The talented Philip Seymour Hoffman has died. He was 46 years old.




1967 – 2014

Hoffman died from a suspected overdose on drugs. Investigations are ongoing.


I remember him as the hardworking but very jealous medical student roommate of Robin Williams’ Patch Adams in the film of the same title. He is also darn good as the antagonist in Mission Impossible 3 as well as the American writer Truman Capote. It was his delicious portrayal of Capote which made me a Hoffman convert.


I have not watched The Master but I would probably do so now.


It is on many fans and admirers’ minds the number of Oscar-worthy roles he might have the chance to play if he should live on.


Lord have mercy on his soul.


Here is an obituary from The Telegraph.





dying well

by Tamara Mann


FOR TWENTY-NINE YEARS my grandparents taught me how to live; in my thirtieth year they taught me how to die. My grandfather’s death was orchestrated, my Nana’s improvised.


We all knew how my grandfather wanted to die: at home surrounded by his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. And so, despite the efforts of lifting his body out of the hospital bed, wheeling him into an ambulance, driving across town, and refashioning his bedroom with a hospital cot and oxygen tanks, my mother and uncles made it happen.


For three more months we lived peacefully in that bedroom. My Nana held his hands, sang Yiddish songs, and repeated the phrase, “I hit the jackpot with him.” We would all sit beside him—my cousin, my brother, my uncles, my mother—patting his hand, and he would pat right back, smile, and say, “good good good.” His hands were soft. They smelled like the lemon cream my mother would rub nightly on his chapped skin. The night before he died he ate pea soup with butter, even though the doctors told us he would stop eating. My grandfather never stopped eating. He seized every last bit of joy from life—even while horizontal, even while in pain. The next day his breathing changed, his eyes closed, and my mother called us in. We were there when his chest rose and he took his last breath.


In the same way we knew how my grandfather wanted to die, we knew that my grandmother still wanted to live. “Go on your vacation,” she begged me. “Go go go and live it up. Live it up for me.” And so I went, knowing that she would spend that week moving into her new apartment. Everything that day was perfect. My Nana got her hair done, her nails done, and arrived in her new home feeling, in her words, “like a bride.” The apartment was majestic, filled with light pink and the floral motifs that my Nana so loved; each flower elegantly placed to convey a sense of peace and purity. When my Nana saw the room, she cried. “Look what my daughter has done for me.” That night when she went to bed she couldn’t breathe. An ambulance rushed her to Mount Sinai Hospital. Would it be OK, asked her doctors, if the new residents came in to witness the conversation, it is their first day. “Yes, let them come in,” she said as she rose taller in the bed. She was regal, said my uncle, like her name, Malka.


The doctor continued: “You have late stage emphysema. You can continue to live in the hospital intubated or you can choose not to be.” In an instant, she chose not to be. “I want to live, I want to live very badly,” she said to the young, teary residents. “But I don’t want to live like that. I’m ready.” Her children were beside her. “Wait,” my mother pleaded, “wait for the grandchildren, wait wait wait.” She couldn’t believe it. No one could believe it. It happened so fast. Before my Nana died she held her children’s hands and told them, “Family is a like a rug, quick to unravel. Don’t let it unravel.” As she drifted quietly from her children, from me, she whispered, “Love much, love much, love much.”


My grandparents had the great gift of engaging with death, of choosing their path, and of dying with medical assistance. They had the gifts of Medicare and hospice, of pacemakers, defibrillators, second opinions, and morphine. They knew how to ask and how to say no; how to talk to doctors and family members; how to retain authority in an environment that often tried to strip them of agency. Most Americans are not so lucky.


Death, for many aged Americans, has become a lengthy, undignified, and infantilizing process. While the majority of Americans wish to die peacefully at home, elderly men and women are repeatedly shuttled between nursing homes and hospitals during the last months of life. Emergency room visits, unnecessary procedures, and countless tests continue to mark too many Americans’ final days. Medicare alone recently paid more than 50 billion dollars to keep aged Americans alive in the final two months of life. Modern medicine has created the blessing, the illusion, and the burden of choice.


