In this age of science, death is still a mystery left to our ever-changing belief systems. Dante, the towering genius of his time, describes his beliefs in Convito
: "I say, that of all idiocies, that is most stupid, most vile, and most damnable which holds that after this life there is no other." However, people have also been criticized for holding to a belief in afterlife, especially as this view has come under attack in the modern era. The fact is that a large majority of Americans (73%) do affirm such a belief (Greeley, 1987).
But the strength of conviction in both camps appears to be weak. When death comes to oneself or to the immediate family, many want to know
, rather than to depend on belief alone. For these people, empirical information might be of some interest. Relevant literature can be found under such headings as survival, psychical research, and parapsychology.
Studies of Apparitions ("Ghosts")
Phenomena suggestive of afterlife have been reported throughout the history of various cultures; for example, Plato, in The Republic, described out-of-body journeys of a soldier, Er, who was thought to have been killed in action. Pliny the Younger described a ghost case in Athens.
Well-organized, systematic studies of apparitions started after the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in England in 1882. The SPR was soon joined in this quest by the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and by smaller research groups and individual investigators in continental Europe. Scholarly journals were established to publish ongoing research as well as theoretical speculation and fierce debates. The basic idea of these efforts was to apply scientific method to data collection, evaluation, and interpretation of psychic phenomena - an area which nineteenth-century materialistic science had ignored up to that time.
Apparition experiences were one of the first phenomena studied. In a pioneering survey, 17,000 respondents were contacted. This "census of hallucinations," as it was called, netted many apparition experiences, as well as other phenomena, that were purely psychological. Reports were analyzed and published in two major works: Gurney et al (1886) and Myers (1903). Several other collections appeared later, such as those by Bennett (1939), Green and McCreery (1975), Jacobson (1973), and Jaffé (1979).
An apparition experience is awareness of the presence of a personal being whose physical body is not in the area of the experiencer, provided the experiencer is sane and in a normal waking state of consciousness. In contrast to extrasensory perception (ESP) of a distant event, the apparition is felt to be in the immediate vicinity of the experiencer... (For a detailed conceptualization, see Osis 1986.)
Methods for researching apparition experiences were largely developed by the SPR and have now reached a high level of efficiency. Modern advances in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and forensic sciences are incorporated, as well as techniques of qualitative and quantitative investigation. Mere hallucinations, hypnagogic and hypnopompic imagery, mistaken identity, illusory reshaping of normal stimuli, deliberate hoaxes, and chance coincidences have had to be identified and sifted off in the process of serious research. Journalistic books usually bypass methodological rigor and can be misleading as to actual observations.
Apparitions are experienced in many ways. "Seeing" is the most frequent sense modality that furnishes this experience. The apparition might look so lifelike that it is mistaken for a flesh-and-bones person - only sudden vanishing gives away its ghostly nature. Sometimes, however, the images represent only parts of the body, or appear as vague and misty outlines. They might portray the dead, the living, or unidentifiable strangers. Sounds, such as steps approaching and doors opening, are often heard. Touch, smell, and temperature sensations may be reported, but sometimes the experience is of a "felt presence" without any specific sensory qualities. Apparitions usually are of short duration, less than a minute. They can be a once in a lifetime experience, or recurrent.
Not all apparitions are of interest for the afterlife issue. Many have been traced to various different roots. Some were thought to be hallucinations, the cognitive content of which was derived from a telepathic message that is then projected out like a mental slide, from retrocognition or sudden glance of events in a time long past (e.g., D-Day in Normandy, or a scene from Marie Antoinette's time). If a mother sees her son walking through the kitchen with drenched clothes at the time he was drowned, that experience could hardly be separable from her own ESP projection of her son's image in the kitchen. But if neighbors see him entering the kitchen door at the same time, that would be of interest.
ESP, like our other thoughts and feelings, is a private experience that is directly observable only by the experiencer. Some apparition phenomena, however, have been collectively experienced by several persons; about one-third of those apparition experiences where more than one person was present, awake, and in a position to see, were collective (Hart, 1959). Often, animals also react: dogs growl, cats bristle. In haunted houses, phenomena may be reported as occurring repeatedly over the years to the distress of the family and surprise of visitors. For example, in a house near Pittsburgh, sixteen witnesses have reported observations of some ghostly phenomena over a period of twenty years. The exact nature of stimuli in collective cases is still unknown, but apparitions that are collectively seen do suggest a disembodied agency. Numerous attempts have been made to explain them, such as by the super-ESP hypothesis. However, these explanations have been severely criticized (Gauld, 1977, 1982), because ESP of the magnitude and reliability needed to account for the observed phenomena has not been found.
