Film Series: Beyond This Vale of Tears

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Woody Allen

What happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil?

Mankind has been asking that question from the beginning. Beetle-browed Neanderthals buried their dead with objects to be used in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians had a Book of the Dead that provided a step-by-step guide to negotiating the hereafter. Tibetan Buddhists have their own version.

Most modern theologians don’t go into details, except to say that Heaven will be filled with delights and Hell not so much.

The religious movement Eckankar (founded in the mid-‘60s) claims that its members can employ “soul travel” to visit other planes of existence.

For 40 years psychologist Raymond Moody has studied near-death episodes to find common threads in the experiences of patients who have died and been revived.

But nobody knows for sure...which gives the movies a lot of latitude in envisioning what happens when we pass on.

Throughout December the Kansas City Public Library’s free film series Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife looks at the many ways in which filmmakers have sought to depict the after-death experience.

Unreeling at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. Mondays in the Film Vault of the central Kansas City Public Library, these movies range from the unabashedly literal to the allegorical and poetic.

For example, in Peter Jackson’s 2009 film The Lovely Bones a murdered teenager finds herself in an afterlife limbo – it looks kind of like a Maxfield Parrish painting – from which she can observe both the suffering of her family and the activities of her killer. She’s waiting to move on to whatever is next.

This, the film seems to be saying, is the way it might be.

In Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010), a near-death experience sends a French journalist on a quest to understand the possibility of life after death. The film also features a boy trying to make contact with his dead twin and a psychic who finds his ability to contact the dear departed more of a burden than a gift.

But Hereafter isn’t so much about certainty as about the human need to believe in an afterlife. According to Eastwood, the jury is still out.

Then you’ve got the afterlife as an allegory to comment on the world of the living. That’s the case with Stairway to Heaven (a classic about an RAF pilot who cheats death and discovers love) and 1943’s A Guy Named Joe (a dead WW2 bomber pilot arranges a new romance for his girl).

The afterlife can even be the source of comedic inspiration. In Heaven Can Wait a heavenly bureaucratic glitch allows a football player to inhabit the body of a recently-deceased millionaire. And in Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life a dead schlub finds himself in a sort of heavenly theme park where he must go on trial to determine if he’s worthy of moving on to another life.

In the end, of course, it’s all a guessing game. None of these movies really know anything.

But by raising possibilities about the hereafter they make life a bit fuller for the living.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.