To be, or not to be – it's the age old question, and the idea of whether we exist in any form beyond death is no less intriguing today than it was when Shakespeare put the words into Hamlet's mouth all those centuries ago.
But a major new study run by an academic and involving two West hospitals is aiming to shed a little light on the "undiscovered country".
The great problem with understanding whether there is any form of life after death, of course, is that generally people don't come back and tell you what it's like.
But sometimes they do – and increasingly so, as medical resuscitation continues to improve. Fifteen per cent of cardiac arrest victims are now revived. It's known as a "near-death" experience, though more accurately, of course, it's a "death" experience.
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A surprising number of people who have been on a day trip to the afterlife report similar experiences.
The general gist is that your consciousness leaves your dead body and floats to the ceiling before moving along a tunnel of light towards distant figures.
It's an experience that has been reported for centuries, but which developed mass appeal after the publication of Raymond Moody's 1975 book Life After Life.
The sceptics will tell you the bright lights and the sense of floating are simply hallucinatory – the final flails of our complex neurology. Believers, in contrast, point to the near-death experience reports as proof that our souls really do exist separately from our physical form.
The challenge for Dr Sam Parnia, of the University of Southampton, is to discover whether there is any provable scientific fact behind the reports.
The study, dubbed AWARE ("AWAreness during REsuscitation") is part of the Human Consciousness Project which brings together scientists across the globe as part of a United Nations initiative to develop our understanding of what makes us conscious beings.
The Great Western, Swindon, and Salisbury hospitals are among the UK centres joining 23 other hospitals across the US and Europe in the 18-month study.
Researchers have installed high shelves close to the ceiling in resuscitation rooms. On the shelves, completely out of view – unless you're floating on the ceiling – they have placed a series of memorable photographs.
The aim is to interview 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors to see if any are able to accurately report seeing the images.
"Contrary to popular perception," Dr Parnia explains, "death is not a specific moment. It's actually a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning.
"This is a medical condition termed 'cardiac arrest' which, from a biological viewpoint, is synonymous with clinical death. During cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. Subsequently, there is a period of time ranging from a few seconds to an hour or even longer in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process.
"What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during death."
Depending on which study you read, between 10 and 20 per cent of cardiac arrest survivors report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.
"The remarkable point about these experiences," says Dr Parnia, "is that while studies of the brain during cardiac arrest have consistently shown there is no measurable brain activity, these subjects have reported detailed perceptions that indicate the contrary – namely, a high level of consciousness in the absence of detectable brain activity.
"If we can objectively verify these claims, the results would bear profound implications not only for the scientific community, but for the way in which we understand and relate to life and death as a society.
"I don't see why it should be left to religion to tell us what happens after we die when we have perfectly good scientific techniques that might be able to shed a little light on the ultimate question for all of us."