What comes after death?

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Lama Zopa Tarchin, center, with The Kagyu Monlam Book, a book of Tibetan Buddhist prayers, before him, makes a point while, at left, Rabbi Zoe B. Zak and Wayne Marquit, a Mormon priest, listen along with Catholic Deacon Peter Sedlmeir, at right.

There was no proselytizing. There was no sense of competition — no put downs, no one upmanship.

There was solely serious discussion of spiritual matters — sometimes personal, other times philosophical — as a Hindu swami, a Mormon priest, a Muslim imam, a Catholic deacon, a Buddhist monk, and a Jewish rabbi discussed the question: What comes after death?

With the season of thanksgiving on the horizon, celebrated by people of all religions in these United States, the Greenville Area Interfaith Council hosted a forum considering the same question it had posed a decade ago for its very first forum.

The audience grew in that time from just a handful at the first forum to over three score filling a meeting room at the Greenville Public Library on Nov. 4.

The various faith groups had gotten together, helping those in need with a food pantry. “We wanted to do something more meaningful, to expand awareness,” said Joy Smith, a member of the Onesquethaw Reformed Church who serves as secretary to the Interfaith Council and who acted as a moderator at the event.

“If a Muslim does not believe in life after death, he is not a Muslim,” said Djafer Sebkhaoui, imam of the Muslim Community of Troy for a quarter of a centurry and also imam of the new Latham Community.

“It’s one of the six pillars of faith,” he went on, noting that both the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet are clear on the subject.

Then the imam became personal, saying his wife had died last year. “I was next to her when she breathed her last breath,” he said, adding that he prays for her five times a day.

The early life — Dunya in Arabic — is very short compared to the eternal life, said Sebkhaoui. “This life is meant to be a test,” he said. “Everyone has a test.”

For sick people, the illness is their test. For healthy people, health can be a test. For poor people, poverty is the test. For rich people, wealth can be a test.

“Believe it or not,” said the imam, “many people don’t pass their test.”

It is often harder for those with gifts, he said, explaining, “When someone is sick or poor, it makes them more humble, closer to God. When someone is rich or powerful, he often is not close to God.”

“On judgement day, we face God,” Sebkhaoui said. “The spirit gets out of the body. If the soul is righteous — that of a person who believes in the tenets of the faith and does righteous deeds —  it will be taken to heaven.

“Some believers will spend time in hellfire, then will be forgiven and taken to paradise,” the imam said.  “Others who denied His existence stay in the hellfire forever.”

“There are hundreds of Hindu factions with differences and similarities,” said Swami Atmavratananda, also known as Bruce Hilliger. He trained as a swami in the Ramakrishna Order of Monks of India for over a decade and received his sannyasa vows in 1985 in Calcutta. For 31 years, he has been at the SRV Retreat Center in Greenville, which follows the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th-Century Hindu mystic from Bengal.

“Hindus make a clear distinction: God is the only thing that is Real, with a capital R; everything else is temporal.”

Noting that there are a lot of similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, the swami went on, “Samsara is the wheel of birth and death … We are born in bondage, bound by thoughts, words, and deeds. We try to do good things … By those deeds, we create our own karma. An individual is the sum total of all their past karma … We create our own karma and therefore we create our own path in the world.”

Hilliger continued, “Being reborn again and again, you’re given another chance … You don’t flunk out. It’s a long journey of learning … to come to the ultimate goal of life, which is the realization of God.”

Hilliger who leads yoga-meditation retreats, went on, “Yoga and meditation are meant to remind us of our true nature … Our attention as much as possible should go toward the infinite.”

Looking at the other panelists, Hilliger said, “When we die, we’re all in agreement with the body going from dust to dust.”

Hindus believe, he said, that the mind and emotions are released from the physical body at death.

He concluded with a verse by Swami Vivekananda:

Thus, day by day, till Karma’s powers spent,

Release the soul forever. No more is birth,

Nor I, nor thou, nor God, nor man. The ‘I’

Has All become, the All is ‘I’ and Bliss.

Know thou art That, Sannyasin bold! Say –

‘Om tat sat, Om!’

The rabbi began with a verse of her own; she sang in Hebrew the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

“I really don’t know what happens when we die,” said Zoe B. Zak, rabbi of Temple Israel of Catskill.

She said that we turn to the Psalms at the time of death because they are uplifting and necessary.

“We are all created in the image of God,” the rabbi said. “Our job is to do the best we can when we’re here … We’re always trying to get back to and forward to that closeness with our creator.”

