What happens after we die?

In the long run, as J.M. Keynes famously insisted, we’re all dead. And then what?

The Garden of Earthly DelightsThe Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, painted between 1490 and 1510.
Is it a moral forewarning or panorama of paradise lost?

A few months ago, around All Souls Day, the French media were as usual full of items about aspects of death, from the cost of coffins to how to talk to the newly bereaved. But at any time of year thoughts may turn to the fundamental question of what – if anything – happens after we’ve been pronounced dead. Even though a lot of West Europeans have given up church-going (only one in ten of the French, for example shows up regularly at Mass these days), surveys reveal here and elsewhere a persistent hankering after some notion of a life after death.

Britain ... most haunted country

This is easier in a way for Brits because they have a rich tradition of ghostly activity to draw on. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time (UK: Chatto and Windus) Britain is the continent’s most haunted country and he illustrates this with dozens of stories from across the centuries. Currently, the most haunted village in the UK is Puckley in Kent that claims to host up to 14 ghosts.

When some years ago Florence Massin presented a guide to French hauntings – slim pickings compared with Ackroyd’s crowded pages – she didn’t list a single case in either the Alpes-Maritimes or the Var. When I made some enquiries myself I found that most of the Riviera ghosts I came across had chosen to haunt expat Brits, from the monk who materialised sometimes in the Chateauneuf-de-Grasse home of the late Commander Gavin Goodhart through Edith Piaf who troubled an English couple living in her former villa (she sang to their small daughter from time to time) to Mr Duck, a suicide who (it’s alleged) is a discomfiting presence in Posh and Beck’s house in Bargemon (up for sale, I hear). And, as a matter of incidental interest, France’s most famous haunting – that of Le Petit Trianon at Versailles – was only witnessed by two elderly English spinsters.

Doing the Devil’s work

For some people, certainly, accounts of ghosts are consoling (“If that monk can come back, then why not Mum?”). They are undiscouraged by the body of research which offers a brisk dismissal of all such tales. Perhaps France’s next eminent ghost hunter is Henri Broch, a professor of physics at the University of Nice. As he once put it to me, “In my work across decades I’ve never found the slightest evidence to support belief in ghosts. There’s always a way, given time and effort, to dispose of these stories in rational terms.”

With spooks rather rare here, and lycée teachers, especially, often exponents of Broch-style scepticism, the French have been inclined to seek comfort more in the activities of “seers” or voyants, individuals – usually women – whose claimed supernatural gifts often include an ability to put the living in touch with the dead. They do well in France – much to the irritation of Henri Broch – with a collective annual turnover of some €3 billion. They exist also, of course, across the Channel, even if fewer in number. Back in the Nineties I did a radio show here with the once celebrated London medium Doris Collins. Listeners called in, answered a few questions and then Doris would describe the dear departed who had arrived (invisibly to me, of course) in the studio. I quickly concluded that the lady – a cheery though decidedly common sort – was a purveyor of hokum. Anyway, she quickly decided that I had no competence in psychic matters. During an ad break she told me, sadly, that nobody “on the other side” wanted to make contact with me ... and that, ultimate humiliation, I didn’t have “an aura”. On the other hand, I got calls and letters later from listeners – all women – who told me they had been greatly comforted by the show. Not so Alan Mathers, then Anglican chap- lain in Cannes, who told me Doris was “doing the Devil’s work”.

You go in these big golden gates

The chaplain’s point appeared to be that it was not for us to enquire into the nature of the post-mortem world, despite the complex and often contradictory character of, for example, Christian teaching on the subject. That’s not a universal view, of course, especially in America. A current best-seller – two million copies sold – is Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (US: Thomas Nelson). Here’s the background: coming up to four-years-old, Colton Burpo fell victim to peritonitis, went into a coma but recovered. Later he told his father Todd, a garage-door salesman who moonlights as a pastor, that he’d “been to Paradise”. So what’s it like? Colton related his heavenly experience and his father, aided by Lynn Vincent (who’s ghosted material for Sarah Palin), turned it into a book. The boy recalls: “You go in these big golden gates all covered in pearls ... everyone’s got wings except Jesus who moves up and down like an elevator ... everybody looks young and nobody wears eyeglasses ... and I saw Jesus close up and he’s got a pointy beard and bright blue eyes.” Well, thanks for that son but I have to tell you it doesn’t make me any keener on dying.

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