Category: The Afterlife Written by Raymond Moody, M.D.
Buried deep in the scientific literature are several studies that examine reunions with the departed.
The first such study that I am aware of was a “Census of Hallucinations,” conducted in 1894. This fascinating work, led by Henry Sidgwick, a member of the Society for Psychical Research in England, asked seventeen thousand people the following deeply personal question: “Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, as far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?”
A “yes” answer led to a face-to-face interview with one of the 410 volunteers working on the study. More than 2,000 people answered in the affirmative. When obvious dreams and delirium were ruled out, the number of people who actually had apparitional visions was 1,684.
These accounts of encounters were benign and short in duration, usually lasting less than a minute. Many of the apparitions were seen in a medium similar to a mirror. Following is an example from a “Mrs. W,” which was recorded in 1885. In this experience she discusses seeing the upper half of a man with “a very pale face and dark hair and moustache” in the reflection of a window:
One evening about 8:30, I had occasion to go into the drawing room to get something out of the cupboard, when, on turning round, I saw the same face in the bay-window, in front of the shutters, which were closed. I again saw only the upper part of the figure, which seemed to be in a somewhat crouching posture. The light on this occasion came from the hall and the dining room, and did not shine directly on the window; but I was able perfectly to distinguish the face and the expression of the eyes. . . . On each of these occasions I was 8 to 10 feet distant from the figure.
The people who collected these experiences were unable to explain them. They did have theories, however. One was that a deceased person has left something behind in a certain locality and whatever was left communicates in some way with the living. Another speculation was that these apparitional sightings were hallucinations of the sane, vivid creations of the mind. Whatever the case, the Society for Psychical Research concluded that there was no clear evidence for a “post-mortem agency.”
The researchers claimed to have no other choice but to call the apparitional sighting “hallucinations,” since they left no physical trace. They didn’t deal with the possibility that Andrew Lang put forth later: “[Some] hallucinations are casual and unsought,” he wrote in Dreams and Ghosts. “But between these and the dreams of sleep there is a kind of waking hallucination which some people can purposely evoke.”
THE VISIONARY EXPERIENCE
The powerful and vivid quality of apparitions made me think they fit into the category of paranormal experience known as visions. Saint Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus is one such example, as are the voices of angels that Joan of Arc heard that eventually led her to the command of the French army.
These occurrences are called spontaneous visions, which means people experience a vision without conscious effort. One moment everything seems normal, and the next moment a vision occurs.
For example, a woman told me that she had seen an apparition of her grandmother emerge from the end of a hallway. As the amazed woman watched, the apparition walked down the hallway toward her, then vanished through an open doorway to another room. Another woman told me that she happened to look up at a crystal chandelier in her dining room and saw people talking to one another in one of the hanging crystals.
These visions have occurred throughout history to a variety of people. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, saw a double image of himself in a mirror at his home in Springfield, Illinois—one image as he was lying on a couch, the other looking ghostly and pale, like a dead or dying person.
What amazes me is not the visions President Lincoln had but the fact that he was willing to talk about them. For a president of the United States to talk about such an experience today would surely doom his political career, but Lincoln spoke freely about his dreams and visions.
Anatole France tells how his great aunt saw a vision of Robespierre dying at approximately the same time he was shot in the jaw. On the night of July 27, 1794, she was looking in a mirror when she shouted, “I see him! I see him! How pale he is! Blood is flowing from his mouth! His teeth and jaws are shattered! God be praised. The bloodthirsty wretch will drink no more blood but his own.” Then she cried out and fainted.
On occasion collective visions of the deceased have been reported. Most of the best documentation of these cases has come from researchers into the paranormal who are meticulous in their fact gathering.
One such investigator was Sir Ernest Bennett, the first secretary of the Society for Psychical Research in England. He was intrigued by the unexplainable nature of many paranormal phenomena, especially those that happen spontaneously. He wrote extensively about the paranormal for scientific journals and carefully documented case studies of paranormal events. Among his case studies were examples of collective visions, ones in which more than one person sees an apparition of the same person at the same time. Following is one of his case studies:
December 3rd, 1885. On the 5th of April 1875 my wife’s father, Captain Towns, died at his residence, Crankbrook, Rose Bay, near Sydney, N.S. Wales.
