In 2018, I delivered a lecture entitled Being Dead – and being alive to the Philosophy Forum in Melbourne. I discussed the actions taken by people in response to other people’s deaths. This included treatments to the corpse, and it regarded death from the viewpoint of those who are still alive.

I will now discuss what people of different religions and cultures think about what it will be like for themselves and for other people after they have died.

Many people expect to continue to exist in some kind of afterlife. There is a wide range of ideas about what this afterlife will be like. Most religions have their own distinctive version, and their various sects and individual members are likely to have their own interpretations.

The alternative to afterlife is oblivion, that is, as soon as the body is dead, there is no conscious entity left over from that previous individual living entity. Some people would like this as a pleasant relief from a painful life. Most people regard death to be a terrible loss. Belief in an afterlife may bring some comfort.

The sorts of issue relevant to the afterlife are:

How could an afterlife occur;

Who or what can have afterlife;

What determines what the afterlife will be like;

What happens during an afterlife;

When does it start;

How do we know.

How could an afterlife occur?

The possibility of an afterlife depends on there being such a thing as a soul. The concept is that the soul is the essence of the living person, and it does not die when the person’s body dies. The soul is not a material entity; it is supernatural, or a kind of spirit. The continuation of the soul after death of the body means that the deceased person is still alive, but no longer living a material life. The person is experiencing a spiritual afterlife.

The validity of this explanation is questioned by people who do not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity. I will discuss this after describing the various kinds of afterlife.

Some people believe in other kinds of spirit that are not afterlives but are associated with rivers, trees, and many other environmental entities. Others are good and bad “freelance” spirits.

All kinds of spirits seem to be conscious.

Who or what has an afterlife?

Most people who believe in an Abrahamic religion assume that an afterlife is available only to humans, and presumably, to all humans. So that would include people with mental and physical disability at every degree of severity. Some people would want to include fetuses, and even embryos, ova, and sperm. But some other species are more intelligent and sentient than some humans. Neither the Bible nor the Koran mentions whether other kinds of organisms have souls.

Some religions believe that other species can have afterlives. This raises questions of which species and what determines it. I will discuss this later.

What happens during an afterlife

There is a range of beliefs about what the afterlife is like. These relate to:

the kind of living entity that will exist after death;
how this entity is similar to and different from when it was when alive;
what the entity does during the afterlife:
what faculties, such as memories and feelings it retains;
how long the afterlife lasts.

Many people think their spiritual afterlife will include a lot of the features of their previous material life. They will still be active, and will have all the faculties and abilities that they had before they died. They will then be able to associate with other deceased people.

But they are not generally expected to be able to manipulate anything physical.

If they were visible to each other, what would they look like? As they did at their death, or at their prime? Would they continue to age? Would their bodily impairments disappear? There are no “official” answers to these questions.

The afterlife doesn’t seem to be affected by the kind of treatment the dead body underwent, such as burial, cremation, mummification, etc., but most living people like to decide how their body will be disposed of after their own death. Some don’t want to be cremated, because they think there would be no body to resurrect or restore when the time came. Are they underestimating the powers of the Creator?

A different kind of afterlife is reincarnation, where the soul enters, and gives life to, another body. I will discuss this later.

The various situations of the spirits in their afterlives are:

waiting for their day of judgment when they will be sent to Heaven or Hell;
already in Heaven or in Hell;
awaiting resurrection; (not to be confused with reincarnation);
watching over their descendants, over sacred places, and over sacred objects; or
are ghosts.

I will now describe each of these as they are depicted by those who believe in their existence.

Spirits awaiting judgment.

How long is the waiting time between death and being judged for what you did in your worldly life? Opinions vary from there being a judgment day in the far future, to very soon after death. In other cases, judgment is being made continually throughout life.

An example of one English Christian opinion from a few centuries ago is the “Lyle-Wake Dirge” (A wake is a celebration of the life of a recently deceased person, and a dirge is a funeral song.)

This one, which I will now recite,  was meant to be celebrated before the burial of the body.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,            (which means this one night)
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,  (     fleet means board and lodging)
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;        (Whinnies are very prickly bushes, a muir is a paddock)
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,  (stockings and shoes)
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;       (bone)
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.
(Purgatory, according to Catholic doctrine, is the place where the souls await their judgment. Other Christians do not accept this. It is not mentioned in the bible but some people associate it with sections of the Old Testament.)

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.   

This doesn’t say what happens if you survive the prickles, the fires and purgatory. It is not the sort of afterlife that anyone would like to have. And it is, of course, a message to the living.

