Life After Death (A New York Story)




So I’m sitting in Central Park late one evening and I strike up a conversation with a tourist from Sweden. He’s an old guy, very tall and in excellent shape. He is in NYC  visiting his daughter and grandson. He’s looking after his grandson as we speak. He asks me what I do and I tell him I’m a professor of Religius Studies and Jewish Studies. So he tells me that he’s also interested in religion, that he has been interested in relgiin for some twenty years. I begin to brace. I know how these conversations tend to go.

Then he asks me what I think happens after you die. I was completely disarmed. I’m not usually asked that one. So I tell him,  seriously, I have no idea. He tells me that he was once dead for two minutes and that nothing happens. From what I think I understood, it was an episode in which he stopped breathing while asleep. I listen. He meant by nothing is that nothing happens on “the other side” that is radically different than what happens on this side.

I listen with an open mind for a ring of truth. He said nothing about God, or white light and tunnels. There was no melodrama. Just conversations with dead strangers. One woman he met over there, he learned where she once worked. Upon returning to this world, he went to track her down only to find out that, yes, the woman about whom he inquired was, indeed, dead. On the other side, he was told the year was 2031. When he expressed surprise (this all was said to have happened in 2005), he was told that it took him a long time to get there. He recognized buildings from Stockholm, but in altered condition. Is death then just a warp in the space-time continuum? Who knows? The whole thing felt like a Bergman film, or spiritualism circa 1900. It was all very Swedish, quiet, friendly, humble, and understated.

He asked me if I believed him. I told him that I did not disbelieve him. And that’s the honest truth, I’m telling you. I tend not to be too skeptical about these things. I have neither reason to believe nor to disbelieve, and I try to leave it at that. There’s an old I.B. Singer ghost story or something about a conversation in a New York City automat-cafeteria. THe protagonist claims to be open to all kinds of “superstitions.” I read that story a long time ago, but that scene stayed with me.

After the tourist from Stockholm left to look after his grandson, I took these two pictures of the evening sky. This is what the conversation looked like.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Life After Death (A New York Story)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    he says there:
    “for me, death is the only comfort. what do the dead do? they continue to drink coffee and eat egg kichels? they still read newspapers? a life after death would be nothing but a joke”

    but if such an afterlife is a joke then doesn’t it mean that such a life is a joke?

    • zjb says:

      unless the protagonist has got it all wrong, and that neither such a death nor such a life is a joke at all. thanks for filling out the post, hayyim.

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