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  • March 29, 2016

Looking Death in the Face—and Finding a Blurry Line

Author
Becky Harlan

“It is the thing we’re most afraid of,” says National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson in the video above. She’s talking about death.

That fear makes sense. We all face death, but while we’re alive we can only speculate about the experience: What does it feel like? Is there life beyond the grave? What will happen to “me” when I die?

To examine these questions for an assignment, Johnson did something many people avoid. She sought out death. In particular, she searched for people whose experience of death, with the help of modern medicine and technology, defied traditional understanding—a wife whose husband is cryogenically frozen, people who’ve come back to life after being technically dead for hours, a woman who suffered a fatal stroke but whose body was kept alive for months until she could deliver her baby.

Photograph of a grandmother holding her infant granddaughter with a quilt featuring her daughter's face hanging on a wall in the background
Berta Jimenez talks daily to an image of her daughter, Karla Pérez, declared brain-dead in 2015 while she was pregnant. Doctors fought to keep Pérez’s body functioning for 54 days, long enough to let baby Angel grow.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Johnson’s quest brings forth people whose stories shake our assumptions about the finality of death, leaving us with more questions than answers and somehow infusing our very natural fears with a sense of reverence and wonder.

A photographer makes an image of an elderly woman who is lying in bed at home as she nears the end of her life amongst her family and friends
Lynn Johnson (right) at work on the assignment “Crossing Over: How Science is Redefining Life and Death,” photographs Phyllis B. Andrews, the mother of a close friend, as she experiences the end of life at home amongst her family and friends.
Photograph by Nancy Andrews

Want to ask Lynn Johnson a question? She and her picture editor for this story, Elizabeth Krist, will be taking your questions on Facebook on Friday, April 22nd at 12 pm ET.

For more stories about the passage from life to death, see the April 2016 National Geographic magazine feature story “Crossing Over: How Science Is Redefining Life and Death.

There are 5 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kathy
    April 23, 2016

    I had a near death experience after a surgery while I was stationed overseas. It was the most profoundly peaceful thing I’ve ever experienced. As I get older that sense of peace is fading but I try to hold onto it because it is a source of comfort that when I do die, it won’t be scary or painful. Just peaceful.

  2. Emilie
    April 22, 2016

    I believe there are many ‘old’ souls among us. I believe there is life after death, and the only fear we have is the unknown. As a christian tho, I am promised that there is a place for me. A wonderful place. And part of me, the old soul part, knows this is true. The human side of me wonders a bit, not doubt really, just wonder. I don’t think we ‘loose’ our identity, we simply pass from this side to the other, which doesn’t have the limitations of this side. Limitations of physical reality, or the human understanding.

  3. Steven
    April 22, 2016

    I feel only our creator can give reliable answers regarding death and the after life, i found this address to be very enlightening: jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/when-you-die

  4. Liz
    March 30, 2016

    I’m confused by Jimenez’s story. Was Jimenez or her baby brain-dead? The text makes me think Jimenez was brain-dead, because her “body was kept alive for months until she could deliver her baby.” However, the way the picture’s caption is worded makes me think baby Karla was brain-dead. And the picture shows a woman.. who is not dead… holding a baby… who is also not dead.

    • Becky Harlan
      March 31, 2016

      Hi Liz, Thanks for asking. This is a very complicated story. The image of the woman featured on the wall hanging is Karla Pérez, who was declared brain-dead while she was pregnant. Doctors kept her body functioning until she could deliver her baby, Angel, pictured here held by her grandmother Berta Jimenez. Does that answer your question?

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