Not that long ago Judy Bachrach was afraid of death. Not just for herself. Judy’s mom had Alzheimer's and was drifting behind the dusty veils of dream and departure. Determined to face her fears, Judy started volunteering at a hospice that exposed her directly to death. It also exposed her to stories of people who died but came back to life with stories to tell. Bachrach’s investigation into death experiences and the growing body of science on the subject is chronicled in her book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death (published by National Geographic).
Bachrach has impressive credentials as a writer. She is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a professor of journalism at John Cabot University at Rome. But when it comes to death we are all puppies, no? Death is what we don’t want to talk about, it is what happens to somebody else, anybody else but us. True, there are poets like Gregory Corso who declare:
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
Brave, even inspiring words. Yet where are fair words at the grand moment, the final stop for all sentient beings? Who issues fine verse during the death rattle, the last desperate intake of precious breath taken in full view of fast imposing blackness? Hands clutch what they can. Then everything ends. It is over.
Except for sometimes. Because sometimes during a routine every day death, life continues on a remarkable new level. How? Well, in the words of those who have returned, “something happened.” The ‘something’ was life happening during and after death.
When Dr. Raymond Moody introduced the notion of “near death experiences” in the 1970’s, it seemed this phenomena, if it was even real, was confined to the very few. No longer. With advances in medical techniques for saving lives, we have launched full bore into the age of Lazarus. People die and are resuscitated every day. It is commonplace. Less well known is that up to 20 percent return with a memory of what happened when they were dead. A 1982 Gallup poll revealed that some 8 million american adults had such recollections. It is likely this is an understatement, as many of “the returned” choose not to share their experiences for fear of being ridiculed or thought mentally unstable.
Some doctors assert that if the Titanic sank today and the passengers gradually turned to blocks of ice, that many of them could be saved after they died (cue Jack unfreezing and calling out for Rose, right?).
Many (not all) of the returned recount remarkable adventures during the time they were dead. As more data is collected, two strands are evident. First, every returner’s story has something unique in it, unique to that particular person. This gives the stories a variety and originality that makes them hard to classify. The second strand, however, is that many details of the events recounted can be classified because they happen to so many people. A comprehensive list of questions has been developed over time to verify if a person really had a death experience, and what sort of experience it was.
Dr. Bruce Greyson is a psychiatrist who has studied death experiences for decades. Over that time he painstakingly developed what is now called “The Greyson Index”: a list of sixteen questions (cheer up - it used to be ninety) returners answer to classify their experience. If they answer ‘yes’ to seven of the questions they are said to have had a valid death experience. Many of the returners answer yes to ten or more of the questions. Either way, the results are intriguing.
Perhaps the most universal commonality in a death experience is bliss. Quoting research on this subject, Bachrach notes: “In death, untrammeled bliss is the order of the day. Of the 189 respondents who possessed memories of their travels, 74 percent reported “incredible peace or pleasantness. And 57 percent felt incredible joy. More than half reported...they had clearly left the body and existed outside it. (p. 78)”
Bachrach’s research brought her face to face with person after person who had somehow died, experienced something while dead, then came back to their body, and their body came to life again. Although initially skeptical, she eventually conceded:
“That makes these people one up on the rest of us. They have befriended death after experiencing it, acclimatized themselves to the future...They don’t know everything about death, of course...but they know something, and that makes them quite special, distinctive, - some might say, odd. But anyway, people apart. (p. 74)”
Not everyone is willing to concede death experiences are what they seem to be. Those with certain religious convictions cannot always accept that atheists and the non-religious can have an angelic experience that perhaps should be reserved for the more devout. Atheists aand others who do not believe in an afterlife also look askance at death experiences.
Others try to explain death experiences away using science. The death experiences are merely hallucinations, phantoms with no significance caused perhaps by a lack of oxygen. Lack of oxygen is a common occurrence amongst the nearly dead, particularly those in cardiac arrest. Being in a vulnerable state, it is argued, makes it unsurprising for Christians and other spiritual persons to imagine they are with angels, as this fits their belief system.
Or perhaps the body compensates for the dire death situation by creating its opposite in order to soothe the traumatized victim, a form of sympathetic shock. Lurking behind these arguments is the unspoken: those who claim to have died and gotten a glimpse of heaven have...ahem... mental health issues. A special sort of criticism is reserved for doctors who give credence to death experiences. They are judged “unscientific” by their peers - the medical field's version of Long John Silver’s Black Spot.
Doctors supporting the science of death experience point out that a lack of oxygen causes anxiety and confusion, not glimpses of heaven. Furthermore, no one can hallucinate without a functioning brain - something those who come back to life after cardiac arrest do not have. Yet the returned have detailed, often remarkable memories and experiences that are precise and lucid. These experiences seem to have occurred somewhere outside the non functioning brain. Where? How? Those questions and answers don't fit the Western medical model. Even so, a growing number of doctors maintain the stories of the returned are more than mere “hallucinations.”
