Netflix’s Surviving Death review: why the documentary has struck a chord with so many people

Netflix’s Surviving Death review: why the documentary has struck a chord with so many people

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Everyone is talking about Netflix’s new documentary, Surviving Death, on Twitter right now, and for good reason. 

I hate to admit it, but death – and what comes after it – has been very much on my mind since the Covid-19 pandemic first made headlines.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not curled up in a ball and rocking back and forth as I contemplate my ultimate demise but… 

Well, much like the low hum of traffic in the distance, sometimes I barely notice it, and sometimes it’s all I can think about (usually as I lay in bed trying to will myself to sleep).

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Netflix’s Surviving Death caught my attention. Nor is it unexpected that it has captured the imagination of many others, either.

On paper, it admittedly sounds incredibly woo-woo. Over six hour-long episodes, Surviving Death introduces us to those mediums who believe they can speak to the dead, individuals who have survived near-death experiences, and people claiming to be the reincarnation of long-dead actors, pilots, or even murder victims.

Here’s the thing, though: the show’s director, Ricki Stern, is a self-avowed sceptic. And this means all of the people who are featured in the documentary have been selected because they present truly compelling cases that for consciousness continuing beyond life as we know it.

“As a physician, I know that most people don’t think about death really until they’re forced to,” says one such case study, Dr Mary Neal, who appears in the first episode.

“But 20 years ago, I was not only physically dead, but I had been dead for a while. And that experience radically changed everything about what I am and who I am.”

Netflix’s Surviving Death: A cardinal visits grieving sisters Jeanne and Debbie
Netflix’s Surviving Death: A cardinal visits grieving sisters Jeanne and Debbie

The orthopaedic spine surgeon recalls how, in 1999, she went kayaking in Chile. Her boat became pinned after an accident, resulting in her becoming completely submerged under 10 feet of water as a waterfall continuously pounded down upon her.

“I could feel my bones breaking,” says Dr Neal frankly.

It was at this point, she says, that she felt her spirit peeling away from her body.

“I was immediately greeted by a group of somethings,” Dr Neal continues. “I don’t know what to call them; people, spirits, beings. I didn’t recognise any of them, but they had been important in my life story somehow – like a grandparent who died before I was born.

“They were so overjoyed to welcome me, to greet me, to love me.”

Dr Neal says she looked back at the river to see what was happening with her body. She watched as her companions tried to rescue her but, after 15 minutes or so, switched into body recovery mode: they knew she had spent too long underwater.

“My body was bloated and purple and I had fixed eyes. There’s absolutely no doubt in my own mind that I was physically dead, but I watched… as they started CPR, and I could still hear them,” she says.

“I did not want to go back down in my own body. I had a very physical sensation of being held and comforted and reassured that everything was fine. But the beings told me that it wasn’t my time, that I had more work to do on earth, and that I had to go back to my body.”

Netflix’s Surviving Death: Nicole D. Haaus is one of the mediums featured in the documentary.
Netflix’s Surviving Death: Nicole D. Haaus is one of the mediums featured in the documentary.

The likelihood of Dr Neal’s survival should have been zero, she says, but she came around in terrible shape, with multiple broken bones and torn ligaments in her legs.

“My husband was actually told that I wouldn’t survive the night,” she notes. “But I did.”

Dr Neal’s definition of death has changed significantly since that moment.

“I don’t believe that we know everything,” she says simply.

Dr Neal is just one of many case studies in Surviving Death. Throughout the series, we meet with many others – all of whom are given a platform, all of whom are cross-examined to see how their beliefs or visions stand up under questioning.

Some feel genuine. Others, though, (to paraphrase Hugh Grant in Notting Hill) are very patently not quite so genuine.

As such, it’s incredibly easy to flit from sceptic, to believer, and back again as you watch the series unfold. It’s easy to see signs where you wish to see them, just as it’s incredibly easy to dismiss phenomena if they don’t fit into your own belief system.

Because – and it’s important to remember this – there are no definitive answers when it comes to life after death. Just as Dr Neal states in the show, nobody truly knows what comes next, if anything. 

Instead, all the series aims to do is create an openness around a discussion many of us might be afraid to have. To have us consider the possibility that life really does go on after death. To offer us…

Well, to offer us the hope of something more. Which is, considering everything going on in the world right now, no small thing.

Surviving Death is now available on Netflix.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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