December 27, 2012
On Heaven, the Afterlife, Purgatory, and Popular Media
I find interpretations of what comes after death fascinating, for they represent an individual’s concept of something they will never be able to prove the accuracy of. In fact, there are hundreds of books detailing people near-death experiences, and many of them are remarkably similar. Some involve moving toward a distant light; others have to do with looking down on the world as if they are on a higher plane. In popular media, they go a step further. For example, deceased characters return, and people often walk toward incredibly bright lights. What such depictions illustrate is that what comes after life is often understandable and logical, for it follows the laws of physics and space. When they deviate from recognizable images, they often present one that few people will agree with but which most everyone will understand. For example, Homer depicted heaven, if you can call Mount Olympus that, as a physical world from which gods could peer down and observe Earth’s conflicts. They held beauty contests, attempted revolt, had affairs, and even exited and re-entered their world, although for some reason this sometimes required the use of chariots. A Righteous Brothers song imagined an afterlife in which beloved singers that have passed on form one massive band, as if all musicians do after they die is put on an eternity of performances. It is a silly concept if you think about it, but it’s easily understandable – an artist made beautiful music in life, so they’re likely making beautiful music in the afterlife. It is interesting to note that only artists are envisioned as being eternal performers. No one imagines a businessperson spending eternity making business deals or an accountant punching numbers forever. Well, not in heaven at least.
Here are some interesting ways that heaven, the afterlife, and purgatory have been portrayed in popular media.
- · In Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, the afterlife was a stunning beach where family members were reunited at last. I’m not sure whether these characters are now waiting for a boat to take them to a new realm like at the end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and I’m equally puzzled by the ages of the family members in this special place, but the image is certainly spectacular and moving.
- · In Kirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 masterpiece After Life, the afterlife is a single moment in time that lasts for eternity. Fortunately, there are helpful spirits there to help you find that perfect moment. The movie is quite moving and thought-provoking, and when it’s over, you’ll probably find yourself wondering what your moment would be.
- · Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film Brainstorm doesn’t actually include a depiction of heaven or the afterlife. However, it does attempt to depict how a soul leaves the physical world and journeys to the next. This journey involves physically rising into the air, leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, soaring through galaxies, and finally arriving at what can perhaps best be described as an eternal resting place. Critics were mostly unimpressed.
- · In Ridley Scott’s 2000 Oscar-winner Gladiator, heaven appears to be a long dusty road that your loved ones walk down for eternity, and when you die, you magically join them on their pleasant stroll in the countryside.
- · In Heaven Can Wait, heaven is a cloud-filled plane on which angels walk around chatting and welcoming new souls.
- · In It’s a Wonderful Life, heaven is a place when angels take the form of constellations, and when they talk, the constellations light up and blink. I couldn’t help wondering how that looks from the Earth.
- · In James Cameron’s Titanic, the afterlife is the grand staircase of the Titanic where the well-off spirits that died that terrible day wait to welcome you. It’s interesting that the one that greets Rose is not the man she married and had a family with, but the young man who she lost more than sixty years earlier.
- · In 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, heaven is a place where fallen autobots, as well as one “lucky” human, go after they die. I say “lucky” because deceased autobots can always be counted on to spout pearls of wisdom that inspire someone to return to the world of the living and renew the fight for justice.
- · In Russell Wong’s 1995 television show Vanishing Son, purgatory was depicted as being a bus station where a deceased gang leader named Wago Chang (Chi Muoi Lo) sits and waits for his number to be called. This has its advantages though, for it allows him to float back to Earth and assist his brother Jian-Wa (Russell Wong), who is in the habit of helping those in need despite being on the run from the FBI. I suppose assisting his brother was a form of penance.
- · In the 1990 film Ghost, every time characters die, a hole opens up above them, light falls down on the deceased, and then, like a tractor beam, the deceased is lifted up to a magical place where you can still feel the love you felt on Earth. I wonder what happens to unrequited love, though.
- · In Tora Tora Tora, little is said about heaven or the afterlife. However, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the phrase see you at Yasukuni. This is a reference to the Shinto belief that the souls of deceased soldiers rest for eternity at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. There, they are forgiven for their sins and honored for the sacrifice they made for their country.
- · In 1998’s Meet Joe Black, heaven is a place you get to after crossing a colorful bridge.
- · It’s hard to know what to make of what we see in Field of Dreams. The first baseball player that returns asks Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) if he is in heaven, so the question is: Where exactly has the spirit come from? However, what is clear is that the afterlife is a plain that one can cross into by walking into the corn field just beyond the baseball diamond.
- · In 1998’s What Dreams May Come, heaven is a canvas that you can paint into whatever your heart desires.
I find some of these representations touching and others completely ludicrous. However, they all succeed in conveying to the audience what is happening on the screen. Death has come, and a character has entered a different, probably better world.