Near-Death Experience in the Olden Days

The Phenomenon Did Not Begin with Modern Researchers

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Before Dr. Raymond Moody named the Near-Death Experience (NDE) and popularized it in his 1975 best-selling book Life After Life, very few people were aware of the phenomenon. Over the past 35 years, however, there have been doz­ens of books discussing the NDE—a phenomenon which suggests that there is an energy body or spirit body which separates from the physical body at death and lives on in another dimension of reality. But skeptics and debunkers now question new NDE reports, claiming that reading about such experiences has “programmed” people to imagine or to expect the phenomenological features of the NDE, including being out of body, passing through a dark tunnel, seeing and passing into the “light,” meeting deceased relatives or friends, having a panoramic life review, and being told by a deceased relative or spirit guide of some kind that the person must return to the physical body as it is not yet his or her time to transition to their side of the veil.

Or the person may just consciously make up a story based on what he has read so that his name will make it into a book. But, whether or not people consciously make up stories or are unconsciously programmed to expect such things, it is difficult to discount the earliest reports of such experiences—some of which took place long before Dr. Moody began his investigation—since there was no body of stories to draw from.

Moody’s interest in the phenomenon was a result of hearing the story of Dr. George Ritchie, a psychiatrist, while Moody was a student at the University of Virginia in 1965. Ritchie’s experience took place on December 21, 1943, when he was a 20-year-old Army private at Camp Barkeley, Texas. Suffering from double pneumonia and with a tem­perature of 106 degrees, Ritchie was discovered that morning to have no vital signs and was pronounced dead by the medical officer on duty, after which a sheet was pulled over his head. Nine minutes later a ward boy began prepping the body for transfer to the morgue, when he saw Ritchie’s hand move. A doctor was summoned, adrenalin was in­jected into the heart, and Ritchie was breathing again.

Ritchie vividly recalled the period during which he was “dead.” He remembered looking at his body in bed and not realizing that he was looking at himself. He recalled traveling out-of-body to a distant town, then racing back to the camp hospital to find his physical body, but then had trouble finding it until he saw his ring on a hand hanging out from the sheet covering the body. As he sat next to his body wondering what was going on, he was awe-struck by a “radiant presence” and then saw every single episode of his entire life. “Every detail of twenty years of living was there to be looked at,” he marveled. “The good, the bad, the high points, the run of the mill.” The life review seemed to go on endlessly until he was told by the “presence” that he belonged to the body under the sheet and must rejoin it.

The oldest NDE on record appears to be the story of Er, as told by Plato in the Republic. After being “killed” in bat­tle, Er came back to life on the funeral pyre and told of his journey into another world. He was told that he must be a messenger to humanity by returning and informing others what he had observed.

Taking a big leap back to around 1795, we have a fairly detailed record of an experience reported by British Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, who is most remembered today for devising the Beaufort Wind Scales. After telling his experience to his physician, a Dr. Wollaston, he was asked to put it all in writing.

The experience took place when Beaufort was a young sailor on one His Majesty’s ships in Portsmouth harbor. He was sculling about in a small boat endeavoring to fasten the boat to a ship when he stepped upon the gunwale, lost his balance, and fell into the water. Not knowing how to swim, he splashed about before he began to sink below the surface. “All hope had fled, all exertion ceased, and I felt that I was drowning,” Beaufort related in a lengthy letter to Wollaston.

While his plight came to the attention of others, it took a minute or two for them to reach him. Beaufort went on to say that one would assume that a drowning person is too much occupied in the struggle or too much absorbed by alternate hope and despair to remember what happened. “Not so, however, with the fact which immediately ensured,” he wrote. “My mind had then undergone the sudden revolution which appeared to you (Wollaston) so remarkable, and all the circumstances of which are now so vividly fresh in my memory as if they had occurred but yesterday.”