Most people expect a much better afterlife, and a longer time awaiting judgment.

Many Christians believe that judgement day will occur when Jesus returns to Earth, following Armageddon, or the apocalypse, which destroys the inhabitants of the earth. The good people will join Jesus and the bad people will go to Hell. Many fundamentalist Christians expected this to happen at some undisclosed date just before the year 2000. There have been previous un-met deadlines.

But, in the meantime, there are said to be many people already in Heaven or Hell.

Until recently, these places were regarded to be similar to conditions on Earth, but with Heaven being more enjoyable and Hell being more uncomfortable. Nowadays, they are more likely to be thought of as supernatural places, whatever that may mean. But that does not suggest that they must no longer be happy or agonising.

Islam also believes that people are already in Heaven or Hell in accordance with their actions while they were alive. It is more explicit about the pleasures, but koranic scholars differ on the details. One pleasure that gets occasional notice is that, after death, male Islamic martyrs will be given access to 72 virgins for pristine sex. But Moslems who commit suicide go straight to Hell, which means that suicide bombers might not get the enjoyable afterlife that they are expecting. And on the subject of the virgins, some Islamic scholars argue that in the original text, the reward was in raisins and not virgins. The error is said to be a mistranslation. Potential Islamic martyrs might not be as enthusiastic if they discovered this.

All of the Abrahamic religions have sects that believe a range of different ideas of what happens and when it happens. A few of them, mainly Judaic, do not believe in any afterlife, just oblivion. Judaic afterlives tend to be more punishing than rewarding.

For most Hindu and Buddhist sects, there is no act of judgment and no waiting time. Continuous assessment is being made throughout life.

Spirits watching over their descendants,

The spirits that are watching over their descendants and sacred places are presumably not in either Heaven or Hell, but in nearby locations. In some religions they are revered or worshipped. They may suffer or decline if not properly treated by their descendants and other people. Improper treatment or neglect may cause bad luck to their relevant descendants, and sometimes to other people.

Common treatments for these deceased ancestors, and other spirits, are putting money, lighting candles, and burning incense, in special places, such as in temples.

In Bali, there are little parcels of food placed on the ground for these spirits every morning. There is no evidence that the spirits have eaten the food, but then, without bodies, they need only the spirit of the food. The birds and dogs dispose of the food.

A more participatory custodian afterlife is that of the Australian Aborigines. People who are not of Aboriginal descent usually refer to it as The Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime is the continuous reality of all that has happened in the past, going back to the acts of creation of the landscape. The meeting of the present time and present people with the past is celebrated in formal ritual practices. The spirits of the dead are always watching their people, and also their graves and sacred locations. For outsiders, much of the Aboriginal lore is inaccessible.

Some members of secular Western societies talk to their watching deceased relatives and partners, sometimes making frequent contact. This may occur in dreams. Sometimes the living person may openly talk to living friends about such conversations.

Other spirits that are hanging about can be reached by using Ouija boards in seances. Most people regard this process to be pure deception and fraud.

Awaiting resurrection

For many deceased Christians, the resurrection means that, on some special occasion, they will be able to walk around the earth in their restored resurrected bodies. This is believed to occur when Jesus returns to Earth. But, as mentioned earlier, when Jesus returns to Earth. the time of the apocalypse begins, when all is destroyed This contradiction is probably the result of different interpretations or unwise selection of the earlier texts.

In the meantime, these souls, who are worthy of being resurrected, would presumably be having a fairly pleasant time. Perhaps some who had had miserable lives might prefer to stay in Heaven, that is, if they knew there was going to be a resurrection, and had the choice.

Some countries have large vats where the bodies of deceased people are being kept at a low temperature to prevent decay of their bodily tissues. These bodies are awaiting a time when science is able to cure them from the disease that caused their death. Then they could resume their life. So, are they really dead? Would the souls of these bodies be waiting for their “resurrection”? Would the souls still be in their bodies? If they were, would they associate with the souls of the other bodies in the tanks?


Ghosts are purportedly visible and/or audible spirits of deceased people. They are said to hang about in places where they spent their lives or died, and many of them are said to have been viciously killed. They seem to be found mainly in ancient places and buildings.

Ghosts prefer quiet solitude, but sometimes have to play hide and seek and make eerie noises. There are businesses that make a living by taking tourists and other visitors to find them. But mostly all that the visitors get to see are diaphanous wisps of disappearing light.

