A visit to the other side

A man at the safari camp recounts his near-death experience. As doctors work frantically to resuscitate him, he floats out of his body, hovering like a butterfly, watching them pound his chest. He re-enters through his navel and travels down a dark tunnel towards a bright light. It feels good, like the release of tension from a bowel movement. On arriving at his destination, he is welcomed by George Burns in a tuxedo, who introduces him to his deceased relatives and the Marx Brothers. They all sit down to a tea party in the balmy sunshine of a summer afternoon. The conversation sparkles and no one argues or is boring. Groucho is warm and sincere; Zeppo is funny; Harpo is not annoying.

A page boy then rushes to the table with a message for Mr Burns, who reads the note while puffing on his cigar.

“There’s been a mistake in the diary, kiddo.” says George. “You’re not due yet, so you’ll have to go back.”

Mr Burns blows a smoke ring and the man finds himself hurtling back down the tunnel. It feels bad, like the build up of tension from a suppository. He is re-united with his body at the very moment the doctors restore his pulse. He emerges from his coma a day later, with the memory of his experience intact.

The other guests are enthralled by his account.

“I wish I could have a near-death experience!” sighs a dewy-eyed woman.

The man smiles at her benignly. “After my trip to the other side I lost all fear of death,” he says. “It totally changed my life and made me a better person.”

I purse my lips and frown. There’s no harm in enjoying these mystical events, but I draw the line at encouraging others to flirt with the Grim Reaper. That often leads to an actual death experience, from which the possibilities of leading a better life on Earth are remote. I judge that a dose of scepticism would be in order.

“I’m sure it’s almost worth dying to experience such a thing,” I remark. “Many have done so, of course. Scientists say that the last flickerings of an expiring brain produce these effects. If so, it sounds like a most pleasant finale to one’s mortal existence.”

“Are you saying it was all a hallucination, Mr Bananas?” asks the man.

“Indeed not!” I reply. “We gorillas avoid metaphysical speculation. I’m just telling you what fellows like Dicky Dawkins think.”

“I wonder what Mr Dawkins would do if he were having a near-death experience,” muses the man with a chuckle.

“Knowing Dicky as I do, I expect he would stubbornly refuse to play along,” I answer. “They’d have to drag him along the tunnel and when he got to the tea party he’d make his excuses and leave before the whole thing vanished into oblivion.”

“It sounds as if I escaped from that heavenly place in the nick of time,” quips the man. “How long do you suppose one has before the afterlife is revealed as a hoax and the sky falls in?”

“That’s a very good question,” I remark, stroking my neck in reflection. “I’ll put it to Dicky the next time I see him.”

I return to the jungle next day, musing on the tea-party question. It does seem a bit odd that one minute you’d be happily chatting to the Marx brothers and the next minute everything disappears into nothingness. And how do we know that tea-party time moves at the same rate as Earth time? What if the final moment of Earthly life is experienced as an infinitely long tea party of bliss, if such a thing were possible? Dicky Dawkins must deal with these legitimate questions before fobbing people off with his half-baked theories.

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