If you would behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one, are the words of Kahlil Gibran. This is such a beautiful description of something as intriguing as death. Now I really wonder what being dead exactly is, and what happens after death? But wait; I cannot deal with two complicated things at the same time! So first I will try and uncover the meaning of death in different connotations in short.
Death - Different Perspectives
In plain and simple medical terms, death is the end of all the biological functions of a living organism. It could be either the breakdown of the functions of the heart, the brain, or both. This could be either in natural circumstances or man-made circumstances - wars, murders, capital punishment, disease, and so on.
Religious and Spiritual Interpretation
This is as vast as it can be, but on a very general note, there are views that death is actually the death of the body and not of the soul. The body becomes a part of this universe and it returns to the original elements of which we are made. The Bhagvad Gita, the holy scripture of the Hindus, also proposes the same thing. According to The Bible, death is a result of sins, or rather, the wages of sins is death. It believes that physical death is the separation of the soul from the body and spiritual death means that the soul is separated from the almighty. Similarly, there are numerous other interpretations and connotations attached to death.
These interesting perspectives on death lead us to the next obvious question - what after death? Is there really life after death? What is meant by afterlife? Well, frankly speaking, there is really no definite answer to this absolute googly of a question.
Philosophical and Religious Explanations
For me, the answer to living after death perhaps means living in other people's memories and hearts. (That's the safest place I guess). This is the feeling that you get when you say that the person very dear to you who died, is still there somewhere, around you and watching you. Some people say that we have spoken and communicated with our loved ones after their death. But these are mostly anecdotal evidences. When we talk of afterlife, there are basically three major viewpoints from where the concept of afterlife or life after death, has been derived. They are religion, esotericism and metaphysics. To add to the popular notion of afterlife, after someone dies, he or she is believed to go on a particular plane of existence, decided by god, based on his or her deeds during their lifetime. Those who are lucky enough, achieve 'Moksha' or freedom from this cycle of life and death, as believed by the Hindu religion. Islam's concept of afterlife is similar to some extent, to that of The Bible and Christianity, that life after death and where the person goes after death, depends upon his or her sins. This comes close to the Hindu religion's concept of 'Karma', that the way you lead your life and deeds you do in your life have an impact on your afterlife.
One of the empirical views of life after death could be the vital factor in this whole tangle of afterlife is the concept of reincarnation. It is a major aspect of Hindu religion's description of afterlife, especially in the Upanishads. Reincarnation too has two meanings. One is the preservation of the 'essence' of that being or being born in some other form. This also constitutes a major part of the debate of afterlife. Then, there are atheists who believe that there is no life after death. On the other hand, in many religions, as mentioned earlier and as scripted in the Bhagwad Gita, the soul is believed to be immortal. To further elaborate on this concept, they believe that the soul is eternal and just as a human being changes clothes, the soul changes bodies. The spirit lingers, as believed in Zoroastrianism. Egyptians on the other hand, were among the first to believe in life after death, and so the practice of mummification and keeping the Book of Dead, food, jewelry and curses for the body.
Contemporary Perspective of Afterlife
Most scientists are not known to have voiced their opinions regarding the issue of soul and rebirth and so on. Parapsychology and a few other branches have tried to unravel the secrets of this mystical process and related paranormal phenomena, but there have been no concrete conclusions. Scientists, like Duncan McDougall, actually tried to find out through an experiment if the soul really exists, way back in 1901. In the modern era, what we can relate most to, rather than the soul and rebirth, are the near-death experiences and stories narrated by people who have been in such experiences. Meaning, from the occurrence of an accident, till the person is taken to the hospital and the vitals were taken care of, the experience the person felt in those few minutes. That could probably explain what is a near-death experience. Then, in relation to this, what could you call a human heart which has stopped beating for a few seconds during a surgery or any medical condition and then after a shock treatment, the individual's heart starts beating again. So if considered medically, his heart stopped beating, therefore, the individual was dead for a few seconds, until the shock treatment was given.
Forget about the issue of life after death, even the concept of death is not a universal one. So it is absolutely impossible to answer the question if there is life after death. It's something which you believe in, only when you experience it; otherwise you do not.
The only way you could get the answer to the query, is to actually die. But, hey, do not rush into that, everyone of us has to die at some point of time and for that to be a satisfying experience, leading a good life is the best bet. What say? Because finally, as Vladimir Nabokov said, Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.