When I finally reached the hospital, my grandma had already lost consciousness. As soon as I saw her, I could tell she wouldn’t wake up again. We all stood around and waited, and hoped it wouldn’t take too long. I sat on the bed and held her hand. Thankfully, it only took an hour or so. Eventually, the nurse came in and checked her pulse and told us she was dead.
Except she wasn’t. Not exactly. The nurse was right – her heart had stopped – but from the way she held my hand, I could tell she was still there. I didn’t say anything. I knew she’d be gone soon enough. For a few more minutes I kept her company, stroking her hand while everyone else fussed around us. It was an extraordinary sensation, one of the oddest moments of my life. And then something in her shifted, and I knew she’d left the room.
I’ve always believed this tale was true, but I never had anything to back it up. However scientists from Southampton University have found new evidence of something that was previously assumed to be impossible. After four years research, examining over 2000 cardiac arrest patients, they’ve concluded that awareness can continue for at least several minutes after death. Naturally this doesn’t prove my vague hunch was right, but I can’t help feeling I was onto something, and I bet lots of other people feel the same.
So is there life after death? And does this scientific evidence (or my vague hunch) really count for anything? As you’ve probably gathered, I don’t know the first thing about science – but it seems to me that this great mystery is what a lot of great art is all about. Without the Resurrection, do Renaissance paintings really matter? Is Hamlet still a tragedy without his father’s ghost? Is The Shining all that scary if Jack Nicholson is just seeing things? Take away the supernatural, and art loses its sense of purpose. As Joe Orton said, ‘You can’t be rational in an irrational world. It’s not rational.’
The other thing that made me believe in ghosts (sort of) was a story I heard from a dull man called Dave whom I met at a dinner party. His dullness was what made him so plausible. He was not the sort of person who’d want to draw attention to himself. The other thing that convinced me was the prosaic nature of his story. It was entirely devoid of wit or invention or imagination. It was utterly unlike any ghost story I’d ever heard.
The conversation turned to the supernatural, and Dave said he’d seen a ghost. An old pal of his had just bought a house, just a normal suburban semi. Dave had gone over there to help him move in. He went upstairs to use the loo, and passed a bedroom with an open door. There was a man sitting on the bed. He looked perfectly ordinary. He didn’t look up. He seemed deep in thought. Dave felt a bit embarrassed. He didn’t say hello. He went downstairs. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he asked. ‘What friend?’ asked his pal. They went back upstairs together. Yes, you guessed it. There was no-one there.
I suppose that on the face of it, what those boffins have discovered is no big deal. Maybe we somehow remain sentient for a few minutes after our brains and bodies have packed in. Maybe people on the edge of death – or even just beyond it – can have some sort of out-of-body experience, for reasons we don’t (yet) understand. Is that really the same as ghouls and phantoms? Of course it isn’t. But it seems to me that, even so, a significant barrier has been breached. Many of our greatest artists have been preoccupied with the paranormal. Thanks to those clever scientists at Southampton University, some of my favourite works of art suddenly seem a bit more plausible.
William Cook also writes for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller. His latest book is One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.