About six weeks after his death, my wife had occasion one evening about 9 o’clock, to go to one of the bedrooms in the house. She was accompanied by a young lady. Miss Berthon, and as they entered the room—the gas was burning all the time—they were amazed to see, reflected as it were on the polished surface of the wardrobe, the image of Captain Towns. It was barely half figure—the head, shoulders, and part of the arms only showing—in fact, it was like an ordinary medallion portrait, but life-size. The face appeared wan and pale, as it did before his death; and he wore a kind of grey flannel jacket, in which he had been accustomed to sleep. Surprised and half alarmed at what they saw, their first idea was that a portrait had been hung in the room and that what they saw was its reflection—but there was no picture of the kind.
Whilst they were looking and wondering, my wife’s sister, Miss Towns, came into the room and before either of the others had time to speak she exclaimed, “Good gracious! Do you see papa?” One of the housemaids happened to be passing downstairs at the moment, and she was called in, and asked if she saw anything, and her reply was, “Oh, Miss! The master!” Graham—Captain Towns’ old body servant—was then sent for, and he also immediately exclaimed: “Oh Lord save us! Mrs. Lett, it’s the Captain!” The butler was called, and then Mrs. Crane, my wife’s nurse, and they both said what they saw. Finally, Mrs. Towns was sent for and, seeing the apparition, she advanced towards it with her arm extended as if to touch it, and as she passed her hand over the panel of the wardrobe the figure gradually faded away, and never again appeared, though the room was regularly occupied for a long time after.
TRANSFORMED BY THE VISION
This statement was signed by “C. E. W. Lett,” the captain’s son-in-law, and came with signed affidavits of other witnesses.
In this case Bennett did not go on to measure the effects of this visionary experience on the people who saw the apparition, but it is my guess that the effect was quite profound. Many of the people I have worked with say that these visions result in an alleviation or even resolution of their grief. In the people I have helped to have apparitions, the event is primarily one of healing, in which the relationship with the deceased is improved. It is not a frightening or disturbing experience. I find this fascinating in light of the fact that films and books have taught almost all of us to fear ghosts. Ghost stories since the early days of man have been about frightening spirits who return from the dead to “get” the living, but the reality about ghost sightings is quite different. Researchers who study them have found that the experiences are not horrifying. Puzzling, yes, but the person who sees the ghost isn’t driven mad with fear. Typical of sightings is the following one, a spontaneous mirror vision, which took place when a widow happened to be gazing into the mirror-like reflection of a hotel picture window. It was dark outside, and the glass reflected the dim light from inside the room, creating a clear depth in its shiny surface.
This happened to me shortly after my husband was killed in an automobile accident. It was early morning and I was lying in bed, staring at the window. It was still dark, so I couldn’t see out; the window was just a sort of black square. I don’t remember having anything in particular on my mind, I was just looking at the window.
All of a sudden I could see a man running toward me. He had on a swimsuit, and his hair was wet like he was running up from the beach. I became excited, because I recognized him as my dead husband! He ran right up to me and smiled. I could smell him and I know I could have felt his wet hair if I had reached out.
“Everything is fine here,” he said. He was smiling and happy, and it made me happy. The experience helped me get over my grief because I was worried about the pain he must have felt when the car crashed.
In this case the wife was allowed to “close the circle” by seeing that her husband wasn’t suffering in the afterlife. Her apparition, like so many, had a positive effect on her because it allowed her to process grief.
THE NATURAL LINK
There are many forms of visions and many ways of facilitating them, yet visions remain among the most extraordinary phenomena of the human mind. Perhaps an odder phenomenon still is that they are seldom studied by psychologists.