When it comes to death, choice can be a misplaced ideal. The ethicist Daniel Callahan makes a valuable distinction between choosing how we die and choosing to die. As the space of death moved from the home to the hospital, he writes, “illusions of mastery” overshadowed the physical reality of frailty, disease, and death. Doctors, patients, and politicians alike began to describe death itself as a choice. They came to believe that men and women died of medical and technological failure, not of disease. Thus, all forms of intervention became necessities and withdrawing intervention became murder. My grandparents didn’t choose between life and death. My grandfather died of heart disease; hospice aids taught us to turn off his defibrillator. My grandmother died of emphysema; she decided against further medical intervention. They didn’t choose to die, but they did choose how they wanted to die.


My grandparents each died differently, but our rituals of mourning stayed the same. When my grandfather died, the chevra kadisha came to the house and sat with his body. Women from the synagogue arrived to cover the mirrors and help us prepare for the day ahead. Within twenty-four hours, he was buried. Each one in the entire family—great uncles, aunts, cousins, and small children—had taken a handful or a shovel of dirt to cover his body. We returned home, washed our hands, and began the seven-day process of bringing him, through shared memories, back into our lives.


Three months later, we began again.


The chevra kadisha arrived at the hospital while volunteers prepared our house. In less than twenty-four hours, we buried my Nana next to my grandpa. We arrived back at the house where they both had lived, and where my grandfather had died, covered in dirt. We washed, we sat, and we began the process of remembering again.


For fourteen days that spring and summer, we replayed their lives. And again and again we came back to their deaths. We talked about their bravery and their dignity. The way Nana held Grandpa’s hand, the way she spoke to the young residents, and the way he clung to life. This is the gift they gave us. They allowed their family to see their deaths as the final moral act of their lives.


Death is defined as much by the metaphors we use to describe it as by the technologies we use to stave it off. It is not simple and it is not clear. It can feel definitive, the last breath or heartbeat. It can feel long and obscure, as with the slow breakdown of organ function. How can we learn to talk appropriately about something we don’t understand? This is the true challenge of end-of-life care. We have to trek through the political, medical, and emotional thicket to fight for dignity, without the advantage of clarity. We have to learn to talk about death without hurtful metaphors, to give up the phrase “death panel,” and to abandon the battle cries of war. As a society, we have to find better words and phrases to cope with the unbending reality of death.


To die well, we need to learn to talk well about death. We need to figure out its place in the spaces of technological intervention—the hospital and the nursing home—and in the emotional spaces of our relationships. We need to face the horror, the pain, and the possibility, however rare, that the process of dying can be filled with a kind of beauty. My grandparents taught me the value of facing this final act as we face all others, with bravery, with confidence, with compassion, and with dignity. Not only for ourselves, but for everyone we leave behind.







NDEs caused by surging brain activity?

by LiveScience


Near-death experiences could be caused by a surge of electrical firing in the dying brain, new research in animals suggests.


In the study, rats whose hearts were stopped showed a surge of brain waves associated with consciousness, according to a new study published today (Aug. 12) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers measured the animals’ brain activity on electroencephalography (EEG) machines.


However, “whether the animals perceive that as a white light or tunnel of light, that’s something we can’t know,” said study researcher Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.


Other experts agreed that further study is needed to determine how the study might apply to near-death experiences (NDEs) in people.


There’s no way to know what the rats were experiencing while their hearts were stopped, and other studies in dying humans and dogs have found no brain wave activity that was parallel to what the researchers found in the new study, said Dr. Sam Parnia, a resuscitation researcher at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study.


Mysterious phenomena

About 5 percent of dying patients and 10 percent of cardiac arrest patients describe having near-death experiences. These experiences often have similar elements, such as a feeling of being out-of-body, going through a tunnel or on a river toward a warm light, seeing lost loved ones and being told it’s not time to go yet. Past research revealed that near-death experiences are more vivid than real life.


But scientists strongly disagree about the source of these experiences. Some argue that near-death experiences reveal the existence of heaven or the duality between mind and body, while others claim the event is caused by a flood of chemicals in the dying brain. [Inside the Brain: A Journey Through Time]


New data

To sort out the issue, Borjigin and her colleagues examined nine rats. They induced cardiac arrest while the animals were hooked up to EEG machines, and the team then measured the electrical activity in the animals’ brains.


About 30 seconds after the heart had stopped, all the animals experienced waves of synchronized brain activity that were characteristic of the conscious brain. Rats that were asphyxiated with carbon monoxide showed a similar pattern of brain activity.


The rats’ visual cortex, which processes visual imagery, was also highly activated. This could shed light on why NDEs are so vivid, Borjigin said.


