What happens when you die?

In biological terms, the human body (just like every other living organism) begins to decompose after all its vital functions stop working. Our various chemical components eventually become part of the earth and its natural elements. But when we wonder what happens after death, we really want to know what happens to the person — the soul or spirit — of those who die.

Of course, this is the one question that everyone would like to have answered. Many great spiritual leaders, artists, and philosophers have spent their whole lives trying to figure this one out, but nobody's come up with the final word yet. Since there's not an objective way to actually prove what happens after death, many people look to religion or other philosophical ideas for the answer that best fits their values and beliefs.

Here are ways that some of the world's religions and philosophies answer this question:

  • Animism: Humans possess souls that have a life apart from human bodies both before and after death. The spirits of ancestors continue to influence the living after death, and these spirits need to be cared for.
  • Buddhism (Tibetan): The spirit of the departed goes through a process lasting 49 days,divided into three stages called "bardos." At the conclusion of the bardos, the person either enters nirvana (liberation) or returns to earth for rebirth (reincarnation).
  • Christianity: Believers go to heaven after resurrection and judgment. Non-believers go to hell.
  • Hinduism: Human and animal spirits reincarnate to live many times in different forms. Souls move up and down an infinite hierarchy based upon behaviors in past lives.
  • Islam: Believers go to paradise after resurrection and judgment. Non-believers go to hell.
  • Judaism: If a person lived a good life, they are rewarded with spiritual closeness to God in the afterlife. If the person sinned, they are punished by a spiritual detachment from God.
  • Secular Humanism: There is no afterlife. The focus is on living a good life on earth, realizing one's personal potential and working for the betterment of humanity through ethical consciousness and social works.