She told the story of a rabbi whose two sons had died while he was away. His wife had laid out their bodies on their beds. When her husband returned home, she told him, “I need a wise answer.”

The rabbi’s wife told the rabbi that the owner of a rare object had come back to claim it; what should she do?

“Of course you need to give it back; it wasn’t yours,” he said. Then the rabbi’s wife showed him their dead sons.

“The body goes back to the Earth … the soul goes closer to God,” Zak said.

She also said, “When someone dies, it’s not the end of that relationship … We can nurture that bond by doing good things for our loved ones.” 


“Why are we cut off from communication with the dead?” asked one member of the audience; this question, like others, was read by Smith from an index card.

“Going against the culture,” Rabbi Zak said, “I talk to my parents every day. They help me.”

“If it’s all before us, where’s the faith?” asked Wayne Marquit, the Elders Quorum President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has been president of the Greenville branch of the Mormon Church for a dozen years and has held the priesthood for over 38 years.

“The Lord wants us to have that veil,” Marquit said.

“Catholics have a communion of saints,” said Peter Sedlmeir, deacon at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Windham, noting a connection between the living, those in heaven, and those in purgatory.

“We pray for those who have died who might be in purgatory or heaven,” he said. “We don’t forget about the dead.”

“Some people have dreams,” said Imam Sebkhaoui, noting that dreams are “not always easy to interpret.” He said, “It’s meant to be spiritual communication.”

The swami, Hilliger, said, “If someone has died, you should talk to them … If they are born in another human body, who knows who that neighbor could be.”

He went on, “Every child is not brand new; they carry a long past with them.”

Marquit was asked about the Mormon custom of baptizing the dead. He responded that, in the time of Paul, the apostle, “They were doing baptism for relatives who died.”

He also said, “We do a lot of genealogy … I’ll have my grandmother and grandfather and seal them together.”

Here on Earth, Marquit said, “We do baptism and marriage ceremonies they can’t do where they are.” He added to gentle laughter, “Some may not want to be married for eternity. They choose.”

Lama Zopa Tarchin, who grew up in New Jersey and has been a Buddhist since he was a teenager, was asked, “Can you remember things from your past lives?”

“Nope,” the lama answered simply, adding, “If I said I had memories, it’s kind of like bragging.” He has completed two three-year meditation retreats, and in 2008 was appointed resident lama or teacher for the Albany KTC (Karma Thegsum Chöling) Buddhist Center.

He also said, “Children can have memories of past lives because it’s kind of fresh.”

“I’ve had memories of my past lives — places I’ve been, people I knew,” said Hilliger.  When he was traveling and studying in India, he said, he visited places that he “pre-knew.”

Another questioner asked: What happens to unborn children who die before birth?

“If they die before the age of puberty ...they will be in Paradise,” said Imam Sebkhaoui.

“You speak for me,” said Rabbi Zak, saying the same was true of Judaism.

The same is true for Catholics, said Deacon Sedlmeir.

“Before the age of 8, they go to Paradise,” said Marquit. “After that, they know right from wrong.”

For Hindus, said Hilliger, it’s the same “from zygote into adulthood.”

Imam Sebkhaoui added of unborn children, “God will give them permission to intercede on behalf of their parents if their parents were believers.”

“We view the life force or life span as largely karmically determined,” said Lama Zopa Tarchin. What happens in the next life is caused by previous actions, he said.

The final question posed to the religious leaders was about their views on cremation.

“Cremation is OK,” said Deacon Sedlemeir. “It used to be frowned upon but today it’s looked at as acceptable.”

He added, “At Mass, it’s important for Catholics that the body be present … The ashes should not be sprinkled around but treated with respect.”

Imam Sebkhaoui listed the acceptable rites for the body: It must be washed and shrouded; there must be funeral prayers, and it must be buried.

“The person is to be treated as if he or she is alive,” he said. “We treat the grave with respect … as a dwelling of a person.”

“Everything my Muslim brother said is exactly the same in the Jewish tradition,” said Rabbi Zak.

She noted that cremation was less expensive than burial and that some liberal Jews choose cremation while it remains unacceptable in the Orthodox tradition. Because of the Holocaust, when bodies were burned, she said, some see cremation as “doubly unacceptable.”

“We don’t recommend it,” said Marquit, adding, “In some countries, you have to; there’s no place to bury.”

While cremation “has become the preferred method” for Buddhists, said Lama Zopa Tarchin, “In some ways it doesn’t matter … Once a person dies, the body is matter… It doesn’t matter if the body is buried or cremated.”

He concluded, “What matters is what that person does while alive.”


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