“They all show the fingerprints of neural consciousness at near-death is at a much higher level compared to the waking state. That explains the realer-than-real human experience,” Borjigin told LiveScience.


The team believes that this electrical surge may be a mechanism the brain uses to rescue itself from a sharp drop in glucose and oxygen. Though it may not work for animals in cardiac arrest, Borjigin speculates that this mechanism spurs alertness or hyperawareness in less critical situations.


Questions remain

Parnia said that after oxygen flow to the brain stops, calcium floods brain cells as they die, and that, rather than consciousness, could explain the electrical activity the researchers saw.


Finally, the study can’t explain how people can correctly recollect what happened to them minutes after their brain activity has flatlined and CPR has been started, Parnia said.


Until researchers can systematically compare the brain waves of cardiac arrest patients who have had near-death experiences with those who haven’t, there’s no way to know what’s really going on in these experiences, Parnia said.






the crucifixion of tomas young

by Chris Hedges


I flew to Kansas City last week to see Tomas Young. Young was paralyzed in Iraq in 2004. He is now receiving hospice care at his home. I knew him by reputation and the movie documentary “Body of War.” He was one of the first veterans to publicly oppose the war in Iraq. He fought as long and as hard as he could against the war that crippled him, until his physical deterioration caught up with him.


“I had been toying with the idea of suicide for a long time because I had become helpless,” he told me in his small house on the Kansas City outskirts where he intends to die. “I couldn’t dress myself. People have to help me with the most rudimentary of things. I decided I did not want to go through life like that anymore. The pain, the frustration. …”


He stopped abruptly and called his wife. “Claudia, can I get some water?” She opened a bottle of water, took a swig so it would not spill when he sipped and handed it to him.


“I felt at the end of my rope,” the 33-year-old Army veteran went on. “I made the decision to go on hospice care, to stop feeding and fade away. This way, instead of committing the conventional suicide and I am out of the picture, people have a way to stop by or call and say their goodbyes. I felt this was a fairer way to treat people than to just go out with a note. After the anoxic brain injury in 2008 [a complication that Young suffered] I lost a lot of dexterity and strength in my upper body. So I wouldn’t be able to shoot myself or even open the pill bottle to give myself an overdose. The only way I could think of doing it was to have Claudia open the pill bottle for me, but I didn’t want her implicated.”


“After you made that decision how did you feel?” I asked.


“I felt relieved,” he answered. “I finally saw an end to this four-and-a-half-year fight. If I were in the same condition I was in during the filming of ‘Body of War,’ in a manual chair, able to feed and dress myself and transfer from my bed to the wheelchair, you and I would not be having this discussion. I can’t even watch the movie anymore because it makes me sad to see how I was, compared to how I am. … Viewing the deterioration, I decided it was best to go out now rather than regress more.”


Young will die for our sins. He will die for a war that should never have been fought. He will die for the lies of politicians. He will die for war profiteers. He will die for the careers of generals. He will die for a cheerleader press. He will die for a complacent public that made war possible. He bore all this upon his body. He was crucified. And there are hundreds of thousands of other crucified bodies like his in Baghdad and Kandahar and Peshawar and Walter Reed medical center. Mangled bodies and corpses, broken dreams, unending grief, betrayal, corporate profit, these are the true products of war. Tomas Young is the face of war they do not want you to see.


On April 4, 2004, Young was crammed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck with 20 other soldiers in Sadr City, Iraq. Insurgents opened fire on the truck from above. “It was like shooting ducks in a barrel,” he said. A bullet from an AK-47 severed his spinal column. A second bullet shattered his knee. At first he did not know he had been shot. He felt woozy. He tried to pick up his M16. He couldn’t lift his rifle from the truck bed. That was when he knew something was terribly wrong.


“I tried to say ‘I’m going to be paralyzed, someone shoot me right now,’ but there was only a hoarse whisper that came out because my lungs had collapsed,” he said. “I knew the damage. I wanted to be taken out of my misery.”


His squad leader, Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, bent over and told him he would be all right. A few years later Young would see a clip of Miltenberger weeping as he recounted the story of how he had lied to Young.


“I tried to contact him,” said Young, whose long red hair and flowing beard make him look like a biblical prophet. “I can’t find him. I want to tell him it is OK.”