Many of us have grown up in an atmosphere charged with tales of biblical visions. Who among us familiar with the Bible has not marveled at Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel, or at Jacob’s ladder, or the entire book of Revelation? No wonder many of us consider these ancient visionaries to be uncommon individuals with rare and mysterious powers to commune with the divine.
These days many tend to pathologize visions. They assume that people who say they have visions are schizophrenic, or delirious, or even sociopathic. This perception is changing now, since a growing number of demographic studies show that the visionary experience is a common one in the normal population. Legions of people have been having visions all along. They were simply reluctant to mention them for fear of being labeled insane.
Since apparitions of the departed are a form of visionary experience, we need to consider some of the common forms of visions, especially those that can be facilitated by known methods.
HEALING THROUGH DREAM INCUBATION
All of us are familiar with the caduceus, the mysterious emblem of the medical profession. Intertwined around a winged staff twin serpents stare at us from ambulance doors, hospital walls, and doctor’s-office placards. Yet few of us know the meaning of this symbol. To learn that, one must go back to ancient Greece, to the dream-incubation temples of Asklepios.
Asklepios was an actual person, a revered physician who was in effect elevated to the status of a divinity after his death. Sanctuaries were erected in his honor all over his homeland. There were three hundred in all, with the most renowned being at Epidaurus, which functioned as a sort of Mayo Clinic of dream-incubation temples.
At these temples fantastic visionary experiences were evoked for the purpose of healing. If one was afflicted with an illness that no other healer could cure, or an unbearable illness, one made the journey to a temple of Asklepios. There the sick went to have dreams and visions they hoped would cure their affliction. If they were lucky, patients would even be able to consult the legendary physician himself.
The main healing center at Epidaurus had adequate facilities to accommodate and feed the swarms of people who were always waiting their turn. The central part of the complex was a huge building called the abaton, which was surrounded by a courtyard. Once the time came, the pilgrims entered the courtyard and slept until they had a very specific kind of dream, one in which Asklepios, dressed in a fur coat and carrying the caduceus, appeared and invited them into the abaton.
The seeker could then enter the temple, a vast hall filled with narrow beds called klinis. These beds looked like Victorian couches, with one end elevated to about 45 degrees so that the head and trunk of the person would be elevated slightly above his or her hips and legs. It was from these klinis that our modern word clinic was derived.
Asklepios himself, it was believed, came into the abaton during the night. He proffered tender concern and healing, and probably did so wearing a fur coat and carrying the caduceus. In many recorded instances his prescriptions and medical procedures resulted in dramatic cures.
Grateful patients paid stone-cutters to inscribe the details of their illnesses, their visions, and their cures on upright pillars so that others might learn of these miracles. Even today, more than two thousand years later, the clinical case studies that have survived make fascinating reading:
A man whose fingers, with the exception of one, were paralyzed, came as a suppliant to the god. While looking at the tablets in the Temple he expressed incredulity regarding the cures and scoffed at the inscriptions. But in his sleep he saw a vision. It seemed to him that, as he was playing at dice below the Temple and was about to cast the dice, the god appeared, sprang upon his hand, and stretched out his [the patient’s] fingers. When the god had stepped aside it seemed to him [the patient] that he bent his hand and stretched out all his fingers one by one. When he had straightened them all, the god asked him if he would still be incredulous of the inscriptions on the tablets in the Temple. He answered that he would not. “Since then, formerly you were incredulous of the cures, they were not incredible, for the future,” he said, “your name shall be ‘Incredulous.’ ” When day dawned, he walked out sound.
Ambrosia of Athens, blind of one eye. She came as a suppliant to the god. As she walked about in the Temple she laughed at some of the cures as incredible and impossible, that the lame and the blind should be healed by merely seeing a dream. In her sleep she had a vision. It seemed to her that the god stood by her and said that he would cure her, but that in payment he would ask her to dedicate to the Temple a silver pig as a memorial of her ignorance. After saying this, he cut the diseased eyeball and poured in some drug. When day came she walked out sound.
A certain man dreamed that, struck in the belly by Asclepius with a sword, he died; this man, by means of an incision, healed the abscess which had developed in his belly.
