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60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: The Afterlife

Happy New Year and welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for January 2016. A new year brings a great deal of hope, excitement and questions as well as uncertainty and this month's poll questions delve into one of life's biggest uncertainties, what happens to us after we die? Is the afterlife a revelation of wonder for the soul or dark nothingness? Many people believe in a transcendent existence of bliss and fulfillment of the spirit. Others see the hereafter as non existent while still others believe their bodies can be frozen until science finds a way to prolong their lives in the future. Groucho Marx famously asked a young lady, "Do you believe in the hereafter? Well then you must know what I'm here after." If you believe in the hereafter, which kind of immortality would you most like to have? We look forward to your answers to this and many other questions, and now the results.


Thirty-six percent of Americans said they most wanted the kind of immortality that would allow them to be remembered by history. Fourteen percent would most like the kind where you actually live forever, nine percent said creating an admired work of art and another nine percent said they would like to be fruitful and multiply prolifically. Three out of 10 said none of the above, thanks. History tends to remember great figures from the past as having simply pursued a passion, a profession or a cause that enabled them to show the world their best selves.


More than half of Americans (51 percent) would most like a grandchild to be named for them after they die. Nineteen percent chose a street in their hometown followed by a pew in their church nine percent, a national holiday nine percent and a rest stop on a highway four percent. The legacy of a grandchild carrying on their name would be most rewarding for a majority of Americans.


Marilyn Monroe and William Shakespeare would be fit to be tied (21 percent each) at how they are now remembered by later generations. They are followed by an artist known for his fits of insanity, van Gogh, 18 percent, a Boston patriot known for brewing beer and discontent, Samuel Adams, 12 percent, a Queen of the Nile know for her beauty and powers of seduction, Cleopatra 11 percent and a reclusive poet little known before her death, Emily Dickinson, with eight percent. How could Shakespeare have known that his vast body of work would stand the test of time for centuries and still be so revered by people for their sheer brilliance 400 years after his death? And how could Norma Jean Baker ever have imagined that her life as a model and an actress would propel her into becoming such a huge cultural icon?


One in five Americans predict that "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is the movie most likely to still be a cult classic in a time warp one hundred years from now. Sixteen percent crusaded for "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and another 16 percent said it would be a crime if "Pulp Fiction" wasn't still enjoying cult status. Thirteen percent fantasized that it would be "The Princess Bride," six percent went with "the Dude" and "The Big Lebowski," Pee Wee got a tiny two percent and onlytwo2 percent entered "The Room."


So which one are Americans better prepared for? Forty-three percent chose death and 41 percent chose retirement. It's scary to think how many Americans feel unprepared for retirement. It may be that no one can be fully prepared for what comes after their work life let alone their actual life. Financially speaking nearly half (49 percent) of Americans making less than $50K say they are more prepared for death while more than half (54 percent) making over $100K say they are better prepared for retirement.


This is a tough choice and Americans are pretty evenly split on it. Forty-eight percent are dying to know what happens after they pass away while 45 percent said they would rather find out what the meaning of life is. Could it be that many of us might change the way we are living our lives if we knew the answer to either of these questions?


Two out of three Americans do not think that science will ever be able to prove the existence of an afterlife and three out of 10 think that it could someday be proved scientifically to exist. Is something that is by definition supernatural (outside of nature) able to be scientifically proven to exist one way or another? Or is it not? Let the debate begin.


When someone has a near-death experience and tells of having seen loved ones, God or heaven, 63 percent of Americans think that most of those people have had a real glimpse of the afterlife while 27 percent believe that most of them were delusional. A great many Americans tend to be religious and a solid majority believe the many reports of such experiences. The surprise here was that a majority of Americans (52 percent) that identified as non-religious also said they believed that these people had a real glimpse of the afterlife.


If someone was trying to find the best picture of what life after death might look like, six out of 10 Americans would send them to see a religious leader, presumably a holy person of wisdom or a teacher with a deep spiritual core. Fourteen percent would send them to one of many movies that have attempted to depict the afterlife followed by a science teacher seven percent, and a New Yorker cartoon five percent.


If they could be reincarnated and have a new life (from an unusual list of choices) a third of Americans would keep it all in the family and become their own grandchild. A quarter said it's a dog's life for me and would become a health dog with loving owners, a fifth would go royal as a prince or princess from a small peaceful country and eight percent would play the long game and take a shot at becoming a brilliant recluse who becomes famous only after death.


A majority (55 percent) of Americans think that former president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and humanitarian Jimmy Carter has had the best "afterlife" from the list of former public officials. Next up George W. Bush (18 percent) now enjoying life as a painter, Al Gore (11 percent) best known for raising consciousness about the environment and Sarah Palin (8 percent) working as a political commentator. Jimmy Carter isn't the only one leading a rich and rewarding "afterlife" from politics, Al Gore is reported to have made a small fortune from his share of the sale of Current TV.

This poll was conducted by telephone from November 6-10 among a random sample of 1,010 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones.

The poll employed a random digit dial methodology. For the landline sample, a respondent was randomly selected from all adults in the household. For the cell sample, interviews were conducted with the person who answered the phone.

Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish using live interviewers. The data have been weighted to reflect U.S. Census figures on demographic variables.

The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus four percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher and is available by request. The margin of error includes the effects of standard weighting procedures which enlarge sampling error slightly.

This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls. Read more about this poll

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