The traditional understanding is that death marks the separation of the body and soul. We know very well what happens to the body after death: it deteriorates into simpler forms of matter. Concerning the fate of the soul after death, we know very little with certainty. Nevertheless, theological reflections on the Resurrection of Christ leads to several important considerations.
First of all, the Catholic Church teaches that the soul continues to live on after death. The individual soul–that spiritual part of who we are– is immortal in nature and so it does not die when the body perishes. Neither does it lose its individuality by entering this new life. Theologians refer to this as life in the intermediate state. By intermediate state they mean a state of being between the earthly life we have left through death and the final state of being that will come when the soul will be reunited with matter in the resurrection of the body. Secondly, Catholic doctrine teaches that our spiritual journey continues after death. That part of us which us spiritual may be immediately united with God or may continue in progression toward God or in withdrawal from Him after death. Those who are progressing toward God will experience Purgatory, which is the final cleansing of impurities from the soul so that we may give ourselves fully to God.
This leads to a third point: namely, that death will bring awareness of our eternal destiny. Although the judgement of the entire human race will take place at the end of time, each individual will be judged at the time of his or her death. Those who are united with God will be reunited with their loved ones and will know God’s presence fully; in fact, Catholic belief states that they will be blessed in the Beatific Vision– being caught up in the vision of God as He is in Himself. On the other hand, death will mark the beginning of eternal damnation for those who have rejected salvation. A question often asked has to do with those who claim to have experiences of the afterlife. Many people who were revived from apparent clinical death have reported blissful encounters with their dead loved ones and with a loving being of light. Others encountered horrible creatures and a sense of great fear. Could it be that the experiences of these people tell us something about life after death?
We cannot know for certain whether the stories of those revived from apparent clinical death reflect actual experiences of the afterlife. Perhaps they do. There are certainly many parallels between their accounts and reflections of theologians through the ages on the afterlife. But we must remember that these people did not really die. Those who die do not return to tell us how things are on the other side. Therefore, it is best to be cautious and not to consider these stories as true indications of what happens after death.
Finally, we note that Catholic theology teaches that the soul continues to be related to the earth after death. This is what we mean by the Communion of Saints– all those holy men and women, who have died in Christ and who continue, through their prayers, to work with Christ, the one Mediator, for the salvation of humanity.