He went on to explain that from the moment that all exertion had ceased—which he imagined was the immediate consequence of complete suffocation—“a calm feeling of the most perfect tranquility succeeded the most tumultuous sensation. It might be called apathy, certainly not resignation; for drowning no longer appeared an evil; I no longer thought of being rescued, nor was I in any bodily pain. On the contrary, my sensations were now of rather a pleasura­ble cast, partaking of that dull but contented sort of feeling which precedes the sleep produced by fatigue.”

His senses were deadened, he continued, but not his mind, “for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of suc­cession that is not only indescribable, but probably inconceivable, by anyone who has been himself in a similar situa­tion. The course of these thoughts I can even now in a great measure retrace: the event that had just taken place, the awkwardness which produced it—the bustle it must have occasioned, for I had observed two persons jump from the chains—the effect it would have on a most affectionate father, the manner in which he would disclose it to the rest of the family, and thousand other circumstances minutely associated with home, were the first series of reflections that occurred.”

Although he estimated that not more than two minutes elapsed between the time he fell into the water and when he was rescued, his entire life played back before him. “…traveling backwards, every incident of my past life seemed to me to glance across my recollection in retrograde procession; 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 view, and each act of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right or wrong, or by some reflection on its cause of consequence—indeed many trifling events, which had been long forgotten, then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity.”

Beaufort speculated on the meaning of it all, seeing it as some indication that we awaken in another world after death and that it at least warrants the inference that death is only a change or modification of our existence, in which there is no real pause or interruption.

Dr. A. S. Wiltse, a physician of Skiddy, Kansas, related his 1889 experience to Frederic W. H. Myers, a pioneering psychical researcher. Wiltse was suffering from typhoid fever and his “apparent death” was said to have lasted about a half-hour according to his own physician. “I lost, I believe, all power of thought or knowledge of existence in absolute unconsciousness,” Wiltse recalled for Myers. “I came again into a state of conscious existence and discovered that I was still in the body, but the body and I had no longer any interest in common. I looked in astonishment and joy for the first time upon myself—the me, the real Ego, while the not-me closed it upon all sides like a sepulcher of clay.”

Wiltse went on to say that he could see the wonders of his bodily anatomy and realized that he was dead. “I have died, as men term death, and yet I am as much a man as ever,” he recalled thinking. “I am about to get out of the body. I watched the interesting process of the separation of soul and body. By some power, apparently not my own, the Ego was rocked to and fro, laterally, as a cradle is rocked, by which process its connection with the tissues of the body was broken up. After a little time the lateral motion ceased, and long the soles of the feet beginning at the toes, passing rapidly to the heels, I felt and heard, as it seemed, the snapping of innumerable small cords.”

As he emerged from the head, he floated up and down laterally until the soul broke loose from the body. He arose, his wife and sister weeping at his bedside oblivious to his separation. He then wandered outside, but could see a small spider web-like cord running from his soul body back to his physical body to the area of the solar plexus. He soon be­came aware of a “presence,” which he could not see, but which he knew was entering into an overhead cloud. “The presence did not seem, to my mind, as a form, because it filled the cloud like some vast intelligence.” He began re­ceiving thoughts. “These, I said, are his thoughts and not mine; they might be in Greek or Hebrew for all power I have over them. But how kindly am I addressed in my mother tongue that so I may understand all his will. Yet, al­though the language was English, it was so eminently above my power to reproduce that my rendition of it is far short of the original. The following is as near as I can render it: ‘This is the road to the eternal world. Yonder rocks are the boundary between the two worlds and the two lives. Once you pass them, you can no more return into the body. If your work is complete on earth, you may pass beyond the rocks. If, however, upon consideration you con­clude that…it is not done, you can return into the body.’

Wiltse approached the rocks and was tempted to cross the boundary line, but then hesitated. “I knew that I was to be stopped. I felt the power to move or to think leaving me. My hands fell powerless at my side, my head dropped for­ward, the cloud touched my face and I knew no more.” In “astonishment and disappointment,” Wiltse then found himself back in his physical body. “What in the world has happened to me?” he exclaimed. “Must I die again?”

