A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife


The Book 4th Edition

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20. Deathbed visions

“A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”
William James

All through this century there have been books published detailing the observations made by doctors and nurses of dying patients.

Although deathbed visions can be found in the literature and lore of all ages, they were rarely mentioned in the scientific literature until the late 1920's, when they were studied by Sir William Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science, in Dublin.

He became interested in the topic when his wife, who was an obstetrical surgeon, arrived home one night and told him about a woman who had died at the hospital that day from a hemorrhage after giving birth.

Just before she had died the woman, Doris, sat up and become very excited about seeing a wonderful landscape and said that her father had come to escort her to the other side.

What was most amazing to the Barretts was the fact that the woman suddenly expressed surprise to see her sister, Vida, with her father. It seems that the sister of Doris, Vida, had died only three weeks earlier. Since Doris had been so ill, the death of her beloved sister had been kept a secret from her.

This story was so inspirational to Barrett that he undertook a systematic study of deathbed visions. His was the first scientific study to conclude that the mind of the dying patient is often clear and rational. He also reported a number of cases in which medical personnel or relatives present shared the dying patient's vision.

His book, published in 1926 was called Deathbed Visions. In it he noted that:

• many times at the moment of death people would see a friend or relative at their bedside whom they thought was still living

• in all cases when it was checked out, the person they saw had died before them without their knowledge

• dying children often expressed surprise that the angels they saw waiting for them didn't have wings.

In the 1960s Dr Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research did a pilot study of deathbed visions that confirmed the findings of Barrett and was later verified across several different cultures. His finding were:

• the most common type of vision was of people who had died before
• bedside visions were usually of short duration, five minutes or less
• the dying patients stated that the visitor had come for the purpose of taking them away
• belief in the after-life has no significance on the frequency or the kind of apparition seen
• the majority of patients in the study had not received drugs which could cause hallucinations.

In 1977 Dr Osis and his colleague, Dr Erlenddur Haraldsson, published At the Hour of Death. This book extended the original study and included reports from over 1000 doctors and nurses in India as well as the United States. In all it reported on the deaths of more than one hundred thousand people. These studies were all found to correlate well with the pioneering work done over a period of 30 years and reported in the several works of Dr Robert Crookall of England.

According to the information provided to him by medical personnel:

• only ten per cent of people are conscious shortly before their death
• of this group one half to two thirds have near death visions
• these visions take the form of apparitional visits of loved ones, glimpses of the next world and medically inexplicable moods of elation.

Dr Melvin Morse claims that the French historian, Philippe Aries, has documented that before 1000AD the dying would tell of visions of God and of seeing those who had died before them. He complains that today patients who have such visions are treated for 'anxiety' with narcotics and Valium, both of which erase short-term memory and prevent patients from remembering any visions they might have had (Morse 1993: 60). He also claims that about ninety per cent of people who die in hospitals are 'heavily sedated, endlessly resuscitated and medicated' and that doctors see deathbed visions as a problem to be medicated away (Morse 1993: 63).

In his book Closer to the Light—Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children, Morse puts forward the view that deathbed visions are 'a forgotten aspect of life's mysterious process' and that they can have a wonderfully comforting and healing effect on both the dying patient and the family (1993: 65). He recounts several cases where dying children began to see visions of the afterlife during the last few days of their lives. They described amazing colors and beautiful places and deceased relatives whom they sometimes had not known existed.

Not hallucinations

Dr Osis himself began with the supposition that these experiences were simple hallucinations caused by the biochemical effects of a dying brain. However, after investigating, he became convinced that these experiences were so extraordinary and so convincing that they could not be explained by the physical condition of the patient or by the medication they had been taking.

There are many cases on record with the Society of Psychical Research where the apparitional visitor has been seen by others at the bedside of the dying person, sometimes by several persons simultaneously:

• in one well documented case a deathbed apparition was seen by the dying woman, Harriet Pearson, and three relatives who were caring for her (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Feb 1904: 185-187)

• in another case of a young boy dying, two witnesses independently saw his recently deceased mother at the child's bedside (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 6 p.20 ).

Deathbed visions are consistent with and support the other evidence for afterlife. Of those who will experience conscious death, fifty to sixty percent will experience a vision of the afterlife.

The importance of deathbed visions

In his book Parting Visions (1994) pediatrician Melvin Morse argues that:

• family members who know about the visions of the dying are known to spend more time at the dying person's bedside. This factor alleviates much of the guilt they might feel after the death
• spiritual visions empower the dying patients making them realize that they have something to share with others
• spiritual visions remove all fear of dying in the patient and are enormously healing to the relatives
• they can prevent burnout on the part of medical personnel
• if attended to they can dramatically reduce wasteful medical procedures that are often painful to the patient. He claims that 30-60% of the American health care dollar is spent in the last few days of a person's life and 'most of it is spent in irrational procedures that do nothing to prolong life' (Morse 1994: 136).

Carla Wills-Brandon M.A. Ph.D. psychologist, counselor and author of six published books, became interested in deathbed visions when her own son had one when he was just three years of age. Visited by an other worldly visitor who shared that he was there to take his grandfather with him, her son was confident his ‘Da’ was all right. In her book One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Death Bed Visions, she not only re-examines the research of Barrett and Osis, but also takes a look at many recent experiences.

Nearing End of Life Experiences (NELE)

Dr Jeff Long and Jody Long are researching Nearing End of Life Experiences which they describe as a new category of research in which a person may see beings and bright light at or as far as six months prior to the time of death.

On the Internet

Carla Wills Brandon
is conducting on-going research on deathbed visions and wants to hear from people who have had one.

To learn about further ongoing research work see the Internet site of the University of Virginia Division of Personality Studies.


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