Usually an apparition appears to perform physical actions, such as opening doors, but nothing is later found to have been moved. The noises of opening and closing doors turn out to be an imitation of the sounds of real events. On rare occasions, however, physical objects are affected: lights or gadgets are switched on or off, locked doors are reported opening, and so on. L.E. Rhine (1957) advanced an explanation that does not presume a discarnate agency. She claimed that psychic forces (psychokinesis, PK) of the observer could do the same as the ostensible ghost. The formidable burden of this hypothesis is to explain why such a mighty psychokinetic effect occurs at the moment of an apparition experience to people who have never exerted such an effort before or after in their lives.
In two-thirds of poltergeist (literally, "noisy ghost") cases, a living agent has been identified. However, such cases are very rare in comparison with the frequency of reported hauntings, and the patterns of both phenomena differ markedly. Poltergeist phenomena are linked to persons who must be present for the effects to occur. Furthermore, the time sequences and movements of objects seem to be different (and much more destructive). Apparition cases that involve physical action are very unnerving to the experients because they cannot be readily explained away as hallucinations and, instead, forcefully suggest an external agency. It would be a strange hallucination, indeed, that could open windows, say, in a mental hospital.
The out-of-body experience (OBE) is another phenomenon which, in its best examples, seems to suggest something akin to short-term disembodied existence. The main characteristic of OBE is the experiencer's feeling that his or her other viewpoint and center of perception are located somewhere outside the body, at the ceiling, for instance. Some researchers also include a state of intense attention deployment, such as the feeling of being right on the stage when one is absorbed in watching a play. C.T. Tart (1977) has attempted to sharpen the criteria delineating "discrete OBE states." The literature on OBE is less extensive than on apparition experiences. As with apparition experiences, only some types of OBE could be considered suggestive for disembodied existence, namely those in which the experience is not completely private, but accessible also to observers and registering instruments. There are cases on record where one or two external observers "see" the person experiencing an OBE as an apparition at the same time as the person experiences himself as visiting the observers (Landau, 1963). It is more impressive if the "visit" is not announced beforehand but comes as a surprise.
In very rare cases animals also have been reported to react to the OBE apparition. Only experiments with gifted subjects have been suggestive. In one experiment, a kitten in the laboratory was measurably quieter at randomly selected intervals when its master made OBE "visits" (Morris et al, 1978). In another experiment, strain gauge measures in the projection area gave some indications of OBE presence (Osis and McCormick, 1980). Experiments with unselected subjects usually give no indications suggesting that anything "goes out" during OBE.
Parapsychological phenomena have also been reported to occur in states near death. These may have indirect bearing on the survival hypothesis because they shed some light on spontaneous OBEs. One cross-cultural study was designed to contrast the phenomena according to a model of postmortem survival versus a model of death as extinction (Osis and Haraldsson, 1986). Not only the experiences of revived patients but also those who actually were dying were sampled in the United States and in northern India. The reported data fit the survival model much more consistently than they do the extinction counterpart.
Messages Ostensibly from the Dead
Messages interpreted as coming from the dead are reported in many cultures. They captured the interest of Western intellectuals in the heyday of spiritualism, from the middle of the nineteenth-century to the first decade of the twentieth-century. Scholars struggled to develop methods for separating the ostensibly real from chance coincidences, believers' excessive claims, and the often fraudulent practices of mediums. William James, the great thinker in American psychology at the time, discovered a psychic genius, Lenora Piper, who was extensively studied by scholars in the United States and England. The literature is too voluminous and complex to be abstracted here (e.g., Myers, 1903; Hart, 1959; Gauld, 1982). Many luminaries have been impressed by the emerging evidence for the survival hypothesis. For example, a past president of the American Psychological Association, Gardner Murphy, wrote (1961, p. 273), "Where, then, do I stand? To this the reply is: What happens when an irresistible force strikes an immovable object?" As a psychologist of his day he could not accommodate the pressure of evidence and remained "unmovable" until his death - so far as I know. His Challenge of Psychical Research (1961) provides an excellent description of that "irresistible force."
