In 1901, Duncan MacDougall, a respected 34-year-old, Haverhill, Massachusetts physician and surgeon, reported that there is reason to believe that the soul of man has weight. Experimenting with six tuberculosis patients, weighing them just before death and again just after death, he found an average loss of 21 grams. “The net result of the experiments conducted on human beings is that a loss of substance occurs at death not accounted for by known channels of loss,” MacDougall wrote in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. “Is it the soul substance? It would seem to me to be so. According to our hypothesis, such a substance is necessary to the assumption of continuing or persisting personality after bodily death, and here we have experimental demonstration that a substance capable of being weighed does leave the human body at death.”
Skeptical scientists rejected MacDougall’s findings, offering other reasons for the weight loss. MacDougall admitted that his experiment was by no means conclusive and that additional studies were necessary. However, the scientific community couldn’t be bothered with any study that might lend itself to such a “ridiculous” hypothesis, at least until 1988 when two East German researchers, Drs. Becker Mertens and Elke Fisher, weighed more than 200 terminally ill patients just before and immediately after their deaths, finding a loss of 1/3,000th of an ounce, or 0.01 grams. They pointed out that their scale had a margin of error of less than 1/100,000 of an ounce, or 0.0003 grams. “We are inclined to believe that it is a form of energy,” Mertens said. “But our attempts to identify this energy have been unsuccessful to date.” As with MacDougall’s findings, the scientific community arrogantly smirked, and the media for the most part ignored the East German study. After all, a loss of 1/100,000 of an ounce hardly seems significant, even if obviously meaningful to two scientists.
Numerous deathbed witnesses have reported seeing some kind of vaporous or cloud-like substance leaving the body at or near the time of physical death. Whether this so-called “soul mist” accounts for the weight loss is speculative, but certainly worth considering. Dr. Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist known primarily for his pioneering work in near-death experiences, discusses the strange mist in a recent book, Glimpses of Eternity. “They describe it in various ways,” Moody explains. “Some say that it looks like smoke, while others say it is as subtle as steam. Sometimes it seems to have a human shape. Whatever the case, it usually drifts upward and always disappears fairly quickly.”
Moody tells of a Georgia doctor who twice saw a mist coming up from deceased patients. The doctor explained that as the patients died they lit up with a bright glow, their eyes shining with a silvery light. The mist formed over the chest and hovered there, as the doctor observed closely and saw that the mist had depth and complex structure. He further said that it seemed to have layers with energetic motion in it. During the second occurrence, the doctor felt an unseen presence standing beside him and seemingly waiting for the patient to die.
A hospice psychologist is quoted by Moody as saying that the misty clouds that form above the head or chest seem to have an electrical component to them. A nurse reported seeing a mist rising from many patients as they die, including her father, with whom she saw the mist rise from his chest “as if off a still river,” and then hovering for a few seconds before dissipating. A hospice nurse reported seeing a “luminous presence floating near the bed, shaped somewhat like a person.” Moody tells of his own experience as he and other family members gathered at the bed of his dying mother. Among some other strange things, they all saw an unusual light in the room. “It was like looking at light in a swimming pool at night,” Moody offers.
In their 2008 book, The Art of Dying, Dr. Peter Fenwick, a renowned British neuropsychiatrist, and Elizabeth Fenwick also discussed the “smoke,” “grey mist,” or “white mist,” which leaves the body at death. “Sometimes it will hover above the body before rising to disappear through the ceiling, and it is often associated with love, light, compassion, purity, and occasionally with heavenly music,” they wrote, adding that not everyone who is in the room sees it.
The Fenwicks quote a woman named Penny Bilcliffe, who was present when her sister died: “I saw a fast-moving ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ appear to leave her body by the side of her mouth on the right. The shock and the beauty of it made me gasp. It appeared like a fluid or gaseous diamond, pristine, sparkly, and pure, akin to the view from above of an eddy in the clearest pool you can imagine…It moved rapidly upwards and was gone.”
Other researchers, including Dr. Bernard Laubscher, a South African psychiatrist, have reported such misty vapors and “lights” around the deathbed. “I was told by different ‘Tant Sannies’ (caregivers) how, while watching at the bedside of the dying, one with one or two candles burning, they had seen the formation of a faint vaporous body, an elongated whitish purplish-like cloud; parallel with the dying person and about two feet above the body,” Laubscher wrote in a 1975 book, Beyond Life’s Curtain. “Gradually this cloudlike appearance became denser and took on the form, first vaguely and then more definitely, of the person in the bed. This process continued until the phantom suspended above the body was an absolute replica of the person, especially the face.”
Laubscher further wrote that these caregivers, some of whom were apparently clairvoyant, reported seeing a ribbon-like cord stretching from the back of the phantom’s head to the body below and also said that the phantom would begin to glow as it was fully formed.
“They noticed that some were more luminous than others and there was a light all around the outline of the [phantom], which I could only compare to a neon tube,” Laubscher added, going on to say that as the phantom righted itself, the connecting cord thinned out as if it was fraying away. Sometimes these clairvoyant caregivers would report joyous faces of other deceased gathering around to welcome the person to the spirit world before the “silver cord” was severed and the visions ceased.
