

BUDDHISM: Buddhism maintains that rebirth takes place often when the changing self or soul passes from one form to another. If a person committed harmful actions of body, speech and mind based on greed, hatred and delusion, rebirth is to a lower realm like an animal or a ghost. On the other hand, where a person has performed skilful actions based on generosity, loving kindness, compassion and wisdom, rebirth is happy, to a human life or to one of the many heavenly realms. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the text that explains the intermediate state of human beings between death and reincarnation. The deceased will find the bright light of wisdom, which shows a straightforward path to move upward in order to escape the reincarnation cycle.

PARAPSYCHOLOGY: In 1901 a physician by the name of Duncan MacDougall sought to measure the weight lost by a human when the soul departed the body after death. He weighed many dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was a material, tangible and measurable thing. Although his results varied considerably, a figure of 21g became synonymous with the measure of a soul's mass. In parapsychology, investigations of the afterlife include the study of near death experiences, hauntings, apparitions of the deceased, instrumental trans-communication, electronic voice phenomena and mediumship. Erwin Laslow, twice nominated for a Nobel prize, is an advocate of the theory of quantum consciousness. This Hungarian philosopher of science posits that the quantum vacuum of space is the fundamental energy and information-carrying field that informs not just the current universe, but all universes past and present. He believes this is the Akashic Record, a universal collection of every thought, event, and emotion since the beginning of time. Miriam Knight interviews Dr Laslow on the Akashic Field:

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IN SEARCH OF PROOF: People continuously seek proof of the afterlife. They cite Past Life Regression as proof of a previous spiritual existence or memory of a past incarnation. Near Death Experiences are also offered as proof of an afterlife because some people claim they can remember details of their experience leading to death after they are medically resuscitated. There are also some people who claim to remember perfect facts of the lives of others who lived in a different time in history.

NDE: Neuroscientists postulate that Near Death Experiences are nothing more than a hallucinatory state caused by various factors that they call, "an experience of imminent death." These experiences are characteristically split into five discrete categories: feelings of peace, a sense of body separation, entering into darkness, seeing the light, and entering the light. Scientific studies of these experiences have noted that they are not influenced by people who are more religious or who have a suicidal background nor are they particularly linked to psychiatric treatment or any family history of suicidal behaviour. Scientists experimenting on laboratory rats showed that there was heightened brain activity following induced cardiac arrest, which may explain why humans experience this phenomenon too if they are yanked from death's door. Intravenously injecting Ketamine also produces all the features of a Near Death Experience that leads many researchers to believe these sensations are the natural phenomena of a dying brain.

PLR: A Past Life Regression is a hypnosis technique used to recover memories of alleged past lives. Oprah Winfrey interviewed Dr Brian Weiss about these techniques on her Super Soul Sunday Show:

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Opponents say that the source of these memories doesn't come from another time in history but is more likely to be a combination of confabulation, prior knowledge, imagination and the suggestive influence or guidance of the hypnotist. There is an obscure phenomenon called cryptomnesi which may offer a possible explanation, the term describes the return of forgotten memories. The subject believes that these memories are something new and original without realising that they are old, forgotten ones. Carl Jung explained it this way, "An author maybe writing steadily to a preconceived plan, working out an argument or developing the line of a story, when he suddenly runs off at a tangent. Perhaps a fresh idea has occurred to him, or a different image, or a whole new subplot. If you ask him what prompted the digression, he will not be able to tell you. He may not even have noticed the change, though he has now produced material that is entirely fresh and apparently unknown to him before. Yet it can sometimes be shown convincingly that what he has written bears a striking similarity to the work of another author — a work that he believes he has never seen before." Then there is the principle of zeitgeist, which is also offered as further proof that Past Life Regressions are not historically accurate accounts. Zeitgeist refers to a dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of society at any particular period in history. For example, it is known that executives, venture capitalists, journalists and authors have a common zeitgeist, which leads to simultaneous similar inventions and innovation. History is not always the result of one person's actions but is heavily influenced by the actions, ideals and beliefs of many heroes and geniuses living in the same time period. So, Past Life Regressions may sadly not offer undisputed, empirical evidence of an afterlife.

CHILDREN WHO LIVED BEFORE: In the programme Supernatural Investigator, Tom Harper examines some of the work of Dr Ian Stevenson of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who took a keen interest in stories told by children who claim to have known facts from the lives of other people in history. This audio snippet about Barbro Karlen who believed she was once the famous Anne Frank is totally fascinating:

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HOPE? So it seems as though we might have some evidence of an afterlife but any proof is yet to be found. This could sit heavily in the human heart, fuelling hopeless despondency and the fear of one's own mortality. I wish I could offer you this proof but I hope that you will have to wait a wile longer before I choose to leave.