Young had been in Iraq five days. It was his first deployment. After being wounded he was sent to an Army hospital in Kuwait, and although his legs, now useless, lay straight in front of him he felt as if he was still sitting cross-legged on the floor of the truck. That sensation lasted for about three weeks. It was an odd and painful initiation into his life as a paraplegic. His body, from then on, would play tricks on him.


He was transferred from Kuwait to the U.S. military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Walter Reed, in Washington, D.C. He asked if he could meet Ralph Nader, and Nader visited him in the hospital with Phil Donahue. Donahue, who had been fired by MSNBC a year earlier for speaking out against the war, would go on, with Ellen Spiro, to make the 2007 film “Body of War,” a brutally honest account of Young’s daily struggle with his physical and emotional scars of war. In the documentary, he suffers dizzy spells that force him to lower his head into his hands. He wears frozen gel inserts in a cooling jacket because he cannot control his body temperature. He struggles to find a solution to his erectile dysfunction. He downs fistfuls of medications—carbamazepine, for nerve pain; coumadin, a blood thinner; tizanidine, an anti-spasm medication; gabapentin, another nerve pain medication, bupropion, an antidepressant; omeprazole, for morning nausea; and morphine. His mother has to insert a catheter into his penis. He joins Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, to protest with Iraq Veterans Against the War. His first wife leaves him.


“You know, you see a guy who’s paralyzed and in a wheelchair and you think he’s just in a wheelchair,” he says in “Body of War.” “You don’t think about the, you know, the stuff inside that’s paralyzed. I can’t cough because my stomach muscles are paralyzed, so I can’t work up the full coughing energy. I’m more susceptible to urinary tract infections, and there’s a great big erection sidebar to this whole story.”


In early March 2008 a blood clot in his right arm—the arm that bears a color tattoo of a character from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”—caused his arm to swell. He was taken to the Kansas City Veterans Affairs hospital, where he was given the blood thinner coumadin before being released. One month later, the VA took him off coumadin and soon afterward the clot migrated to one of his lungs. He suffered a massive pulmonary embolism and fell into a coma. When he awoke from the coma in the hospital he could barely speak. He had lost most of his upper-body mobility and short-term memory, and his speech was slurred significantly.


It was then that he began to experience debilitating pain in his abdomen. The hospital would not give him narcotics because such drugs slow digestion, making it harder for the bowels to function. Young could digest only soup and Jell-O. In November, in a desperate bid to halt the pain, he had his colon removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag. The pain disappeared for a few days and then came roaring back. He could not hold down food, even pureed food, because his stomach opening had shrunk. The doctors dilated his stomach. He could eat only soup and oatmeal. Three weeks ago he had his stomach stretched again. And that was enough.


“I will go off the feeding [tube] after me and my wife’s anniversary,” April 20, the date on which he married Claudia in 2012. “I was married once before. It didn’t end well. It was a non-amicable divorce. At first I thought I would [just] wait for my brother and his wife, my niece and my grandparents to visit me, but the one thing I will miss most in my life is my wife. I want to spend a little more time with her. I want to spend a full year with someone without the problems that plagued my previous [marriage]. I don’t know how long it will take when I stop eating. If it takes too long I may take steps to quicken my departure. I have saved a bottle of liquid morphine. I can down that at one time with all my sleeping medication.”


Young’s room is painted a midnight blue and has a large cutout of Batman on one wall. He loved the superhero as a child because “he was a regular person who had a horrible thing happen to him and wanted to save society.”


Young joined the Army immediately after 9/11 to go to Afghanistan and hunt down the people behind the attacks. He did not oppose the Afghanistan war. “In fact, if I had been injured in Afghanistan, there would be no ‘Body of War’ movie to begin with,” he said. But he never understood the call to invade Iraq. “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor we didn’t invade China just because they looked the same,” he said.


He became increasingly depressed about his impending deployment to Iraq when he was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. He asked the battalion doctor for antidepressants. The doctor said he had to meet first with the unit’s chaplain, who told him, “I think you will be happier when you get over to Iraq and start killing Iraqis.”


“I was dumbstruck by his response,” Young said.


He has not decided what will be done with his ashes. He flirted with the idea of having them plowed into ground where marijuana would be planted but then wondered if anyone would want to smoke the crop. He knows there will be no clergy at the memorial service held after his death. “It will just be people reminiscing over my life,” he said.


