“I am sixty-five years old,” said John Cleese as he began one year’s convocation address at my university, “which is nearly dead.” It got enough of a laugh that I’m not surprised to find, looking it up all these years later, that he seem to have deployed the line many times since. “I’m now incredibly old,” he said last year in a video urging compliance with coronavirus rules. “I’m nearly dead. I am 81 years of age.” Nevertheless, he remains decidedly non-dead (and indeed active on Twitter) today, though no doubt reality-based enough to accept that he’s no less mortal than his fellow Pythons Graham Chapman and Terry Jones, who’ve preceded him into the afterlife — if indeed there is an afterlife.
That very question animates the 80-minute conversation above. Put on by the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies at the 2018 Tom Tom Festival, it places Cleese at the head of a panel of scientists charged with probing one question: is there life after death?
Many will find the evidence discussed here fairly persuasive, especially the documented “near-death experiences.” In these cases “we have heightened mental thoughts when your brain isn’t functioning; we have accurate perceptions from outside the body; we have meetings with deceased loved ones who you didn’t know had died; we have meetings with deceased loved ones whom you didn’t know, period; and we don’t have a good physical explanation for this.”
So says Bruce Greyson, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, one of the panel’s five distinguished non-Pythons. The others are Jim B. Tucker, the Division of Perceptual Studies director; Edward Kelly, one of its Professors of Research; Emily Williams Kelly, one of its Assistant Professors of Research; and UVA Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences Kim Penberthy. Their work suggests to them that, while near-death experiences may not reflect the detachment of soul from body, neither do they seem to be straightforward hallucinations. The trouble with mounting a rigorous investigation into such a rare phenomenon is the necessarily small number of cases. These researchers might thus consider taking on Cleese himself as a subject; after all, the man’s self-professed state of near-death has lasted more than fifteen years now.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.