Messages coming in dreams are sometimes suggestive. For example, J. L. Chaffin (Anon, 1927) appeared to his disinherited son, giving clues for finding a second will. Following the dream message, the will was found and recognized by the court, restoring the inheritance to the dreamer. Most clearly identifiable messages come from specially gifted psychics such as L. Piper, G. O. Leonard, and E. J. Garrett. While some psychics have claimed to identify the sources of their information as coming from spirits of the deceased, it soon becomes clear that they may give the wrong address. Without being aware of it, psychics incorporate in their messages bits of information that have come from their living informants, the persons seeking to communicate with beloved dead. It has been argued that if messages from the dead are to be verifiable, they have to be checked either with a living person, records, or objects. Psychics can also access these "living" sources by their ESP - without requiring any information obtained from the dead. This, roughly, is the super-ESP hypothesis. The best mediumistic data are hardly interpretable in this way. ESP from this-world sources was indeed available but it had to be pieced together from various obscure documents found in different places. Gauld's Mediumship and Survival (1982) provides the best contemporary overview...
Evidence for possible survival of bodily death comes mainly from research on the following phenomena: apparition experiences collectively perceived, some types of out-of-body experiences, certain aspects of near-death experiences, selected communications ostensibly coming from the dead... Assessments of the evidence vary greatly among researchers, ranging from those who find no acceptable evidence for survival (Siegel, 1980) to those who find certainty (Hart, 1959). The researcher's own philosophical outlook seems to have a strong influence on the conclusions that are reached. Most researchers take a position somewhere in the middle, and various theories of survival are presented by Thouless (1984). Apparently, the evidence is not yet strong enough to sway scholars whose philosophy has no place for disembodied existence.
Most Americans, regardless of their age or level of education, say they believe in life after death. When death approaches us or our dear ones, the research findings mentioned above might be useful to these believers and, possibly, to some others, especially if they themselves have experienced phenomena suggestive of afterlife. Of course, when counseling, one's own opinions and beliefs should be given less emphasis than the background, ideas, and feelings of the client.
Anon. (1927). Case of the will of Mr. James L. Chaffin. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 36, 517-24.
Bennett, E. (1939). Apparitions and Haunted Houses: A Survey of Evidence. London: Faber & Faber.
Gauld, A. (1977). Discarnate survival. In B. Wolman (Ed.) Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand, Reinhold, pp. 577-630.
Gauld, A. (1982). Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigation. London: Heinemann.
Greeley, A. (1987, Feb.). Mysticism goes mainstream. American Health Journal, pp. 47-49.
Green, C., and McCreery, C. (1975). Apparitions. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Gurney, E., Myers, F.W.H., and Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the Living. 2 vols. London: Trubner.
Hart, H. (1959). The Enigma of Survival. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Jacobson, N.O. (1973). Life Without Death? New York: Dell.
Jaffé, A. (1979). Apparitions: An Archetypal Approach to Death, Dreams, and Ghosts. Irving, TX: Spring.
Landau, L. (1963). An unusual out-of-body experience. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 42, 126-28.
Morris, R.L., Harary, S.B., Janis, J., Hartwell, J., and Roll, W.G. (1978). Studies in communication during out-of-body experiences. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 72, 1 -22.
Murphy, G. (1961). Challenge of Psychical Research. New York: Harper and Row.
Myers, F.W.H. (1903/reprint 1954). Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death. 2 vols. London: Longman, Green.
Osis, K. (1986). Apparitions old and new. In K.R. Rao (Ed.) Case Studies in Parapsychology: Papers Presented in Honor of Dr. Louise E. Rhine. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, pp. 74-86.
Osis, K., and Haraldsson, E. (1986). At the Hour of Death. Revised edition. New York: Hastings House.
Osis, K., and McCormick, D. (1980). Kinetic effects at the ostensible location of an out-of-body projection during perceptual testing. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 74, 319-29.
Rhine, L.E. (1957). Research methods with spontaneous cases. In B. Wolman (Ed.) Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand, Reinhold, pp. 59-80.
Siegel, R.K. (1980). The psychology of life after death. American Psychologist, 35, 911-31.
Tart, C.T. (1977). Psi: Scientific Studies of the Psychic Realm. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Thouless, R.H. (1984). Do we survive bodily death? Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, 1-52.