The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation
Published in 2009
Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Field of Near-Death Studies: Past, Present, and Future
“In 1975, Raymond Moody, then a medical student, published the book Life After Life. In it, he coined the term ‘near-death experience’ and the acronym ‘NDE,’ and he introduced the phenomenon of NDEs to the public and most professionals. His book marked the opening of the contemporary field of near-death studies. Even in that book, however, Moody noted that writers had recorded NDEs going back as far as ancient texts. It is now clear that accounts can be found in humankind’s earliest writings, including the Bible, Plato’s Dialogues, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“As that list of texts suggests, it is also now known that NDEs have been described across cultures, not only in the literature of Western culture but also in the folklore of Native American, South Pacific Islander, and East and Central Asian cultures and in the literature of non-Western cultures. Indeed, accounts of near-death and out-of-body experiences can be found in the oral traditions and written literature of about 95 percent of the world’s cultures (Sheils 1978).
“More recently, over 150 years before Moody’s book, several authors explored the phenomenon that would later be named NDE-some of these people being, literally, explorers. In 1825, Henry Schoolcraft described an account in his book Travels in the Central Portion of the Mississippi Valley. In 1872, David Livingstone, of ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’ fame, described what we now call an NDE in his book Adventures and Discoveries in the Interior of Africa. Just one year later, Samuel Woodworth Cozzens related an account in his book The Marvelous Country: Three Years in Arizona and New Mexico. Before 1900, at least six other authors (Barrow 1848; Clarke 1878; Little 1881; Munck 1887; Winslow 1868) published books containing NDE accounts. Among these was Frances Power Cobbe’s 1882 book The Peak in Darien; in it, she recounted NDEs in which the experiencers encountered deceased people who were not at the time known to be deceased.
“In the 19th century, accounts of NDEs also appeared in the Western professional literature of both medicine and psychical research. In the periodical literature, physician A. S. Wiltse published a description of an NDE in his 1889 article in the Saint Louis Medical and Surgical Journal. Accounts in the medical literature tended to focus on the effects of these phenomena, with the apparent goals of warning physicians not to declare patients dead prematurely and of helping survivors readjust to life after reviving. Accounts in the psychical research literature tended to focus on accurate perceptions of experiencers while ‘they’ were ostensibly out of their bodies, with the apparent goals of elucidating the relationship between mind and body and providing supportive evidence for the possibility that some part of humans may survive bodily death.
“Beginning in the 19th century, Western investigators moved beyond individual case reports into collections of cases, which allowed analysis of features that appeared to comprise consistent patterns across individuals. Among these were Mormon collections of NDEs that were not published for the general public until the 20th century (Lundahl 1979, 1993-94). In Albert von St. Gallen Heim’s 1892 article in the Yearbook of the Swiss Alpine Club, he described 30 NDEs, primarily from climbers who had fallen while climbing, as he had done. In the first two decades of the 20th century, psychical researcher James Hyslop published a series of articles describing the phenomenology of ‘visions of the dying.’ For two decades beginning in 1971, Russell Noyes and his colleagues published a series of articles in the psychiatric literature describing ‘depersonalization in the face of life-threatening danger,’ including paradoxical hyperalertness and mystical consciousness. In 1975, German theologian Johann Christoph Hampe published a book describing the primary phenomenological features of NDEs; it was published in English in 1979. Indeed, before Moody’s book in 1975, in the scholarly Western periodical literature alone, over 25 authors had published over 30articles addressing NDEs (Holden and Christian 2005b). When Life after Life first appeared, it quickly became a bestseller. As of 2001, over 13 million copies had been sold, and the book had been translated into 26 languages (E. Russo, personal communication, August 10, 2006). This book ushered in the modern era of near-death research in which NDEs were identified as a discrete phenomenon rather than as a type of depersonalization, a special case of out-of-body experience, or a variety of religious epiphany. In the intervening 30 years, the topic of NDEs has continued to generate curiosity and has sustained interest such that researchers and theoreticians around the world have investigated and written on the topic. Thus, not only have NDEs occurred throughout history and across cultures but also the study of them has become increasingly international…”
1. The Field of Near-Death Studies: Past, Present, and Future
2. Pleasurable Western Adult Near-Death Experiences: Features, Circumstances, and Incidence
3. Aftereffects of Pleasurable Western Adult Near-Death Experiences
4. Distressing Western Near-Death Experiences: Finding a Way through the Abyss
5. “Trailing Clouds of Glory”: The Near-Death Experiences of Western Children and Teens
6. Characteristics of Western Near-Death Experiencers
7. Census of Non-Western Near-Death Experiences to 2005: Observations and Critical Reflections
8. World Religions and Near-Death Experiences
Evidence of the Afterlife
By Dr. Jeffrey Long
Published in 2010, this study examines 1,300 NDEs from around the world
“The core NDE experience is the same all over the world. Whether it’s a near-death experience of a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Egypt, or a Christian in the United States, the same core elements are present in all, including out-of-body experience, tunnel experience, feelings of peace, beings of light, a life review, reluctance to return, and transformation after the NDE. In short, the experience of dying appears similar among all humans, no matter where they live.”
