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It's not the cheeriest topic of conversation, but it's fascinating nonetheless – what happens when you die?

Science can only take us so far when trying to answer one of life's great unanswered questions.

For instance, doctors might be able to tell us what happens to a body, physically, when a heart beats its last beat.

But the deeper mystery lies in the question of what happens to a person's soul, if such a thing exists, when they leave this mortal coil.

And our best chance of answering that probably involves listening to those who have 'died' and come back.

Here, we've taken a look at what some top neurologists and doctors have to say on the subject.

But we've also looked at what those who claim to have seen the after life claim.

From surreal out of body experiences and strange beings to unrivalled serenity, this is what they say…

Death 'just a process'

Good news, folks – dying isn't as bad as you fear it'll be.

At least that's according to Dr Kathryn Mannix, who specialises in palliative and end of life care.

She said: “In my humble opinion, dying is probably not as bad as you’re expecting.

“We’ve lost the rich wisdom of normal human dying and it’s time for us to talk about dying and reclaim the wisdom.

“Dying, like giving birth, really is just a process. Gradually people become more tired, more weary. As time goes by people sleep more and they’re awake less.”

Dr Mannix, author of With The End in Mind, spoke about death and dying in a short film for BBC Ideas.

She believes we need to change the way we talk about death and not shy away from the 'D words'.

She is aiming to break the taboo by having frank conversations about what happens when someone is about to die.

The danger when using expressions such as "passed away" is that families might not understand death is approaching and a situation can arise where people don't knows how to act or what to say to a loved one who is dying.

Five stages of dying

Dr Thomas Fleischmann reckons there are five stages of dying.

And as an A&E doctor of more than 35 years, he might know more than most.

He's based his theory on conversations with hundreds of patients who've had "near-death experiences".

Dr Fleischmann has witnessed the deaths of almost 2,000 people at close hand.

In a 2014 TED Talk in Hamburg, he said: “The first phase is there’s a sudden change and, from one instant to another, all pain is gone.

“All anxiety is gone, all fear is gone, all noises are gone – and there’s just peace, calmness and tranquillity. Some report joy.

Dr Fleischmann describes the second stage as an “out of body experience”, where people feel like they are “flying above themselves” and end up “seeing themselves lying down on the stretcher”.

He went on to say that the third stage feels “comfortable” for 98-99% of people, but up to 2% of people describe “terrible noises, terrible smells and terrible creatures”.

In stage four, he says patients often describe seeing light that starts to “shine into the complete blackness”, and that is “very warm, very bright and very attractive”.

He adds that around 10% of near-death survivors witness “beautiful surroundings, beautiful colours, some say beautiful music and the feeling of unconditional love” – this is the fifth stage.

Déjà vu

More imaginative theory than scientific discovery, Brandon Monhollen's musings on death are unusual, to put it mildly.

In March 2021, his TikTok video went viral after he shared a theory that blew people’s minds.

He sought to explain not only the after life but also the bizarre phenomenon of déjà vu.

“What if when we die, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light to another hospital,” he said in the video.

“There we are born, and the only reason you come out crying is because you remember everything from your past life and you're crying at the fact that you died and lost everything.

“As you grow and start to forget your past life, and you focus on the life that you have now, patches of memory stay behind and that memory causes déjà vu.”

The clip had more than a million views after just one week.

You know you're dead when you're dead

Here's something you won't want to think about.

Some boffins say that brain function can continue for a short time after a person dies, meaning they might know they're dead.

Researchers discovered that brain function continues in the cerebrum, the part that keeps you conscious, after the heart has stopped.

Dr Sam Parnia, of New York University Langone Medical Center, said brain cells can take days to die.

In 2016 scientists from the University of Western Ontario examined the bodies of four people whose life support machines had been switched off. In three cases brain activity ceased after heart failure.

But in one, brain waves continued despite them being pronounced dead.

Ordinarily these brainwaves only occur during sleep.

Dr Parnia told Newsweek: "What's fascinating is that there is a time, only after you and I die, that the cells inside our bodies start to gradually go toward their own process of death.

"The cells don't instantly switch from alive to dead. Actually, the cells are much more resilient to the heart stopping – to the person dying – than we used to understand."

Fascinating, or downright scary? We'll let you be the judge.

Otherworldly beings

In 2006, David Ditchfield was saying goodbye to a friend at a railway station when his coat got trapped in the train's doors as it set off.

It led to what he's described as an encounter with otherworldly beings and changed his life forever.

David, 61, from Cambridge, said: “I was pulled along the platform, then under the tracks with the train hurtling above me.

"I was conscious for all this time, but my left arm had been severed and when I reached hospital I was in a lot of pain and fearing for my life.

“Then, I felt myself leave my body. All the anxiety left me, and I was in a darkened room that felt very calming and inviting. I figured I was dead, and it was the next stage. I didn’t fight it, I had a sense of relief I was in this place.

“I then saw these slowly pulsating orbs of light flashing around me. I looked to get my bearings and realised I was no longer on a hospital trolley, but a huge slab of rock. Looking over the slab, I could see a huge waterfall of stars cascading by.

“I felt the presence of somebody by my feet, a person with white blonde hair, skin that was glowing with light from within – but they were wearing a black T-shirt. I knew this being would care for me and heal me.

“I decided to lie back on the rock and enjoy the healing process. Two women arrived too, and they were hovering over my body and this energy was coming from them. I felt this energy wasn’t only healing the wounds from my accident, but it was cleansing my soul too.

“I saw a tunnel of white light approaching me with flames cascading around the edge, and through telepathically communicating with the beings they told me this was the source of all creation. And then I crashed back into my body in the hospital.

“The experience has really transformed me. When I was recovering, I gained the experience to paint and compose music, something I’d never done before. I also wrote a book, Shine On, about my story. Through my life I’d always felt like a failure with a lot of guilt and shame, but these feelings have disappeared.”

  • Near-death experience

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