Spirits awaiting reincarnation

Reincarnation is not the same as resurrection. In resurrection, the deceased body is reconstructed, and the same soul inhabits it. In reincarnation, an entirely different new body awaits the soul.

Reincarnation usually begins very quickly after death, so usually there is not much time to do anything before it happens, other than flitting from the dead body to its successor. The dead body is quickly destroyed.

Reincarnation is taken seriously in some sects of most Abrahamic religions, but mostly not in the mainstream sects. It is basic to many other religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism.

In most sects, the dead body must be cleaned, wrapped up and then destroyed as soon as possible. However, in Bali, the bodies of some prominent Hindus must wait months or years for a propitious time for the procedure, which then can be extremely lavish.

The Druze religion, which is a small offshoot of the Abrahamic religions, has adopted teachings of a diverse range of religions, and believes that the soul cannot exist without having a living physical body. There can be no time between the death and the reincarnation, otherwise the soul will die.

Many indigenous populations in Eurasia and the Americas and Africa have also believed in reincarnation.

In the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and some other religions, the afterlife is mostly in a human body, in which it becomes a different person, but it may sometimes enter the body of some kind of animal and become that animal. What a person (or animal) is incarnated as, depends on what they did during their previous life.

This is part of the concept of karma in conjunction with the soul (or the atman in Hindu terms) going through a series of lives that continue to enlighten the atman until it reaches total enlightenment and bliss. Each successive incarnation allows some addition to the quality of that particular atman. Reaching bliss is the release from the onerous process of incarnations. However, in some Hindu sects, the successive reincarnations might lead to Hell.

The texts do not say what kinds of specific acts, good or bad, during a life, produce what consequences for the next incarnation.

The idea of reincarnation raises a lot of questions:

Do animals that were once people know they were, or are, people?
Do people who have been reincarnated as animals want to come back as people again?
Do people who had been some other species in a former life know they had been another species?
Do people remember anything about their. previous lives?
Are animal incarnations different from naturally born animals of the same species?

If reincarnation is a path to enlightenment and bliss, one might expect the answer to all of these questions to be “Yes”. But I have never heard or read about anyone who has claimed to have once been a non-human animal.

That is all I know about any answers to these questions, except that some people who regard themselves to be reincarnations of previous people, sometimes claim to remember their previous lives.

Baby Dalai Lamas purportedly remember some of the items from their previous incarnation.

The Dalai Lama is the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism. When a Dalai Lama dies, there will be a young male child who becomes his reincarnation by receiving his atman. But it is necessary to discover which young child it is. This is tested by examining the selected candidates about their knowledge of and their similarity to their predecessor. The candidates  are tested by monks who were close to the previous Dali Lama.

This does not mean that the chosen child then becomes the next Dalai Lama. He was already the next Dalai Lama as soon as his predecessor died. But he had to be identified. In the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas, there would always be a male baby ready for that same atman of all the Dalai Lamas.

I will now discuss another kind of reincarnation that occurs a long time after the death.

Recent reincarnations of previous people

Some people are certain that they are reincarnations of previous people, usually very notable ancient people, such as Jesus, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte.

They usually mention their previous life to someone, and in some cases, talk to their previous lives.

Other than having the pleasure of their historical identity, they will have no advantage of their status, and they will have scant success in convincing other people of it. At any one time there can be several reincarnations of the same person. If the multiple Caesars or Napoleans ever gathered together, would they all agree on everything? How would the authentic one be identified?

The only ones that anyone seems to believe are reincarnations of Jesus Christ. The bible refers to the return of Jesus to Earth. While multiple concurrent Napoleons might be problematic, it should be no problem for Jesus.

Some people have been convinced that these claimants were indeed the incarnated Jesus Christ, and then became followers of His teachings. But very few of these groups continued after the deaths of the incarnated Jesus’s, none of whom died by being crucified. Most of these “Jesuses” seem to discredit themselves by their unholy behaviour.

Jesus is not the only god who comes to Earth as an incarnation. The Hindu god Vishnu came several times, the most quoted occasions being as Rama and as Krishna, but as far as I know, He has had no subsequent incarnations.

There is not much point in describing any more kinds of afterlife.
New religions have been arising for many centuries. For the most part, they are mixtures of pre-existing religions, with touches of new scientific and technical developments and science fiction, and with a lot of new words created to sound like new concepts. But their afterlives are just variations of the previous ones.

How long does the afterlife last?

