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Looking Death in the Face—and Finding a Blurry Line

“It is the thing we’re most afraid of,” says National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson in the video above. She’s talking about death.

That fear makes sense. We all face death, but while we’re alive we can only speculate about the experience: What does it feel like? Is there life beyond the grave? What will happen to “me” when I die?

To examine these questions for an assignment, Johnson did something many people avoid. She sought out death. In particular, she searched for people whose experience of death, with the help of modern medicine and technology, defied traditional understanding—a wife whose husband is cryogenically frozen, people who’ve come back to life after being technically dead for hours, a woman who suffered a fatal stroke but whose body was kept alive for months until she could deliver her baby.

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Berta Jimenez talks daily to an image of her daughter, Karla Pérez, declared brain-dead in 2015 while she was pregnant. Doctors fought to keep Pérez’s body functioning for 54 days, long enough to let baby Angel grow. Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Johnson’s quest brings forth people whose stories shake our assumptions about the finality of death, leaving us with more questions than answers and somehow infusing our very natural fears with a sense of reverence and wonder.

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Lynn Johnson (right) at work on the assignment “Crossing Over: How Science is Redefining Life and Death,” photographs Phyllis B. Andrews, the mother of a close friend, as she experiences the end of life at home amongst her family and friends. Photograph by Nancy Andrews

Want to ask Lynn Johnson a question? She and her picture editor for this story, Elizabeth Krist, will be taking your questions on Facebook on Friday, April 22nd at 12 pm ET.

For more stories about the passage from life to death, see the April 2016 National Geographic magazine feature story “Crossing Over: How Science Is Redefining Life and Death.

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