“I spend a lot of time sitting here in my bedroom, watching TV or sleeping,” he said. “I have found—I don’t know if it is the result of my decision or not—[it is] equally hard to be alone or to be around people. This includes my wife. I am rarely happy. Maybe it is because when I am alone all I have with me are my thoughts, and my mind is a very hazardous place to go. When I am around people I feel as if I have to put on a facade of being the happy little soldier.”


He listens, when he is well enough, to audio books with Claudia. Among them have been Al Franken’s satirical book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” and Michael Moore’s “The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader.” He was a voracious reader but can no longer turn the pages of a book. He finds some solace in the French film “The Intouchables,” about a paraplegic and his caregiver, and “The Sessions,” a film based on an essay by the paralyzed poet Mark O’Brien.


Young, when he was in a wheelchair, found that many people behaved as if he was mentally disabled, or not even there. When he was being fitted for a tuxedo for a friend’s wedding the salesman turned to his mother and asked her in front of him whether he could wear the company’s shoes.


“I look at the TV through the lens of his eyes and can see he is invisible,” said Claudia, standing in the living room as her husband rested in the bedroom. An array of books on death, the afterlife and dying are spread out around her. “No one is sick [on television]. No one is disabled. No one faces death. Dying in America is a very lonely business.”


“If I had known then what I know now,” Young said, “I would not have gone into the military. But I was 22, working various menial jobs, waiting tables, [working] in the copy department of an Office Max. My life was going nowhere. Sept. 11 happened. I saw us being attacked. I wanted to respond. I signed up two days later. I wanted to be a combat journalist. I thought the military would help me out of my financial rut. I thought I could use the GI Bill to go to school.”


Young is not the first young man to be lured into war by the false sirens of glory and honor and then callously discarded by the war makers. His story has been told many times. It is the story of Hector in “The Iliad.” It is the story of Joe Bonham, the protagonist in Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” whose arms, legs and face are blown away by an artillery shell, leaving him trapped in the inert remains of his body.


Bonham ruminates in the novel: “Inside me I’m screaming, nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I could kill myself. If I had legs, I could run away. If I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company for myself. I could yell for help, but nobody would help me.”


For Young, the war, the wound, the paralysis, the wheelchair, the anti-war demonstrations, the wife who left him and the one who didn’t, the embolism, the loss of motor control, the slurred speech, the colostomy, the IV line for narcotics implanted in his chest, the open bed sores that expose his bones, the despair—the crushing despair—the decision to die, have come down to a girl. Aleksus, his only niece. She will not remember her uncle. But he lies in his dimly lit room, painkillers flowing into his broken body, and he thinks of her. He does not know exactly when he will die. But it must be before her second birthday, in June. He will not mar that day with his death.


And though he is an atheist, though he believes that there is nothing after death—that, as he says, “the body is like a toy that runs out of batteries, only there are no replacements”—his final act honors the promise of Aleksus’ life. As he spoke to me softly of this child—it hurts, even now, he said, to know she will grow up without him—I wondered, sitting next to him on his bed, if he saw it, the glory of it, his final bow not before the specter of his death but the sanctity of her life. The resurrection.




god is a question, not an answer

by Giles Fraser


One of the purposes of writing is to make things hang together, to construct a narrative that organises events and lends them some coherence. But lived experience is different.


I discovered that the helicopter had flown into the crane in London on Twitter. That already feels weird, because had I been standing in my garden I would probably have heard it. I texted my brother-in-law, who is the vicar of the next-door parish where the crash occurred. He was dealing with a suicide. Some poor soul had jumped off a balcony. Next, my atheist mate Paul sends me a tweet about where my God is now and questioning the point of prayer. I reply that this is not the right time for that debate. He agrees.


I decide to go down to the scene. What practical assistance can I offer? None I expect, but I go anyway, and bump into a worried parishioner. Her son lives directly under the crane and isn’t answering his phone. I promise to stick with her until she gets a reply. We walk as far as the cordoned-off area. Fire-fighters are queuing outside the Starbucks at Vauxhall bus station. A woman is unreasonably remonstrating with a patient policeman who wouldn’t let her take her usual cycle route to work. Others are staring up into the sky and looking round at each other, all bemused.


Back at the church, prayers are being said for the dead, the injured and the emergency services. The empty roads, now closed, make this frantic commuter hub eerily silent. My friend’s phone goes. It’s her son. All is well with him. We find coffee in the wonderful oasis of Bonnington Square, one of London’s hidden gems. We chat a bit. There is nothing much to do. What is there to do when there is nothing to do?