“The results of the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) study… finds that what people discovered during their near-death experience about God, love, afterlife, reason for our earthly existence, earthly hardships, forgiveness, and many other concepts is strikingly consistent across cultures, races, and creeds. Also, these discoveries are generally not what would have been expected from preexisting societal beliefs, religious teachings, or any other source of earthly knowledge.”
To download a three-page summary of the most important findings of Dr. Long’s research, click here (pdf).
Dr. Long’s organization, the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, continues to collect NDEs from around the world. It currently includes over 4,000 near-death experience accounts in over 23 languages.
Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations
In this seminar, Dr Gregory Shushan reviews his research into the relationship between afterlife beliefs and certain types of ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’ experiences worldwide as found in the texts of early civilizations, and in the earliest ethnographic reports on indigenous societies. The key issue is the extent to which afterlife conceptions are consistent cross-culturally, and with the spontaneous, evidently universal near-death experience. In opposition to contemporary postmodernist-influenced assumptions that religious beliefs and experiences are entirely culturally constructed, Shushan argues that afterlife conceptions in human societies are commonly formed not only by a combination of culture-specific socio-historical and environmental factors, but also universal cognitive factors and universal anomalous experiential factors. This is demonstrated by the existence of thematically consistent narratives of near-death experiences found in nearly all times and places, which in turn correspond to the widespread general similarities found in afterlife conceptions worldwide. This is despite differences in social organization and scale, and high degrees of cultural independence and geographical and chronological distance between the societies considered.
Alex Tsakiris Interviews Dr. Gregory Shushan on Skeptiko
January 27, 2015
Alex Tsakiris: I think it is an important issue because the one thing that does strike me a lot is when you look at the contemporary near-death experience accounts, overwhelmingly what these people say beyond all the scholarly chit-chat is hey man, it’s about love. It’s about this indescribable but universally relatable feeling of love. That’s what it’s about. Forget everything else…It was about love. That does seem to come through universally, and I think that has a strong moral kind-of message behind it. How does that relate to what you’re finding cross-culturally. Does it fit or does it not fit?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I think it does in some ways. In a lot of Native American accounts, people were sent back in order to tell others about the glories of the afterlife. There are also many accounts where some kind of traditional ritual has changed, often for the better — against sacrifice for example, because during the experience the person was given a new belief or ritual and told that the old one has to change. There might not always be specifically “love” as an explicit concept expressed in these texts, but there is often change for the better. The afterlife is seen as a place of wisdom, and a place of renewal, where people undergo purification and ritual bathing. So I think it can be related, even if the word “love” or a comparable word isn’t always used.
Gregory Shushan challenges post-modern scholarly attitudes concerning cross-cultural comparisons in the study of religions. In an original and innovative piece of comparative research, he analyses afterlife conceptions in five ancient civilisations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica).
These are considered in light of historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife ‘journeys’. Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations is a significant study, for it presents a comprehensive new comparative framework for the cross-cultural study of myth and religion, while at the same time providing a fascinating exploration of the interface between belief and experience.
Historical NDE Cases
Horizon Research Foundation
Looking back in the literature, there have… been many historical accounts of near death experiences in different cultures and throughout historical time. For example they are described in Plato’s Republic. Here, an ordinary soldier, Er, suffers a near fatal injury on the battlefield, is revived on the funeral parlour and describes a journey from darkness to light accompanied by guides, a moment of judgement, feelings of peace and joy, and visions of extraordinary beauty and happiness.
Hieronymus Bosch the Dutch painter who died in 1516 depicted a passage down a tunnel towards a bright light in a painting entitled “ascent to empyrean”.
