The Modern Book of the Dead: A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come

The Modern Book of the Dead: A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come

Ptolemy Tompkins
New York: Atria, 2012. 275 pages, hardcover, $26.

An old story from China concerns a teacher and a student who pay a condolence call. As the two men stand in front of the coffin, the student pats the lid and asks, “Is it alive or dead?” The teacher responds, “I will not say alive or dead.” The student asks why not. The teacher exclaims, “I won’t say! I won’t say!” The student continues to press his inquiry, even threatening violence, but the teacher remains steadfast: “I won’t say! I won’t say!” The student—whose question is a matter of life and death—does not get the answer he wants. It is something he must discover for himself. A shame then he did not have access to Ptolemy Tompkins’ latest book, which—while offering no definitive answer to the question— fulfills its aim of bringing to light “an extraordinarily empowering new geography of the afterlife.”

Tompkins, a former editor at Guideposts and Angels on Earth magazines (and a Quest contributor), is a widely published essayist and author of four previous books, including Paradise Fever and The Divine Life of Animals. His new book, while indeed addressing the question “What happens to us when we die?”, is more concerned with a peculiar situation in which modern people find themselves: namely, having “forgotten how to perform the essential activity of ‘thinking the right things’ about death.” Our ideas of the afterlife, Tompkins contends, are hazy and ill-formed because we don’t actually believe there is any life after death. The Modern Book of the Dead is intended to persuade its readers otherwise: “We come...from a larger, better world than this one, and we return to it when our time here is finished.” To achieve his ends, Tompkins offers an agreeable blend of memoir, comparative historical survey, and metaphysical speculation.

The first fifty—and most compelling— pages of the book stand as a condensed autobiography in which the author recounts growing up in a spiritually unconventional household. Tompkins’ father, Peter, a writer of some renown, was the coauthor of two books that helped usher in New Age thought, Secrets of the Great Pyramid (1971) and The Secret Life of Plants (1973). Talk around the family dinner table was most extraordinary, incandescent with the ideas of H.P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Edgar Cayce, and L. Ron Hubbard. When Tompkins’ father wasn’t expounding on subjects metaphysical, he was voicing skepticism toward any form of conventional religion. As for modern science, the elder Tompkins harbored outright loathing, “believing that most scientists spent most of their time covering up the real truth about the world rather than revealing it.” A potent atmosphere of speculation and attitude characterized the household, all of which registered deeply on the son, who writes: “One of the main reasons I’m interested in the that the world I grew up in taught me to be interested.”

The majority of the book, however, is far less personal, as it provides a survey of the history and literature of what happens to us beyond the veil. Tompkins considers a wide range of perspectives on the subject, from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary neuroscientists, always on the lookout for “chunks of apparent meaning” or “the hidden narrative arc in the seemingly pointless flux of human experience.” Along the way, Tompkins delves into The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and various writings of the American Transcendentalists— notably those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman—for what can be gleaned to encourage us to “think the right things” about death. While nothing especially new comes to light here, The Modern Book of the Dead does make a significant contribution in its emphasis upon cultivating perspective, something Socrates himself might approve of. “For no matter what kind of brave face we might try to put on it,” Tompkins writes, “a life lived without a coherent, focused, and serious picture of the afterlife is, quite simply, a life without context: a life that will, in the end, always be missing half of itself.”

In this regard, the book is indebted to some of the pioneers of depth psychology— Fechner, Freud, and Jung—yet it also serves as a worthy complement to more recent investigations into the subject of the afterlife, such as those by Deborah Blum (Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death) and Patrick Harpur (The Secret Tradition of the Soul, reviewed in Quest, Summer 2012).

The Modern Book of the Dead is not without its delightfully startling moments, as when Tompkins offers this insight about social media: “it would seem the afterlife is a lot like Facebook, with the difference that the simulacrum of connection with others that Facebook partially provides is here actually provided in full.” Laugh, cry, or wince at this analogy, it unsettles in the very way an unexpected truth often does. And despite the immodest claim of the book’s subtitle, Tompkins does strike a balanced tone in laying out his case, and he usually avoids confusing metaphor for reality: “The last thing we should do is take these descriptions completely at face value.”

Like many argonauts of the spirit before him, Tompkins is drawn to cartographic metaphor as a way to delineate the great beyond. He would have his book serve as a map for future travelers, which of course means all of us. “Such a map will always be just a map,” he admits, “but good maps do describe real places, and point to real journeys as well.” If in the end The Modern Book of the Dead proves less a map than an engaging travelogue, I for one have no complaints. Nor does it matter that this book, like that ancient teacher in China, leaves the big question unresolved. The reader instead comes away with renewed anticipation for wondrous regions that may one day be revealed.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” in the Fall 2009 issue.