The trouble with writing about the afterlife is that thing about it being the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns—how do you write about something that nobody's ever seen and that might not be comprehensible to a living person?
One way of handling it is to divide the afterlife into sections: this here's the bit you're in immediately after you die, which is somewhat familiar, and over there is the afterlife proper, which we're not going to talk about. The story only concerns itself with the near part of the afterlife; when characters move on to the afterlife proper (often by Going Into The Light), they exit the story.
Sometimes the near, familiar, part of the afterlife overlaps the living world, so that the deceased can walk around seeing how life goes on without them. (See Near-Death Clairvoyance.) Whether they can interact with the living depends on the story.
See also Offscreen Afterlife, in which the afterlife is not depicted at all.
Anime & Manga
- In Naruto, everyone in Konoha ends up there because of Pain's onslaught.We actually see Kakashi there, and his dad's there, too, due to his regrets. Pain's revival ability is able to bring back everyone in this antechamber, but he can't revive Jiraiya because he already passed through.
- The Afterlife in Angel Beats! is in fact an antechamber created for the souls of children who died feeling unfulfilled so that they can leave behind their regrets and fears and move on. People who do so disappear, and it's never made quite clear where they go, but it wouldn't be at all unreasonable to assume that they are going to the "true" afterlife, whatever that may be.
- The Hazama ("Great Between") in the Manga incarnation of Innocent Souls. The job of the eponymous character is making sure troublesome souls move to afterlife proper, because if they don't, they will nag other souls into their false afterlife. Such false afterlife is usually horrifying, as expected from the troublesome souls.
- In some DC Comics, this is referred to as 'the Realm of the Just Dead'. Deadman hangs out there a lot.
- In Night of the Seance, Agnetha describes her arrival, only to discover it was this, rather a holding center. The souls already know that they died violently, and they're just waiting to be reincarnated. However, after 120 days, they're allowed return to the realm of the living despite no longer able to return their original bodies. Agnetha went to check up on her children, Linda and Christian, the moment she was allowed to leave before seeing Frida.
- Heaven Can Wait. When Joe Pendleton dies he ends up in a place that looks like a Fluffy Cloud Heaven but isn't: it's an intermediate stop on the way to Heaven. He eventually gets sent back because it wasn't his time to die.
- Poltergeist. When some people die they get lost or otherwise fail to Go Into the Light and end up haunting the living.
- The Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life. You go to Judgement City, where you hang around until it's your turn to look at scenes from your life in front of a biunal and defend what you did. If you pass you Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence; if you fail you go back and try again in a new life.
- Casper. Being a ghost means that you have unfinished business on Earth; once that's cleared up you go on to the next stage.
- Beetlejuice. The afterlife, being part of the Celestial Bureaucracy, has a waiting room where the dead are processed and the waiting time helps them realize that they really are dead.
- In A Matter of Life and Death, airmen shot down in combat find themselves in a huge building lit with heavenly light where they are greeted and allowed to sign in. American flyers are thrilled that there's a Coke machine. There is a hugely poignant moment when there's this exchange:
Flyer: Home was never like this.
- In the Discworld series, people who die generally (and particularly if their death is being Played for Drama) find themselves on an empty plain, with the Grim Reaper standing by to explain that if they keep walking thataway they'll get to the afterlife proper. What's at the far end of the plain has never been depicted, and the Grim Reaper refuses to give any hints to people who ask, telling them that the only way to find out is to go and see for oneself.
- In Small Gods, Death tells Vorbis "At the end of the desert you will be judged." When Brutha dies, he hears the same thing and asks Death "At which end?" In reply, Death smiles.
- In the Old Kingdom series, death is like a river running through a series of caves, the last of which opens out under what looks like, but isn't, a sky full of stars. That's as far as any character goes; anybody who goes on from there never comes back. Undead raised by necromancers are always souls from within the caves, either because they died recently and hadn't finished the journey or because they deliberately lingered in one of the caves in hope of finding a way back to the land of the living.
- In Remember Me by Christopher Pike, the newly-dead hang around invisibly in the land of the living until they're ready to move on. The narrator of the book is dictating her story to a living person just before she moves on herself, so she has not yet learned, and thus can't reveal, what happens next.
- The Great Divorce by CS Lewis has the gray town, implied to be Purgatory (if not hell), and the protagonist makes a trip into what is revealed to be Heaven's front door, more or less.
- In, The Night Angel Trilogy after Kylar dies for the first time (and every other time) he wakes up in an antechamber, with only The Wolf for company.
- In Animorphs, when Rachel dies, she ends up there, and talks to the Ellimist about the events of her life. When she asks what happens next, she is cut off, and the perspective switches to someone else.
