Entering the Great Beyond

On death and the afterlife

Reincarnation, karma, fiery pits of hell, a paradise in the sky where all your childhood pets live happily ever after—no one knows what’s on the other side of death but that hasn’t stopped us from imagining. The afterlife is a topic often explored in pop culture and one that has risen in popularity in the past few years. After a year of being surrounded by death and grief, many people found themselves contemplating their own mortality, which after long enough is depressing and scary.  So I decided to embrace the concept and make this week’s newsletter all about the afterlife—not ghosts, zombies, or anything else that doesn’t die. It’s about the various ways the afterlife is portrayed on-screen, in books, and how humans deal with the unknown we all will face eventually.

🎥 Watch: Flatliners

Many people throughout time have been dead and brought back to life. Some report hovering over their bodies, others walk towards a white light. The 1990 movie Flatliners follows a group of medical students, played by an all-star cast including Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland, who experiment with “near-death” experiences. Things go awry! The scenes they witness in the minutes they’re in the afterlife start to haunt them in real life and the crew starts rethinking this little experiment. 

Warning: The 2017 remake of this movie starring Elliott Page and Nina Dobrev received a 4% Rotten Tomatoes score. F O U R. Don’t watch this version.

🎥 Watch: Soul

One way to examine the afterlife is to make adorable Pixar movies about it, giving kids the existential crises they deserve. Disney’s 2020 film features Pixar’s first Black protagonist, a middle school music teacher named Joe (voiced by Jaime Foxx) whose body and soul are separated right before he strikes it big as a jazz musician. The film follows Joe as he travels to the “Great Beyond” and the “Great Before”, the worlds through which souls pass prior to life and following life, answering existential questions while taking viewers on a trip through a beautifully animated New York City.

Bonus: Defending Your Life

Talking about death doesn't always have to be doom and gloom. Sometimes it can be a rom-com starring Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks who fall in love while awaiting transport to the next phase of existence in “Judgment City.” Streep plays a recently deceased woman who is a shoo-in to move on to the next phase, a paradise where the dead are released from their earthly fears and can experience more of what the world has to offer. Brooks, however, is being judged poorly and might be reincarnated and sent back to Earth to try to lead a more courageous life. On the movie’s 25th anniversary, Albert Brooks told Rolling Stone, "I've gotten thousands and thousands of letters of people who had relatives that were dying, or they were dying themselves, and the movie made them feel better.”

📚 Read: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders 

George Saunders’ 2017 experimental novel follows Abraham Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of his son Willie’s death. It’s set in the bardo, the space between death and the afterlife, a time of transitional purgatory where souls wait while they make peace with their death. According to newspaper accounts at the time, Lincoln visited Willie’s grave several times after his death to cradle his body; the book follows the various souls in the bardo who watch Lincoln in his grief. The book won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and in the audiobook, the 166 characters are voiced by a variety of stars including Nick Offerman, Bill Hader, Ben Stiller, and Julianne Moore. 

📚 Read: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach 

Mary Roach is known for her books on science, written with a humorous, conversational tone. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife sets out to explore if souls survive death and if so, where they go. She interviews various experts, doctors, and mediums, tracks down children who are believed to be reincarnated relatives, and attempts to use technology to contact the dead. Roach’s other books explore cadavers (Stiff), the alimentary canal (Gulp), sex and coupling (Bonk), and the science of humans at war (Grunt). 

Bonus: The Afterlife by Billy Collins

Poet Billy Collins writes of the afterlife exactly as each person passing through it imagined it.  That’s a comforting thought—maybe it manifests exactly as you think it will. You can read the whole poem here

“While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,

or riffling through a magazine in bed,

the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They’re moving off in all imaginable directions,

each according to his own private belief,

and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:

that everyone is right, as it turns out.

you go to the place you always thought you would go,

The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.”

🥃 Cocktail: Corpse Reviver No. 2

As the name implies, the Corpse Reviver No. 2 is intended to rouse someone who is on their last leg—or already dead. It was included in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book, with a note from Craddock that read “Four of these taken in swift succession will un-revive the corpse again.” The drink involves gin, Lillet blanc, orange liqueur, fresh lemon juice, and absinthe. The combination of Lillet Blanc and absinthe is supposed to settle the stomach and the zesty lemon juice perks up a person with a hangover. Recover on a Saturday with one of these and Flatliners

🍰 Bake: Ambrosia Cake

Named after the food or drink of the Greek gods, Ambrosia is an extremely 1950s Southern dessert that honestly seems gross. It’s a fruit salad—using that term very loosely—that contains cherries, mandarin oranges, pineapple, marshmallows, and coconut, all congealed together with sour cream or cream cheese. Sometimes there’s Jell-O. But in the spirit of finding a dessert tangentially related to the afterlife, I included this Ambrosia Cake from NYT Cooking because the cake format feels more modern than a creamy mish-mash that Betty Draper would bring to a PTA meeting. This recipe comes with a handy 4-min instructional video

🎧 Listen: Montero (Call Me By Your Name) by Lil Nas X

There are so many layers to Lil Nas X’s new song Montero, the most fundamental being that it’s a perfect summertime bop (and currently #1 on the charts right now). On top of that, the music video is amazing: after being seduced by the snake in the Garden of Eden, he descends to Hell on a stripper pole and gives Satan a lap dance. He said he used specific Spongebob Squarepants episodes as his inspiration. Naturally, conservatives lost their minds in a mini-Satanic panic, and the internet had a field day with it. One of my favorites: random demon on their lunch break.