What with judgement days, and resurrections and reincarnations, there is a variety of possibilities. And it is commonly assumed that those in Heaven and in Hell are there for eternity. Eternity means infinity, which is difficult to envisage in terms of pleasure and pain. It is hard to predict our futures when we have evidence to go on. Do we have any hard facts about the afterlife?

Which is the true afterlife?

I have now described a lot of different and incompatible beliefs about what happens after death to the persons, as opposed to their physical bodies.

Can it be that each person will have an afterlife that complies with the teachings of their religion? This could prompt people to change their religion and have an afterlife of their choice. Or does everyone have the same kind of afterlife irrespective of their religion?
Or does it mean that no purported or any other afterlife is true, and there is no afterlife?

How reliable are the texts in answering such questions, and why do people believe them?

All the ancient texts are based ultimately on “divine revelation”, and they have been copied and mis-translated over the centuries. They contradict themselves and the texts of other religions. The texts of recent religions seem to be inventions and variations of other texts. None are reliable.

There are several reasons why people believe them.

Many people have been taught their religion by their parents and clergy, and they retain their belief.

Many people are biased to believe some of the things they want to happen. Emotion has a greater influence over belief than reason has.

Most people live in communities that believe in their kind of afterlife. Religion is highly organised, and has traditions and rituals, which people like. Belief in a religion gives many people a sense of comfort and security. Disbelievers have fewer organisations, traditions, or rituals, and are more individualised.

There is a continuous world-wide change, in both directions, between people believing and disbelieving in the supernatural. But more people believe than disbelieve.

Could there be any demonstrable evidence and supportable explanations to show whether some supernatural entity exists, comprising souls and other characteristics of the various versions of afterlife?

The supernatural, which would be more accurately be referred as non-natural, is intrinsically unable to be physically detected or measured. There is no way of directly affirming its existence or characteristics. But there are indicators of occurrences that cannot be rigorously explained in physical terms, and so may be attributed by some people to be supernatural.

Some people are quite sure that they have contacted, or have been contacted by, deceased loved ones. To them, such experiences are conclusive evidence of an afterlife.

It would be difficult to prove that they actually did have such contact, and difficult to prove that they did not. Bringing in witnesses that had no vested interest in the matter might resolve individual cases, but there would be suspicion of trickery. Many rigorous independent demonstrations would be necessary. Negative cases would not conclusively dismiss afterlife, though they could put doubt about contacts.

Miracles are good outcomes that appear to have been physically impossible. (Bad outcomes that that appear to be physically impossible are seldom regarded to be miracles.) Most miracles have subsequently been shown to be improbable but physically possible. The inexplicable ones might have an unknown physical cause. The mere existence of a supernatural entity does not necessarily indicate any kind of afterlife or spirits.

With living reincarnated people, the only way to examine their authenticity would be to ask them about their purported previous lives, and how they knew. They could have refreshed their memories by reading history books. But, whatever they said, only a few people would believe them.

The current Dalai Lama says that it would be difficult for science to disprove reincarnation. I think he is mistaken.

The most consistent example of a non-physical event is consciousness, which continually occurs in living people and probably in most other species of organisms. We can describe what we are conscious of, but no individual organism can experience the consciousness of another organism.

So far, we have been unable to describe consciousness in physical terms.

We have had many suggestions of how the operation of the brain might produce consciousness, but there is no feasible explanation of how neural processes enable us and other organisms to experience the very wide and nuanced ranges of our consciousnesses. There is not even a starting point to explain it.

I can’t see how we could ever conclusively show consciousness to be an entirely physical process, but if we could, it would rule out non-physical afterlife.

All of what we are conscious of seems to be determined by and dependent on our specific sensory organs, our brains and other body parts, and their interactions with the environment.

What we are conscious of can be distorted and switched off by drugs. Damage to certain parts of the brain can distort or remove specific kinds of consciousness. We know which parts of our brains correspond with each kind of our conscious experiences.

So it would seem that consciousness can occur only in terms of the condition and operation of sensory organs and brains.

Our consciousness is the essence of our being, and it could not continue without a functioning brain. Nor could our memories. Without an operational brain, there would not be anything that a soul, if it did exist, could become conscious of.

In the case of reincarnations, it is hard to imagine how the souls could unconsciously find their new bodies. And there could be no memories of any kind to give to their new bodies. There could be no progress towards enlightenment or achievement of bliss.

So there could be no conscious afterlife of any kind.

But, despite this, the believers are in the majority.

And true or not, afterlife is more benign than many other beliefs.