Another case is that of Admiral Beaufort, an admiral with the Royal Navy who had narrowly escaped drowning in Portsmouth harbour in 1795. He had gone on to describe his experience:
“Though the senses were deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description, for thought rose above thought in rapid succession. The event just occurred the awkwardness producing it, the bustle it must have occasioned…the effect on my most affectionate father, the moment in which it would be disclosed to the family, and a thousand other circumstances minutely associated with home, were the first reflections. Then they took a wider range, our last cruise a former voyage and shipwreck, my school and boyish pursuits and adventures. Thus travelling backwards, every past incident of my life seemed to glance across my recollection in retrograde succession; not however in mere outline, as here stated, but the picture filled up with every minute and collateral feature. In short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review, and each of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right or wrong, or by some reflection on its cause or consequences; indeed many trifling events which had been forgotten then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity.”
The first systemic series of accounts from people who had experienced a close encounter with death were reported by a 19th century Swiss geologist and mountaineer, Albert Heim. Heim had survived a near-fatal mountaineering accident himself and then went on to collect 30 first hand accounts from other survivors of near-fatal mountaineering accidents, and found that they had similar experiences. His work was published in 1892. His own experience is typical of those recalled by other people in his series:
“No grief was felt nor was there any paralysing fright. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair or pain, but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness. The relationship of events and their probable outcomes were viewed with objective clarity, no confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded.”
He found that in many cases there then followed a sudden review of the individual’s entire past, and finally the person falling often heard ‘beautiful music’ and fell in what they visualised as ‘a superbly blue heaven containing roseate cloudlets’. It was reported that consciousness was painlessly extinguished, usually at the moment of impact, which was at the most heard but never painfully felt.
Oldest Medical Report of Near-Death Experience Discovered
By Bahar Gholipour
July 24, 2014
Reports of people having “near-death” experiences go back to antiquity, but the oldest medical description of the phenomenon may come from a French physician around 1740, a researcher has found.
The report was written by Pierre-Jean du Monchaux, a military physician from northern France, who described a case of near-death experience in his book “Anecdotes de Médecine.” Monchaux speculated that too much blood flow to the brain could explain the mystical feelings people report after coming back to consciousness.
The description was recently found by Dr. Phillippe Charlier, a medical doctor and archeologist, who is well known in France for his forensic work on the remains of historical figures. Charlier unexpectedly discovered the medical description in a book he had bought for 1 euro (a little more than $1) in an antique shop.
“I was just interested in the history of medicine, and medical practices in the past, especially during this period, the 18th century,” Charlier told Live Science. “The book itself was not an important one in the history of medicine, but from a historian’s point of view, the possibility of doing retrospective diagnosis on such books, it’s something quite interesting.”
To his surprise, Charlier found a modern description of near-death experience from a time in which most people relied on religion to explain near-death experiences.
The book describes the case of a patient, a famous apothecary (pharmacist) in Paris, who temporarily fell unconscious and then reported that he saw a light so pure and bright that he thought he must have been in heaven.
Today, near-death experience is described as a profound psychological event with transcendental and mystical elements that occurs after a life-threatening crisis, Charlier said. People who experience the phenomenon report vivid and emotional sensations including positive emotions, feeling as though they have left their bodies, a sensation of moving through a tunnel, and the experiences of communicating with light and meeting with deceased people.
Charlier compared the nearly 250-year-old description with today’s “Greyson criteria,” which is a scale that a psychiatrist developed in the 1980s to measure the depth of people’s near-death experiences, so that these cases could be uniformly studied. The scale includes questions about the perceptions people report during near-death experiences, for example altered sense of time, life review and feelings of joy. A score of 7 or higher out of a possible 32 is classified as a near-death experience.
Although the data in the old book were limited, Charlier determined that the patient would have scored at least 12/32 on the Greyson criteria, Charlier said. He published his findings last month in the journal Resuscitation.
In the 18th-century case description, Monchaux also compared his patient with other people who reported similar experiences, caused by drowning, hypothermia and hanging.
The physician offered a medical explanation for the bizarre sensations, too, but his explanation was the opposite of what modern day physicians name as the likely cause of near-death experience, Charlier said. Monchaux speculated that in all of reported cases of near-death experience, the patients were left with little blood in the veins in their skin, and abundant blood flowing in the vessels within their brains, giving rise to the vivid and strong sensations.
However, modern researchers think it is likely the lack of blood flow and oxygen to the brain that puts the organ in a state of full alarm and causes the sensations associated with near-death experiences.
