Setting The Stage

Throughout human history, across every culture and era, one thing has remained constant: everyone seems to believe they know what will happen after we die.

The Ancient Egyptians believed the only way to successfully cross into the afterlife was through an elaborate funeral ritual that only the wealthy could afford.  The Greeks believed in an underworld, where heroes lived out their afterlives in the comfort of the Elysian Fields and those who had committed terrible acts in life were punished eternally for their crimes. Christian sects, as most readers probably know, generally believe in two distinct afterlives, one where the righteous are rewarded and another where the wicked are punished: Heaven and Hell.

But not all cultures have such straightforward visions of what happens to our souls after death. For religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, the life after this one is simply another life. We are reincarnated, over and over again. Many modern near-death experiences involve descriptions of the world beyond as “a light at the end of a tunnel” or something similar. And, of course, depending on who you ask, some will insist that there is no afterlife at all.

In many ways, what we believe comes in the life after this informs our decisions on the deepest levels. A devout Christian who desperately wants to experience Heaven will do everything they can to live according to the doctrine of their church. Others may believe that they’ve already sinned and are destined for Hell, so there’s no point in trying to take the moral high ground. A Buddhist who seeks nirvana may focus on avoiding drama, taking whatever actions they can to transcend the suffering of everyday life. Others may believe that the difficulties they face in life are the result of karmic debt for actions committed in a past life.

So what does this have to do with writing? It’s simple: whenever someone encounters a high-stakes situation, whether they realize it or not, their beliefs about what comes next are sure to inform their actions. It makes no difference whether you’re writing a period drama, a personal memoir, or an action thriller. That’s what I want you to consider today.

What Writers Have To Say About The Afterlife

“Not only are there no happy endings,’ she told him, ‘there aren’t even any endings.”
― Neil GaimanAmerican Gods

“Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.”
― David Searls

“Memory is the only afterlife I have ever believed in. But the forgetting inside us cannot be stopped. We are programmed to betray.”
― Michael IgnatieffScar Tissue

“To emphasize the afterlife is to deny life. To concentrate on heaven is to create hell.”
― Tom Robbins

“After your death, you will be what you were before your birth.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer

“The afterlife is whatever a soul wishes or believes it to be.”
― Aimee CarterThe Goddess Test

“The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

“To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…”
― William ShakespeareHamlet

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

“Life is funny. Why should the afterlife be any different?”
― Nick Shamhart

How To Use This Prompt

If you’re a fiction writer, try to approach life after death from your character’s perspective. What do they hope to find in the afterlife? What do they fear? How does it affect their behavior in the here and now? Does it keep them from pursuing their hopes and dreams…or does it inspire them to greater things?

If you’re writing creative nonfiction, reflect on your own beliefs about the afterlife. Did you grow up being told about Heaven and Hell? Do you still believe what you were taught? Why or why not?

If you’re a poet, imagine what the afterlife might look like. Dante wrote an entire 3-volume epic about his imagined journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. What do you think you would find if you made the same journey?

Write a short story, an essay, a poem, or even just a paragraph or two based on this prompt. Then feel free to share what you’ve written in comments, post a link to your piece on your own blog, or submit it to our site!

 If you’d like more prompts and can’t wait until next week, check out our free e-book, “A Year of Inspiration: 52 Writing Prompts from the Renegade Word.”