By Sarah Osman
Surviving Death’s balance between personal experiences and scientific theories makes the series unexpectedly provocative.
Surviving Death, streaming in Netflix
Throughout my childhood, my mother would watch various TV shows about life after death. She often would discuss her thoughts about the afterlife with others, describing what she believed were her previous lives, forecasting exactly what happens to us the moment we die. Some were rather horrified by my mother’s ideas, while others were fascinated and shared their own beliefs. My mother died last year and, since then, I have reflected on my own views about mortality. I like to think that my mother has gone on to a peaceful place and is somehow still connected to me.
With the arrival of Covid, many of us are contemplating our own mortality more than we usually do. So Netflix knew what it was doing, releasing their newest docu-series, Surviving Death, smack dab in the middle of yet another lockdown. The series spans six episodes, and each segment focuses on a different aspect of the afterlife — near death experiences, mediums, and reincarnation among them. While the majority of explorations of this topic tend to come across as absurd (some of the shows my mom watched were trite), Surviving Death treats its scary subject seriously by combining both scientific and anecdotal evidence.
Surviving Death begins with an investigation into near-death experiences. A doctor who almost drowned in a kayaking accident says that after she had “died,” she was greeted by happy, bright beings, a field full of flowers, and a bright light. Her descriptions may sound like pop culture cliches, but a number of others have had similar revelations. In fact, sizable organizations have been set up for those who have experienced near death encounters, places where they can discuss (and record) what they claim happened to them. If the series was only a parade of comforting anecdotes, the show wouldn’t hold much credibility. What makes Surviving Death different is the sheer amount of scientists and scientific evidence brought in to corroborate these yarns.
The second half of the episode includes interviews with academics, including University of Cambridge’s Peter Fenwick. He explores some of the explanatory physiological theories; for example, a lack of oxygen would account for the vivid hallucinations. However, he questions our definition of consciousness — does it shut off when the brain does? If that is true, then how do people remember their after-death experiences? Fenwick isn’t the only expert interviewed — Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia discusses how many scientific theories may not be correct about what happens when we die. Scientifically speaking, we don’t have a lot of exact answers. This balance — between personal experiences and scientific theories — makes Surviving Death unexpectedly provocative.
The next two-part episode focuses on mediums and details how they work. Those interviewed are shown communicating with the Other Side while they are also taking part in rather mundane activities, such as attending conferences and workshops. These episodes don’t dive into quite as many scientific theories as the first, but they do discuss how some mediums are skeptical of others. While not as many scientists are interviewed in these episodes, the series still remains neutral rather than sensationalistic, approaching the craft from a vantage point of journalistic skepticism. Thus Surviving Death provides some intriguing tidbits about talking to the dearly departed; there is no attempt to cajole viewers to believe in them.
In addition to juggling scientific and the supernatural perspectives, each episode also dives into the ethics of exploring the afterlife. Quite a few of those who investigate the “undiscovered country” are often grieving the loss of loved ones, so they are easy to take advantage of. Surviving Death touches on this problem, and interviews those in the grieving process as well as various doctors, mediums, and spiritual advisors on the ethical ways to treat the dead and mourners. Most series on the afterlife, afraid of raising doubts about their approach, end up taking one side or the other: mediums and spiritual advisors as either divine experts or complete quacks. Issues of ethics and the afterlife are also overlooked in major religions, where most followers are told exactly what will happen to them when they die without giving them the chance to question their own beliefs (another issue Surviving Death delves into).
Surviving Death will not change the minds of those who do not believe in or have any interest in the afterlife or the paranormal. But for those who are mildly curious about mortality, the series is oddly soothing. I found myself questioning my own beliefs regarding the afterlife and not feeling as concerned as I had been about death. I even felt a bit comforted as I continue to mourn the loss of my mother. During a global pandemic, when we are being confronted with daily raising death counts — as well as fears for our own survival — Surviving Death offers a captivating look at what’s on the other side. And suggests we may not have as much to fear as we think.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.