Pandarus, a Thessalina, who had a mark on his forehead. He saw a vision as he slept. It seemed to him that the god bound the marks round with a head-band and enjoined him to remove the band when he left the abaton and dedicate it as an offering to the Temple. When day came he got up and took off the band and saw his face free of the marks; and he dedicated to the Temple the band with the signs which had been on his forehead.
Dream incubation was by no means confined to the Greeks. It has been recorded in many cultures around the world, such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Israel. The clearest biblical example is Solomon’s dream at the hill shrine of Gibeon, where he went to make a burned offering to the Lord. It was there that “the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night,” asking what he could give to the son of David.
“Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”
It was this dream encounter with God that produced the wisdom of Solomon that ruled all of Israel.
The rite of dream incubation was very important in Japan, where it survived well into the fifteenth century. Pilgrims agonizing over insolvable problems journeyed to a holy site in hopes of being granted a dream by a divinity. These dreams would offer solutions to the incumbent’s problems.
Many accounts of these visitations have survived, and they turn out to be identical in form to those from Greece. Entities appear in the seekers’ visions and perform healings that, as at the abatons, may involve a kind of dream surgery.
This rite goes back to a very early era in Japan, as early as the fourth and fifth centuries c.e. In those times the emperor alone was allowed this link with other dimensions, and incubation was an important aspect of his spiritual obligations. His palace was equipped with an incubation hall and a special bed known as a kamudoko.
Even into recent times a bed called the shinza, identical in configuration to the Asklepian klini, was required to be present during the ceremony at which the new emperor was consecrated. The emperor did not use the bed during the ritual, so its original meaning has been forgotten. No doubt in ancient times the bed was there for the purpose of incubation.
Proponents of modern depth psychology would argue that these visitations were episodes of inner communion with the incumbents’ higher selves, but it is impossible fully to understand the many enigmas about dream incubation.
The seekers themselves sharply differentiate these visitations from ordinary dreams. In fact many of the incumbents in the accounts from ancient Greece insisted that their visions took place in a state between sleeping and waking. This brings us to another fascinating type of visionary state into which some individuals can enter.
HYPNAGOGIA’S SLEEPY REALITY
Hypnagogic is traditionally thought of as the “twilight state,” a state that exists between normal waking consciousness and sleep. In hypnagogic the person sees what is being dished up by his unconscious. Sometimes it may just be bright flashes of color, or vivid dream sequences. Other times these clearer-than-life images have very powerful significance.
In this condition the hypnagogic state is reached when a person is literally walking around and performing usual tasks. Walking hypnagogic has been used to explain the reported sighting of “little people” in Ireland and “fairies” in other parts of the world. It also explains a bizarre phenomenon known as “the Disappearing Man,” in which a person may see someone walking toward him on the street at night who then suddenly disappears.
Charles Dickens, the famed English author, reported one such vivid account. He told a friend that one night he was walking down a street in London when he heard a horse behind him. He turned to see a man trying to control a horse that was becoming unruly. Dickens dodged into a doorway to let the horse have the road. When he looked back, the horse and rider were gone. There was no one there.
A high percentage of the normal population has experiences of vivid imagery at the point of sleep. Sometimes these take the form of colorful images, sometimes surrealistically distorted events.
Hypnagogic states have been used by some creative geniuses to solve problems. One who used this technique in his creative process was Thomas Edison, who would frequently catnap in his office when searching for solutions.
One problem that he faced is that it is very easy to drift into full sleep from the hypnagogic state. Once asleep, one tends to forget the images experienced. To overcome this problem, Edison dozed with a steel ball in each hand. On either side of his chair he placed metal dish pans. When he started to slip into unconsciousness, the balls would fall from his hands and clang against the pans. He would then awaken with memory of his hypnagogic experience still intact.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH MIRROR GAZING
The most unsettling feature of these apparitional encounters observed from the subjects [with mirror-gazing] was that they were sure that their visionary reunions were real and not fantasies. This was especially perplexing in that I had intentionally selected very grounded and reasonable people as subjects. I assumed that any of them would be able to tell whether the encounter was real. I expected them to say that the vision matched the kind of images they have while dreaming, but the opposite proved to be true. One after the other the subjects who had visionary encounters were insisting that they had actually been in the presence of their deceased relative. “I know that was my mother,” said one of the subjects. Virtually all of the others described the experience as being “realer than real.”