Later on, I take the tube to the Guardian office. Here, everyone is busy creating order out of disorder. It feels like a giant machine for the generation of narrative and meaning. How odd. Over in Vauxhall, right next to the crash site, everything seems confusing and disjunctive, unbearably random. In the newsroom, reporters are beginning to wrestle random events into a story. Commentators will then make further sense of it all. All this narrative order seems so out of kilter with the atmosphere down at the Vauxhall bus station.


It is often said critically of religion that it seeks to impose meaning on meaninglessness, that it is a sort of anxiety reduction strategy in the face of the general randomness of things. This is not the religion I know. What I see in church is a place that is remarkably accommodating to confusion and doubt. A place where people bring their not knowing what to do. They sit and light a candle or say a prayer, not fully understanding what this really means or expecting some instrumental purpose. “I don’t believe in organised religion,” people often say. That makes me laugh. All religion is intrinsically disorganised. Forever perched over chaos.


Some sense may come of all this. But not in a day. And not in a few weeks, either. Somewhere, I expect there are people with red eyes staring blankly at each other and taking in the unbelievable news that a loved one has been killed in so random a way. The narrative order offered by the reporters and columnists will probably not help them make deeper sense of Wednesday’s events. And no, I am not implying that God is the ready-made answer. For me, God is the question. A question that will not leave me alone. Back here, the community gradually returns to life. By the evening, Tesco in Vauxhall is open, but only a few people are out shopping. I finish the day with a prayer. In the midst of life, we are in death.




a toast to robin gibb



Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, the Shadows and ABBA, this chirping triplet of androgynous Jesus look-alikes who call themselves the Bee Gees were my constant auditory companions as a child. No, I am not a child of the 60′s or the 70′s. I am a child of the 80′s whose classically trained father polluted the cosy three-room Bedok flat with noise that never ceased.


If he wasn’t fingering his classical guitar to the tunes of themes from the Deer Hunter, Classical Gas or some obscure piece by Julian Bream or Andres Sergovia, my papa would be bunny-banging my obedient mama to the cacophonic pop and rock of his time.


And so that included the great Bee Gees.


It is no wonder I cannot get rid of this vestigial fancy for such lowbrow but insanely popular recreational noise. They sure sound like playboy angels hallelujahing in Hefner Heaven when compared to today’s 21st century rubbish.


I don’t know what to say, except to raise my Heineken and salute Robin Gibb for his contributions to recreational noise which got people into epileptic fits in discotheques the world over.


PS: here are some obituaries in tribute to the great sissy-throated singer.


Robin Gibb, a Bee Gee with a Taciturn manner, Dies at 62


Robin Gibb Obituary


Robin Gibb, former Bee Gees member who helped define ’70s Disco Sub-Culture


was i wrong about the afterlife?

by Christopher Hitchens (as told to Art Levine)


At the end, the manner of my “passing,” as the pious so delicately refer to death, was as much a disappointment to the dewy-eyed acolytes of god-worship as it was to me, although for rather different reasons. For more than a year after I publicly announced in June 2010 that I would begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, the stupidest of the faithful either gloated on their subliterate Web sites that my illness was a sign of “God’s revenge” for having blasphemed their Lord and Master, or prayed that I would abandon my contempt for their nonsensical beliefs by undergoing a deathbed conversion. The vulgarity of the idea that a vengeful deity would somehow stoop to inflicting a cancer on me still boggles the mind, especially in the face of the ready explanation supplied for my illness by my long, happy, and prodigious career as a smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spirits.


As for that longed-for conversion, it never came, despite the fervent wishes of such clerical mountebanks as the Reverend Rick Warren. Said reverend, who portrayed himself as my “friend” while consigning homosexuals and nonbelievers to one of Dante’s outer circles of Hell, proclaimed with the arrogant surety of the devout: “I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.” Indeed I do, and much better than he. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for his part, did not fail to use my death as an opportunity to stoke the fear of damnation among the credulous. Having somehow managed to evolve the thumbs needed to “tweet” his followers on his BlackBerry, he declared that my end—as if death were not a natural process common to all mammals—was “an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief,” while observing with the religionist’s usual condescension that my “brilliance & eloquence” will not matter “in the world to come.”


How would he know?