Death experiences are subject to the same critical review as any other medical novelty. The veracity of such reports is something for doctors and the medical community to hammer out over the course of years and decades. The challenge may be to keep the discussion medical and not personal, that is, disparaging those claiming to have had a death experience just because you do not like the idea. Perhaps such a knee jerk reaction can be traced back to a basic fact: no one likes talking about death - even the returned can be reticent about recounting their experiences.
After all, the stories are, well, crazy. Take the case of a forty-something man found comatose in a park. Heart massage and defibrillation did not work. When he finally got to the hospital the man was blue and cold. No breathing, gag reflexes, or blood pressure. When intubated the nurse took out the man’s dentures and stuck them in a drawer of the crash cart. One week after being put in a medically induced coma the man came to life. The doctor called it a miracle. The patient was rational and oriented. And he wanted his dentures back. He instructed the nurse where to find them. When the nurse followed his instructions - Voila! - the dentures were found.
Then there is the case of Bill Taylor, who died and went to outer space. He experienced an ocean of loving energy. He believed he was in heaven, “a place of no fear.” He felt curious about the way the world worked. Questions popped into his head, and were immediately answered. The entire universe seemed to him to be “the ultimate of simplicity.” He remembered thinking, “So this is how it works! It’s all so simple! It’s a lot of energy.” Along with the energy were feelings of intense love and acceptance. Where did Bill go? He said he went "home." In his words, “You know you’re home. You just know you’re home. (p. 113)”
But Bill had to go back to his life as a human being on this whirling rock we call home. In the hospital he kept thinking “You don’t die when you die!” At last he was able to share the good news with family and friends. But they dismissed everything Bill said as “just hallucinations” brought on by the medications he was taking.
Several features of Bill’s death experience are classic, recurring features. The intense sense of well being, a deep, sweeping comprehension of the universe and our role in it, and the feeling that you are finally “home.” Another returner, Brother Dunston (a monk), echoed Bill Taylor’s words: “It’s home. And you know it’s home.”
Not surprisingly, coming back to mundane human existence is resisted by many returners, including noted psychoanalyst, Dr. Carl Jung, who had a death experience after suffering a heart attack in 1944. He found himself floating in space and encountering a temple. He had the conviction that entering the temple would answer any and all questions he ever had about anything. As he made to enter the temple Jung’s doctor appeared and forbade him entrance. In his autobiography Jung’s bitterness was still palpable: “I was not allowed to enter the temple, to join the people in whose company I belonged....life and the whole world struck me as a prison and it bothered me beyond measure...(to return to the world)” Jung would have to endure another seventeen years of human existence.
Pamela Reynolds died on the operating table. Her body was brain dead so theoretically she could not think, see, feel, or hallucinate. But Pam was not in her body anymore. “I popped out of my head,” she explained later. Later she also explained details of the surgery to the surprised medical staff, including the song that was playing in the background (Hotel California by the Eagles). But when your heart stops, so does your brain. So medically speaking, there was no way Pam could have the knowledge about the operation.
Pam had knowledge of other things too. While dead she saw an incredible light. She also saw her dead grandmother. Pam asked her if the light was God. Grandmother answered, “Oh no, baby. God is not the light. The light is what happens when God breathes.” Then another relative shoved Pam back, back, all the way back into her body. Back on earth, Pam had definite opinions on life after death she shared with people who were dying. Pam told them: “Don’t fear death. Death is is beautiful thing. You’re going to a beautiful place.” To her family Pam declared: “Death is an illusion...Death is a really nasty, bad lie. You shouldn’t fear death.”
It all sounds like an irreverence by Beat poet Gregory Corso, who pictured death hiding under the kitchen sink, pleading with all who will lend an ear: “I’m not real. I’m just a rumor spread by Life.” By the end of her book it sounds like Judy Bachrach, though not picturing a whimpering death under the kitchen sink, does not fear death any longer either. Speaking of the returned, she says:
“They know what most of us do not know - not yet, anyway. Death is not the end. That is what every last one of them says, and frankly, I believe them. We don’t know - yet - how long these death voyages last. It could be for a few hours or it could be, and Dr. van Lommel strongly believes, that it lasts an eternity. But right now his conviction is just that: a belief.
“This we do know, however. Delightful or distressing, something extraordinary is going on after life. The very fact that this something exists, that it is an indelible memory in those who return from the dead, and subsequently a force that exerts a profound influence on the rest of their lives should tell us a lot. Our minds will not vanish. We will be, for at least a while, maybe forever, curiously empowered in ways we never were while alive. We will be enveloped at least for a time, by comprehension. This is our future (p. 230).”
Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
(Gregory Corso, Beat Poet)
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