I was convinced that if I saw an apparition, it would be different. If I have an experience like that, I thought, I won’t be fooled into thinking it is real.
I chose my maternal grandmother as the person I would attempt to see. I was born during World War II, and my father was shipped overseas on the day I was born. He didn’t return for eighteen months, which left my mother’s mother to assume many of the duties of parenting. She did a wonderful job, and I always considered her to be a sweet, wise, and understanding person who loomed large in my life. I had often missed her in the years since her death and would gladly visit with her again, in whatever form she took.
I spent many hours one day preparing for a visionary reunion with her. I brought dozens of memories to mind and looked at photographs of her, evoking a deep sense of her tender kindness.
Then I went into a place I called the apparition booth, and in the room’s dim light I gazed into the depth of a large mirror, offset in such a way that I gazed into a sort of three-dimensional clarity. I did this for at least an hour, but felt not even a twinge of her presence. I finally gave up and assumed that I was somehow immune to visionary reunions.
Later, as I unwound from the experience, I had an encounter that ranks as one of the most life-changing events I have ever experienced. What happened altered my concept of reality almost totally. I now understood the sentiments expressed by many apparition watchers that they don’t feel like the same person after it happens.
These experiences have an ineffable quality to them, which means they are difficult or even impossible to put into words. Still, I want to describe my own visionary reunion since I find it important to convey this experience from a first-person point of view:
I was sitting in a room alone when a woman simply walked in. As soon as I saw her, I had a certain sense that she was familiar, but the event happened so quickly that it took me a few moments to gather myself together and greet her politely. Within what must have been less than a minute, I realized this person was my paternal grandmother, who had died some years before. I remember throwing my hands up toward my face and exclaiming, “Grandma!”
At this point I was looking directly into her eyes, awestruck at what I was seeing. In a very kind and loving way she acknowledged who she was and addressed me with the nickname that only she had used for me when I was a child. As soon as I realized who this woman was, a flood of memories rushed into my mind. Not all of these were good memories. In fact many were distinctly unpleasant. Although my reminiscences of my maternal grandmother are positive, those with my father’s mother were a different matter.
One of the memories that rushed to mind was the annoying habit she had of declaring, “This is my last Christmas!” She did that every holiday season for the last two decades of her life.
She also constantly warned me when I was young that I would go to hell if I violated any of God’s many strictures—as she interpreted them of course. She once washed my mouth out with soap for having uttered a word of which she disapproved. Another time when I was a child, she told me in all seriousness that it was a sin to fly in airplanes. She was habitually cranky and negative.
Yet as I gazed into the eyes of this apparition, I quickly sensed that the woman who stood before me had been transformed in a very positive way. I felt warmth and love from her as she stood there and an empathy and compassion that surpassed my understanding. She was confidently humorous, with an air of quiet calm and joyfulness about her.
The reason I had not recognized her at first was that she appeared much younger than she was when she died, in fact even younger than she had been when I was born. I don’t remember having seen any photographs of her at the age she seemed to be during this encounter, but that is irrelevant here since it was not totally through her physical appearance that I recognized her. Rather, I knew this woman through her unmistakable presence and through the many memories we reviewed and discussed. In short this woman was my deceased grandmother. I would have known her anywhere.
I want to emphasize how completely natural this meeting was. As with the other subjects who had experienced an apparitional facilitation, my meeting was in no way eerie or bizarre. In fact this was the most normal and satisfying interaction I have ever had with her.
Our meeting was focused entirely on our relationship. Throughout die experience I was amazed that I seemed to be in the presence of someone who had already passed on, but in no way did this interfere with our interaction. She was there in front of me, and as startling as that fact was, I just accepted it and continued to talk with her.