- In Harry Potter, when Harry dies he ends up in a cleaner, emptier version of King's Cross Station. It's more or less stated that this is only how it appears to him, as Dumbledore is surprised when he mentions it aloud. His options are to return or to go "on". "On" is not described. There's also the ghosts, who did not cross over either because they had unfinished business or (in Nearly-Headless Nick's case), they were too afraid of what might be waiting on the other side, and are now stuck on Earth for some unspecified amount of time.
- In Ghost Story, Harry Dresden has just saved the day as a ghost and gets to see his friends before he goes on. Somewhat averted, in that we see what happens after he moves on as well: he gets resurrected by his very ticked-off boss, who isn't going to let a little thing like a messy assassination keep her from getting her money's worth.
Live Action TV
- The Twilight Zone
- "The Hunt". A man dies and ends up on the Eternity Road. He's told about the two possible destinations, Heaven and Hell, but we never actually see them.
- "The Passersby". A long column of dead soldiers walk past a mansion on the way to their final destination.
- Mash episode "Follies of the Living - Concerns of the Dead". The ghost of a dead soldier wanders the camp and eventually finds a group of other ghosts traveling along the road to the afterlife. Almost certainly
a ripoff ofbased on "The Passersby".
- Being Human (UK): First you go through a door, then there's a hallway (which is apparently horrible), beyond that there's a few waiting rooms, and then...?
- The Crow: Stairway to Heaven had one in the form of a bridge where Shelly waited for Eric. When you crossed it you moved on to the afterlife.
- In the final season of Lost, the ending revealed that the flash-sideways alternate universe was actually this.
- In Steambath people with "a story to tell" spend time in a steambath attended by a Puerto Rican attendant named Morty (aka "Morte" or Death) who claims he is really God.
- CSI: NY Mac was in one in 'Near Death' that looked a lot like the lab.
- Due South called this the Borderlands. It was cold and snowy and a lot like the Canadian tundra in winter. Fraser went there during the time he took a substance that put him into a hibernation type state in 'Dead Men Don't Throw Rice'.
- The Underworld in both old and new World of Darkness is like this. There's an unknowable afterlife that souls (human ones, anyway) are supposed to go to, but ghosts can loiter around the place indefinitely, and Wraiths can scheme against one another to get a place in the hierarchy of the dead. In the old version, it's a place of infinite horrors, in the new, some part of it are kind of cozy.
- In Carousel, after Billy dies, he goes to what is explained to be "the back yard of heaven," where stars are hung on a celestial clothesline. He is not permitted to enter there even through the back gate, but he is given the chance to return to earth for one day.
- The setting of Grim Fandango is the Land of the Dead, which is vast but still only the lead-up to the real afterlife. What lies beyond the entrance into the real afterlife is unknown and unknowable, and nobody who goes through ever comes back; the game ends when the protagonist goes through. The Land of the Dead contains an entire city of people putting off the final step, either because they were evil in life and have reason to suspect the afterlife is going to be unpleasant, or because they've got some tie back to life (like family they want to keep an eye on), or just because they find the irrevocable step into the unknown inherently off-putting.
- In The Order of the Stick, the dead Eugene Greenhilt is pissed because the Blood Oath he swore leaves him stuck waiting in the antechamber. What we see of the other side applies to some extent as well: the Lawful Good afterlife takes the form of a mountain, arranged by altitude in layers of increasingly abstract pleasures. Souls are expected to go to the level they wish, then climb higher as they get bored and seek greater enlightenment. The lower levels are relatively mundane, and are all we get to see.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja has purgatory, which is a restaurant where everyone eats all their sins. There is one waiter. Service is terrible.
- In The Dragon Doctors, Kili the shaman describes the afterlife as being a place that cannot be accurately described whatsoever by the living, since it is not a paradise for the living, but a paradise for the soul. We see the Spirit World many times but never someone's final resting place.
- Near the end of It's Walky!, characters killed by the Martians reunite, along with Ruth and Dina, in a bizarre void that Ruth insists is Purgatory, and more rational characters a shared sink of severed consciousness before it's claimed by entropy. The technology exists to retrieve the minds of people in this state, but they remember none of it.
- Batman the Brave And The Bold, episode "Dawn of the Dead Man!": When you die, you hang around the world of the living, invisible and inaudible, until you are called to Go Into the Light. What's beyond the Light is not shown, and it's stated that once you go into the Light, there's no returning.
- In the Thundercats 2011 arc "Trials of Lion-O," When young hero Lion-O dies suddenly, his Amulet of Concentrated Awesome, the Spirit Stone, activates to force him to go on Adventures in Coma Land. He wakes up in a metaphysical waystation where Spirit Advisor Jaga awaits to provide exposition about Lion-O's impending Vision Quest and open the gateway to his Mental World. Once Lion-O is finished there, he travels back to the antechamber for another talk with Jaga.