January 6, 2014
Famous movie pundit Roger Ebert was often claimed by others as an atheist, although his own opinion was that he disliked his convictions being reduced to one word or label. Ebert’s real ‘religion’, I think, was summed up by his admission that he had “spent hours and hours in churches all over the world…not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe” – a position many readers here would probably feel aligned with.
It did not surprise me then when I read, in a recent Esquire article (“Oral Histories of 2013“), a first-hand account of Ebert’s passing from his wife Chaz that suggests he had a profound experience in his final days:
On April 4, he was strong enough again for me to take him back home. My daughter and I went to pick him up. When we got there, the nurses were helping him get dressed. He was sitting on his bed, and he looked really happy to be going home. He was smiling. He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down. We thought he was meditating, maybe reflecting on his experiences, grateful to be going home. I don’t remember who noticed first, who checked his pulse… In the beginning, of course, I was totally freaked out. There was some kind of code thing, and they brought machines in. I was stunned. But as we realized he was transitioning out of this world and into the next, everything, all of us, just went calm. They turned off the machines, and that room was so peaceful. I put on his music that he liked, Dave Brubeck. We just sat there on the bed together, and I whispered in his ear. I didn’t want to leave him. I sat there with him for hours, just holding his hand.
Roger looked beautiful. He looked really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but he looked peaceful, and he looked young.
The one thing people might be surprised about — Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
As I noted in my recent book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, the fascinating phenomena associated with end-of-life experiences (ELEs), such as deathbed visions, aren’t restricted to occurring in the minutes or seconds before passing…they can occur, days, weeks and sometimes even months before. I’d love to hear more from Chaz Ebert about what Roger experienced and described, because it certainly does sound like he had visions of a some kind of ‘other’ place that his consciousness was transiting to.
A.K.: Recall Steve Jobs’ final words, on his deathbed, “Oh wow oh wow oh wow. . .”
And you might want to watch a researcher, speaking at a TEDx conference on “The Art of Dying Well,” in which he calls dying “our last great adventure.”