We discussed old times, specific incidents from my childhood. Throughout she reminded me of several events that I had forgotten. Also she revealed something very personal about my family situation that came as a great surprise but in retrospect makes a great deal of sense. Due to the fact that the principals are still living, I have chosen to keep this information to myself. But I will say that her revelation has made a great deal of difference in my life, and I feel much better for having heard this from her.
I say “heard” in an almost literal sense. I did hear her voice clearly, the only difference being that there was a crisp, electric quality to it that seemed clearer and louder than her voice before she died. Others who’d had this experience before me described it as telepathic or “mind to mind” communication. Mine was similar. Although most of my conversation was through the spoken word, from time to time I was immediately aware of what she was thinking, and I could tell that the same was true for her.
In no way did she appear “ghostly” or transparent during our reunion. She seemed completely solid in every respect. She appeared no different from any other person except that she was surrounded by what appeared to be a light or an indentation in space, as if she were somehow set off or recessed from the rest of her physical surroundings.
For some reason, though, she would not let me touch her. Two or three times I reached to give her a hug, and each time she put her hands up and motioned me back. She was so insistent about not being touched that I didn’t pursue it.
I have no idea how long this meeting lasted in clock time. It certainly seemed like a long time, but I was so engrossed in the experience that I didn’t bother to look at the clock. In terms of thoughts and feelings that passed between us, it seemed like a couple of hours, but I have a feeling that it was probably less than that in what we consider to be “real” time.
And how did our meeting end? I was so overwhelmed that I just said, “Good-bye.” We acknowledged that we would be seeing each other again, and I simply walked out of the room. When I returned, she was nowhere to be seen. The apparition of my grandmother was gone.
What took place that day resulted in a healing of our relationship. For the first time in my life I now appreciate her humor and have a sense of some of the struggles she went through during her lifetime. Now I love her in a way that I didn’t before the experience.
It also left me with an abiding certainty that what we call death is not the end of life.
I realize how people can assume that these apparitional facilitations are hallucinations. As a veteran of altered states of consciousness, I can say that my visionary reunion with my grandmother was completely coherent with the ordinary waking reality that I have experienced all my life. If I were to discount this encounter as hallucinatory, I would be almost obliged to discount the rest of my life as hallucinatory too.
THE “NEED TO SEE” BASIS
My encounter has clarified why it is that apparition seekers do not necessarily see the person whom they have set out to see. On the basis of my own experience, I believe that the subjects see the person they need to see.
In my case the relationship was smooth between my maternal grandmother and me, whereas things were rocky in my relationship with my paternal grandmother. Generally, greater benefits probably result from reunions with people with whom one still has difficulties.
For many subjects the person whom they desire to see is the same as the one they need to see. If the two coincide, the reunion goes as planned; if they do not, need may prevail.
Also, one detail of my experience makes it necessary to offer a public apology to my old friend Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In 1977 Elisabeth told me a story about her own encounter with a deceased acquaintance. As I recall the story, Elisabeth was walking in a hallway toward her office one day when she happened to notice a woman standing in the corridor.
The two women struck up a conversation, and Elisabeth led the woman into her office. After a while Elisabeth leaned toward the woman and, with considerable amazement, said, “I know you!” She had recognized the woman to be a “Mrs. Schwartz,” a patient to whom she had been close and who had died some months earlier. Mrs. Schwartz acknowledged her identity, and the two continued to talk for some period of time.
When Elisabeth told me this story, I remember protesting loudly. “Elisabeth, give me a break!” I said. “If this was someone you knew so well, how could it be that you didn’t recognize her from the beginning?”
Now, all these years later, I can say that I understand. From my own experience and those of others I can confirm that apparitions of the deceased don’t look exactly as they did before they died. Strangely—or perhaps not so—they look younger and less stressed in their apparitional state, but still they are recognizable as who they are.
The results of my own experience and early experimentation suggest to me that there is a natural link between spontaneous and facilitated apparitions of the departed.
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