What was clear enough before my death was that visions of an afterlife were no more verifiable than any other bedtime tales designed to offer false hope to toddlers frightened of the dark. They are the ultimate embodiment of the solipsism at the heart of all religions. This infantilizing fiction comes in various guises, from orthodox religions with their fabricated consolations of fairytale heavens—whether it is the Islamic fanatic’s seventy-two celestial virgins or the Christian fantasia of winged angels—to the modern pseudoscientific “research” into so-called near-death experiences (known with ridiculous technicality as NDEs). These hallucinatory claims, originally popularized by a Dr. Raymond Moody for Me Generation readers of the 1970s, rest on numerous banal and repetitive testimonials about floating above one’s body, hurtling through a tunnel toward a bright light, vividly reviewing episodes from one’s past as if watching a holiday slide show, and encountering various beings lit up with an unearthly glow. These latter apparitions can range from one’s surprisingly youthful-looking relatives to an omniscient spiritual guide, including the ubiquitous Jesus if you’re a Christian, not-so-coincidentally matching your own faith or lack thereof.


There’s nothing in these visionary tall tales that can’t be either simply explained through an understanding of basic science or discounted as the unprovable “revelations” of individuals with no legitimate claim on our belief. That was my position before I experienced my own peculiar hallucinations after death, and I have seen no evidence since then requiring me to recant my position. Was I wrong on the afterlife, as so many among the bien-pensant brayed for me to admit that I was wrong on Iraq? Plainly, no.


As the psychologist Susan Blackmore has persuasively shown, the near-death experience is a product of the dying brain and shaped by the individual’s cultural expectations. The temporal lobe is especially prone to inducing hallucinations, memory flashbacks, and other visions after death when undergoing anoxia, or oxygen deprivation. In concordance with this understanding, virtually every one of the phenomena I experienced after my own death has a clear-cut neurological or biological cause or an obvious cultural antecedent. As Blackmore wrote recently in the Guardian, “If human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned.”


Yes, in the final moments of my mortal denouement I did feel “myself” floating above my body. But that was just the first of a commonplace series of interrelated hallucinations that bore a notable resemblance to the visual effects of the LSD I tried one summer evening in 1968 at Oxford—except that these recent hallucinations were, if anything, rather less life-altering. Of course, by this time in my hospital room, there was no “life” to alter, but I have never wavered in holding on to core truths in the absence of contravening evidence.


There was no “tunnel,” and no vividly bright light that I moved toward, and whatever euphoria I experienced was as transient as the buzz from polishing off a few bottles of wine with dear Martin in the cafés of Monmartre. Yes, there appeared to be a passageway leading to something a bit brighter than the total darkness that I expected, but I experienced this for what it was: a well-known epiphenomenon of oxygen depletion in the dying retina.


If the scenes from my past that subsequently paraded before my view were especially vivid and, indeed, somewhat affecting, it cannot have been coincidental that I had only recently spent time finalizing the paperback edition of my memoir, Hitch-22, with a new foreword reflecting on my then-imminent death. And as one would expect, given my intellectual predilections, there was no angelic being or robed dime-store Jesus to greet me as my near-death experience quickly progressed into what might be termed my death experience (DE). Instead, as my hallucinatory journey continued, I was greeted warmly by the predictable neural holograms of Tom Paine, Voltaire, and George Orwell, who all bore a striking resemblance to their paintings, or, in Orwell’s case, to the penetrating photo of him on the cover of my book Why Orwell Matters. Not for a moment did I believe they were “real.” Even so, Orwell, never one to tolerate cant of any kind, furthered my resolve: “This is all a delusion, my dear boy, but enjoy it while you can.”


And so I have. I have discovered little that I had not expected from even a casual reading of the scientific literature, although as the months have passed, I have sometimes wondered at the apparent duration and persistence of these hallucinations. I take some comfort in the knowledge that the execrable evangelists and their ilk will have to wait for all eternity before I will betray my principles by proclaiming a newfound, servile belief in God or the afterlife. I suspect, however, that it is only a matter of time before some New Age or Christian publishing huckster sees the lucre to be made by publishing the spurious recantations of dead atheists and freethinkers. Expect him to conscript bogus mediums to fabricate tract after tract of Hume, Voltaire, Paine, Orwell, Mencken, and me, among others, confessing the errors of our godless ways. Expect learned introductions by Harold Bloom—or his spirit, after he dies—to give the entire Dead Repentant Writers Library of America series a patina of respectability.


Don’t believe a word of it.