Friday, August 07, 2009

Life after Life for the last fighting Tommy?

My basic skepticism about individual life after death has held a caveat ever since I read, as a teen, Life After Life by Raymond Moody, a compilation of near-death experiences that held several core elements in common: a sensation of being detached from the suffering body and viewing it calmly from a height; a sense of being called or led toward a light by loved ones or exalted guides; a 'turnaround' moment, where the nearly-dead is given to understand that his or her time isn't yet; and a complete absence of fear of death for the remainder of life. These experiences are often chronicled in literature and are probably the core of received notions of life after death enshrined in scripture and religious belief; they are a true human universal.

Such an experience is relayed in today's Times' account of the funeral of the last living British combat veteran of World War I, Harry Patch, who died at age 111 two weeks ago. A radical skeptic about the the efficacy of war who felt a kinship with soldiers of all nationalities, Mr. Patch, was eulogized in part by his own writing:
A Belgian diplomat read an excerpt from Mr. Patch’s 2007 autobiography, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” in which he described an offensive during the battle at Paschendaele, the bloodiest chapter in the Ypres fighting, when he came across a fellow soldier “ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel” during a British assault on German lines.

The episode reinforced in Mr. Patch, a devout Christian, the belief that there is a life after death. “When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me,’ ” he recalled. “He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy.”
He added, “I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day, I’ve always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.”
Such experiences prove nothing, of course. For whatever reason or no reason, we may be wired for acceptance at the end; our biological equipment may include a last-minute endorphin rush, a kind of final compensation for dissolution. For that matter, Mr. Patch's memory of the occurrence, like so many war memories (and memories, period), may not be 100% accurate. But the ubiquity of such experiences, and the unquestioned authority they hold for those who undergo them, at the very least leads one to the brink of mystery.

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