Suffering from pneumonia in 1911, Fanny Ruthven Paget, a resident of Houston, Texas, told of her experience in a 1917 book, How I Know that the Dead Are Alive. “All about and above me I could see nothing, but fancy my aston­ishment if you can, when looking down, I saw my body resting peacefully on the bed, representing what is commonly called a ‘dead person’,” Paget recalled. “I could not move my eyes from it; it fascinated me as it lay in the cold white­ness, robed in a gown of lavender silk, with dainty laces and ruffles…The deep blue ‘windows of the soul,’ the eyes, were at half mast; the soul being absent the light was gone; the lips slightly parted wore just a suggestion of a smile; the left hand rested lightly on the breast—the engagement ring scintillating as brightly as ever; the right, which no doubt had been lifted unconsciously at the shock of impact, had fallen a little apart from the body and lay, palm up­turned. How peaceful it looked!”

Paget then concerned herself with her fiancé in another town and found herself being propelled by a vibratory sensation to his sleeping body. “As I looked upon him I saw the shadow body more distinctly than the physical,” she related. “Viewed from the other side of life, the ‘shadow’ body seemed the original and the physical the duplicate, the soul the real, the body the unreal. Within and interpenetrating all was a light, which I had not before perceived as be­ing a part of the spiritual anatomy. This light penetrated from within, both the shadow and physical bodies, maintain­ing through and about the body an aura or illumination which enveloped it; clothing it, as it were, in a magnetized il­lumination. How wonderful this three-in-one life-manifestation seemed, especially when we generally recognize only the one—the physical!”

Moving closer to her fiancé, Paget attempted to converse with him, but he slept on, even though his soul, which was not sleeping, responded joyously and tried to help her penetrate his physical consciousness as he moaned and turned restlessly in his sleep. After a few moments, he cried out, “Fanny, Fanny,” and sat up in bed, wide awake. As he turned on a light and reached for his glasses and a magazine, she tried to communicate, but he did not react to her words. She perceived that her vibratory environment did not harmonize with his. “Mine was the vibration of perpetu­al motion—his more like a ‘dead sea’ into which these vibratory currents ebbed and flowed, and it seemed such an easy matter to move out of the ‘deadness’ into the ‘ebb and flow’ that I waited and watched a long time before I realized that he would make no effort to do so.”

Realizing that she would not be able to penetrate his physical consciousness, she bade him farewell and attempted to move on; however, the vibratory force seemed to restrain her. Instead of struggling against the force, she tried to understand it. “Almost instantly the lesson sank into my consciousness and I realized that the long arm of mundane interests can reach into the Beyond and hold its victims within the shadow of earth—pitting its magnetism against the promise of higher things.”

She then felt herself moving in an undulating way within the propelling vibration and was suddenly enveloped in oppressive heavy darkness, feeling alone in eternity and waiting in awesome uncertainty. She perceived that the dark­ness was really within her and could be eliminated only from within. “There were loved ones and many others wel­coming me and rejoicing that I was with them.” Her spirit guide, who identified himself as Meon, was also there. She now felt light and carefree.

Meon took her for a tour of the lower spirit realms and then into the “Dawn World” where she was allowed to view something that was not unlike a “moving picture” of her entire life. This “movie” of her life continued her childhood on to the time she came down with a severe case of laryngitis and lost her singing voice. She saw herself cursing God and being enveloped by a shadow-stained covering of materialism. She saw both her parents pass into the spirit world, leaving her alone, fighting the bitter fight. She saw even the most trivial matters in her life review. “Its faith­fulness to detail was perfectly marvelous. Nothing was hidden, nothing slurred over. It was all there. I was standing face to face with my earth life just as I had lived it, awaiting its condemnation or justification.”

When the life review ended, Meon stood waiting. He told her that the purpose of the review was to build an edifice on the ashes as she returned to earth life. “Meon and other spirits were hovering about me,” she ended the story. “I could feel the electrified essence, which had manifested its presence everywhere during my voyage, drawing itself away—letting me go, as it were. Then the burden of physical life was full upon me and what a misfit I was!”

MICHAEL E. TYMN

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