Inventing Afterlives

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Life After Death

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Regina M. Janes
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , July
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The breadth of this monograph is ambitious. That ambition is realized as Regina M. Janes tackles afterlife views from the world’s major religious traditions, as well as those of the ancient Near East, the Classical world, and Asia. Not to stop there, Janes leads an expedition through 18th-century poetry, prose, and philosophical treatises to discover their importance to the evolution of afterlife views in Western culture. Finally, Janes takes us to the contemporary realm of the 20th-century to discuss specifically chosen books and films to illustrate her main argument that we write our afterlife stories in response to primal questions, anxieties and fears, the need for justice, and the quest for progressive knowledge. Inventing Afterlives: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Life After Death proceeds through five chapters, each with a particular goal and focus. This book reads like a long-winded answer to the question: how did we come to believe in life after death, through its casual tone, brisk pace, and various digressions? Janes is careful throughout to include reminders that atheistic views toward the afterlife have always accompanied humanity’s creation of theistic heavens and hells.

Chapter 1 initiates didactic monologue with the powerful opening line, “[l]et me make one thing perfectly clear: there is no life after death” (1), and avoids the issue of scholarly agnosticism altogether. She follows this blunt announcement with a well-stocked list of—primarily Western—cinematic and literary references, which exemplify humanity’s need to create stories in order to understand life and find meaning in death. An interesting aside in chapter 1 is Janes’ discussion of primatological research on the social and psychological traits displayed by primates toward their dead. This suggests to Janes that afterlife beliefs stem from primates’ (human or other) confrontation with a dead thing that was once a living thing.

In chapter 2 Janes takes us to the ancient civilizations that Western culture has claimed as its own. She begins with a brief literary exploration of ancient Egyptian afterlife views as they evolved over time, before moving on to ancient Mesopotamian afterlife beliefs with an extended analysis of the Gilgamesh epic. Continuing her literary survey of afterlife beliefs, Janes covers ancient Israelite/Judean beliefs; Greek mythological and philosophical positions; Roman views; early Christian inheritance of earlier religious; and philosophical and literary views of the afterlife with regards to justice, reward, and punishment.

In chapter 3, Janes traces Asian views of reincarnation and the cycle of samsara as they appear in literature from the Vedas of ancient India to the many expressions of Buddhism across Asia, with a brief stop along the way to consider Jain traditions. Janes ends chapter 3 with a seemingly incongruous quote from the 19th-century novelist Natsume Sōseki’s novel I Am a Cat to deliver the point home that death is a release. Death should be left at that.

Janes delivers in chapter 4 a much-needed analysis of the role of 18th-century popular, religious, and philosophical literature in the modern construction of afterlife beliefs, and weaves some of the literary nuggets that she discussed in chapter 2 to reconstruct 18th-century preoccupations with the continuity of the Self. The growing interest in maintaining one’s identity in the hereafter, Janes suggests, derives from concerns over reunions with loved ones—especially deceased children—and beliefs in evolutionary progress of the individual across various heavens [Emanuel] Swedenborgian style.

Janes’ final chapter (5) takes readers on an excursion through 20th-century cinematic and literary updates of the afterlife. Utopian and dystopian views of immortality are deconstructed through Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich (1999), and Milan Kundera’s novel entitled Immortality (Harper Perennial, 1998). Janes does not provide any conclusions save that “there is no other world” (289), which is the point that she has been trying to make, despite the magisterial panoply of voices across the ages who would outrightly disagree with her, or at the very least, raise a demure eyebrow.

Inventing Afterlives is an entertaining, albeit long, meandering meditation on humanity’s various literary attempts to construct an afterlife, which speaks to contemporary concerns, fears, and hopes. This book’s strengths lie in Janes’ expert knowledge of literary traditions, both Western and Eastern, and her ability to weave them into a cohesive frame around her questions surrounding the stories we tell ourselves about the afterlife. That said, there are some concerns to be raised over such a broad comparative work that glosses over historical-critical methodologies. In some ways, Janes presents tradition as history, and for an uninformed reader, presents fictional characters alongside historical ones with no citations or explanations. Scholars in the academic field of religion or religious studies might question why, when discussing ancient Israelite (Jewish) tradition and the Torah, Janes uses quotations from the King James Bible, or curiously includes a reference to the Tanakh in the parenthetical notations for English translation of verses from the Hebrew Bible. There is some methodological slippage in how some authors or sources are cited in endnotes, while others are merely alluded to in the text. It is tremendously unfortunate that there is no bibliography provided. Readers must comb through sixty pages of endnotes to find the sources or authors mentioned, with varying degrees of success.

There is no doubt that Janes’ book will be of interest to scholars of religion, particularly those who focus on the areas of death and immortality studies, religion and literature, and religion and popular culture since it contains a cache of literary and cinematic references. A word of caution though, Janes’ exceedingly broad, yet briskly paced, presentation of literary traditions across cultures and across millennia can be daunting for the uninitiated and may be best for the scholar of religion hoping for a fresh look at old views, and invigorating journey through the stages of the afterlife.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia A. Hogan is Lecturer in Philosphy and Religion at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Regina M. Janes is Professor of English at Skidmore College. Her books include Gabriel García Márquez: Revolutions in Wonderland (1981); One Hundred Years of Solitude: Modes of Reading (1991); and Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture (2005).


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