BLACK ELK SPEAKS: VISIONS OF THE OTHER WORLD
By Black Elk
“As I danced, with Good Thunder and Kicking Bear holding my arms between them, I had the queer feeling that I knew and I seemed to be lifted clear off the ground. I did not have a vision all that first day. That night I thought about the other world and that the Wanekia himself was with my people there and maybe the holy tree of my vision was really blooming yonder right then, and that it was there my vision had already come true. From the center of the earth I had been shown all good and beautiful things in a great circle of peace, and maybe this land of my vision was where all my people were going, and there they would live and prosper where no Wasichus were or could ever be.
“Before we started dancing next day, Kicking Bear offered a prayer, saying: ‘Father, Great Spirit, behold these people! They shall go forth today to see their relatives, and yonder they shall be happy, day after day, and their happiness will not end.’
“Then we began dancing, and most of the people wailed and cried as they danced, holding hands in a circle; but some of them laughed with happiness. Now and then some one would fall down like dead, and others would go staggering around and panting before they would fall. While they were lying there like dead they were having visions, and we kept on dancing and singing, and many were crying for the old way of living and that the old religion might be with them again.
“After awhile I began to feel very queer. First, my legs seemed to be full of ants. I was dancing with my eyes closed, as the others did. Suddenly it seemed that I was swinging off the ground and not touching it any longer. The queer feeling came up from my legs and was in my heart now. It seemed I would glide forward like a swing, and then glide back again in longer and longer swoops. There was no fear with this, just a growing happiness.
“I must have fallen down, but I felt as though I had fallen off a swing when it was going forward, and I was floating head first through the air. My arms were stretched out, and all I saw at first was a single eagle feather right in front of me. Then the feather was a spotted eagle dancing on ahead of me with his wings fluttering, and he was making the shrill whistle that is his. My body did not move at all, but I looked ahead and floated fast toward where I looked.
“There was a ridge right in front of me, and I thought I was going to run into it, but I went right over it. On the other side of the ridge I could see a beautiful land where many, many people were camping in a great circle. I could see that they were happy and had plenty. Everywhere there were drying racks full of meat. The air was clear and beautiful with a living light that was everywhere. All around the circle, feeding on the green, green grass, were fat and happy horses; and animals of all kinds were scattered all over the green hills, and singing hunters were returning with their meat.
“I floated over the tepees and began to come down feet first at the center of the hoop where I could see a beautiful tree all green and full of flowers. When I touched the ground, two men were coming toward me, and they wore holy shirts made and painted in a certain way. They came to me and said: ‘It is not yet time to see your father, who is happy. You have work to do. We will give you something that you shall carry back to your people, and with it they shall come to see their loved ones.’
“I knew it was the way their holy shirts were made that they wanted me to take back. They told me to return at once, and then I was out in the air again, floating fast as before. When I came right over the dancing place, the people were still dancing, but it seemed they were not making any sound. I had hoped to see the withered tree in bloom, but it was dead.
“Then I fell back into my body, and as I did this I heard voices all around and above me, and I was sitting on the ground. Many were crowding around, asking me what vision I had seen. I told them just what I had seen, and what I brought back was the memory of the holy shirts the two men wore…”
DEFENDING THE FAITH: ‘THEY WERE DEAD – BUT … THEY WERE ALL SO HAPPY!’
By Daniel Peterson
The Deseret News
October 9, 2014
Many years ago, in the village of Kona on the big island of Hawaii, a woman named Kalima grew ill and died, leaving behind a bereaved family, including a husband and young children. Having prepared her grave and readied her body for burial, kinfolk and friends gathered about her corpse for their last farewell.
Suddenly, though, she moved, took a long breath, and looked around.
“I have something strange to tell you,” she announced. And, several days later, she finally felt strong enough to share her story.
As they knew, she said, she had died. But, even while dead, she was still alive. She found herself standing beside her body, looking down on it, in a different body that nonetheless resembled it in appearance. After a few minutes, though, she left.
She walked through nearby villages. But these villages were different — much larger than she had known them to be, with far more people. “Some of them I knew,” she said, “and they spoke to me — although this seemed strange, for I knew they were dead — but nearly all were strangers. They were all so happy! They seemed not to have a care; nothing to trouble them. Joy was in every face, and happy laughter and bright, loving words were on every tongue.”
“I felt so full of joy, too,” she recalled, “that my heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.”
But then, when she reached South Point — the sacred promontory where Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands — the people there told her, “You must go back to your body. You are not to die yet.”
However, she didn’t want to go back, and she begged them to let her stay. But they refused, declaring that if she didn’t return willingly, they would force her. Which, as it happened, is precisely what they did.
Finally, she recounted, “I reached my home and stood by my body again. I looked at it and hated it. Was that my body? What a horrid, loathsome thing it was to me now, since I had seen so many beautiful, happy creatures! Must I go and live in that thing again? No, I would not go into it; I rebelled and cried for mercy.”
“You must go into it,” insisted those around her. “We will make you.” And, thereupon, they pushed her, head first, through her feet into her lifeless body. Her continued fighting and struggling was of no avail. So, eventually, she resigned herself to the process.
“Then,” Kalima said, “my body came to life again, and I opened my eyes. But I wish I could have stayed with those happy people. It was cruel to make me come back. My other body was so beautiful, and I was so happy, so happy!”
This story is probably impossible to verify. What you’ve just read is my shortened retelling of a retelling by one “Mrs. E.N. Haley,” which was published in 1907 in a book edited by the pioneer Honolulu publisher and antiquarian Thomas Thrum (1842-1932) under the title of “Hawaiian Folk Tales.” No details are provided from which to identify Kalima, nor are any hints given as to when her purported experience occurred or how Mrs. Haley learned of it.
Nonetheless, whatever its precise provenance, the story seems both remarkable and significant. Although it was published nearly seven decades before Raymond Moody’s famous 1975 best-seller “Life After Life” launched the modern fascination with near-death experiences, or NDEs, Kalima’s account matches standard models of the NDE in many specific ways.
Her out-of-body experience, seeing her dead physical body (and viewing it with distaste), a spiritual body (similar in appearance to her earthly one), meetings with very happy people known to be dead, an apparent boundary beyond which she may not pass, the idea that it wasn’t “her time,” her being ordered to return to her body and her reluctance to do so — all of these are abundantly paralleled in literally hundreds of such accounts that I’ve read, and probably in thousands more that I haven’t.
Yet, obviously, neither Kalima nor Mrs. Haley could possibly have been influenced by the reports that have been published in scores of books and hundreds of articles since 1975. In other words, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss this story as mere fantasy.
Arthur Yensen’s 1932 Near-Death Experience
In August of 1932, Arthur Yensen, a university graduate, geologist, and staunch -materialist -turned -syndicated -cartoonist, decided to take some time off to research his weekly cartoon strip, “Adventurous Willie Wispo.” Since his main character was a hobo, Yensen became a hobo for a time, blending in with the over sixteen million unemployed at that time in our nation’s Great Depression. He bummed rides from Chicago through Minnesota, until a young man in a convertible coupe picked him up on the way to Winnipeg. Going too fast for the road conditions, the car hit a three-foot-high ridge of oiled gravel and flipped into a series of violent somersaults. Both men were catapulted through the cloth top before the car smashed into a ditch. The driver escaped unharmed, but Yensen was injured, losing consciousness just as two female spectators rushed to his aid. After seeing the afterlife during this near-death experience, he later learned that telling others about his NDE often brought criticism, especially from the church. But there were those who would listen and as time wore on, more and more people would ask him about it. Finally in 1955, Arthur Yensen published a report of his near-death experience after much public interest. His booklet entitled “I Saw Heaven” (now out-of-print, but a photocopy of the booklet is available for $5 from Eric Yensen, 1415 E. Oak St., Caldwell, Idaho 83605 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) describes his NDE and gives answers to questions he was always asked.
For more information about Yensen and his near-death experience, go here.
Jewish Near-Death Experiences
Buddhist Near-Death Experiences
Hindu Near-Death Experiences
• NDEs Have Been Reported Since Ancient Times
• Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience by Gregory Shushan
• Census of Non-Western NDEs to 2005: Overview of the Current Data by Allan Kellehear, Ph.D.
• NDEs throughout History and across Cultures by Allan Kellehear, PhD
• IANDS: Key Facts About Near-Death Experiences – History and Prevalence
• Wikipedia on the History of Near-Death Experiences
• Culture, Seeing Religious Figures And A Reason For Returning To Life
• Julian of Norwich: An NDE from 1373 AD
• Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (Kindle & Paperback Versions)
• Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (Free Online Copies)
• Wikipedia on Julian of Norwich
• NDE Videos (Includes Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish NDEs)
• Near-Death Experiences of Christians
• Near-Death Experiences of Jewish People
• The NDE of Alon Anava (A Jewish NDE)
• Near-Death Experiences of Muslims
• Near-Death Experiences of Buddhists
• The Tibetan Book of the Dead – Link One – Link Two
• Eleven Thai Near-Death Experiences
• Near-Death Experiences of Hindus
• 18 NDE Cases from Japan (pdf)
• Non-Western NDEs
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