Laubscher theorized that the vaporous material has the same make-up as ectoplasm, the mysterious substance given off by physical mediums before materializations, seeing it as a sort of glue bonding the physical body with the spirit body. He also theorized that the more materialistic a person, the denser the ectoplasm and the more difficulty the person has in “giving up the ghost.”
In the January 25, 1945, issue of Psychic Observer, reporter Ed Bodin, wrote about a young soldier who claimed he saw ectoplasm on the battlefield. “I have watched it emanate from a badly wounded soldier and then disappear as that soldier breathed his last,” the young soldier was quoted. “One hillbilly comrade from Kentucky called it ‘soul mist,’ revealing that many natives in his part of the country considered it quite a normal thing, although they seldom talked about it.”
Because his orthodox Christian family frowned on discussion of such occult matters, the young soldier asked not to be identified. However, he went on to tell how, after being wounded by shrapnel, another soldier lay badly wounded about 10 feet from him. “I looked at him with pity, forgetting my own pain. Then in the deepening twilight I saw strange smoke begin to curl above him as though coming from his stomach as he lay on his back moaning. The stump of his arm was in the thick mud congealing the blood to some extent and making death slower. Then I remembered what my friend had said about soul mist, and I watched fascinated as the ectoplasm became denser and began to flow toward me. For a moment I thought I saw in it the face of a kindly old lady. Presently it reached me and for a second I was bewildered by the strange sensation that came over me. I felt stronger. With my left arm I raised myself and began to crawl to the dying soldier. I reached for my canteen of water. The mist was still around me, and with a sudden effort I was on my feet and beside the soldier.”
The other soldier died, and the young soldier telling the story rose and walked nearly a mile to the Red Cross representative. He remained unconscious for three days, and medical attendants later told him that they could not understand how he had lived, to say nothing of walking the near mile to safety. “…to my dying day, I shall believe the ectoplasm from the body of that dying soldier had helped me in a mysterious way,” the young soldier added. “It had given me sufficient strength to save my life. That soul mist of a sacrificed soldier was like the spiritual light of Jesus about whom it was said: ‘He could save others, but not Himself.’ ”
In his 1970 book, Out of the Body Experiences, Dr. Robert Crookall, a British geologist and psychical researcher, reported on the experience of Dr. R. B. Hout, a physician, who was present at the death of his aunt. “My attention was called…to something immediately above the physical body, suspended in the atmosphere about two feet above the bed,” Hout recalled. “At first I could distinguish nothing more than a vague outline of a hazy, fog-like substance. There seemed to be only a mist held suspended, motionless. But, as I looked, very gradually there grew into my sight a denser, more solid, condensation of this inexplicable vapor. Then I was astonished to see definite outlines presenting themselves, and soon I saw this fog-like substance was assuming a human form.”
Hout then observed the form take on the shape of his aunt. The form hung suspended horizontally a few feet above the body. When the phantom form appeared complete, Hout saw his aunt’s features clearly. “They were very similar to the physical face, except that a glow of peace and vigor was expressed instead of age and pain. The eyes were closed as though in tranquil sleep, and a luminosity seemed to radiate from the spirit body.”
Hout then saw a “silver-like substance” streaming from the head of the physical body to the head of the spirit body. “The color was a translucent, luminous, silver radiance. The cord seemed alive with vibrant energy. I could see the pulsations of light stream along the course of it, from the direction of the physical body to the spirit ‘double.’ With each pulsation the spirit body became more alive and denser, whereas the physical body became quieter and more nearly lifeless…”
When the pulsations of the cord stopped, Hout could see various strands of the cord snapping. When the last connecting strand snapped, the spirit body rose to a vertical position, the eyes opened, and a smile broke from the face before it vanished from his sight.
Crookall also cited the words of Florence Marryat, an English opera singer and author, who wrote about “a cloud of smoke” gathering over the head of a dying girl, then spreading out and acquiring the shape of the girl’s body. “It was suspended in the air two or three feet above the body… When she lay back unconscious, the Spirit above, which was still bound to her brain, heart, and vitals by cords of light like electricity, became, as it were, a living soul.”
Crookall also quotes the words of W. W. Oaten, an English author: “A smoke-like vapor rose from the dying body and stayed at a few feet above it. Gradually it became ‘an exact duplicate’ of the girl. The ‘duplicate’ was united to the corpse by ‘an umbilical cord.’ This eventually snapped….The floating form assumed an upright position. She turned to me, smiled, and floated away.”
Among the more notable witnesses mentioned by Crookall was Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women. She told of being present at a deathbed and watching “a light mist” rise from the body and float up and vanish in the air. Her mother saw the same thing, and the attending physician told them that it was “the life” departing visibly.
In Zeitschrift fuer Parapsychologie, a German man reported his experience as he sat at the bed of his wife as she was dying. He observed “layers of cloud” drifting into the room, which he first assumed was cigar smoke from an adjoining room. “Overcome with wonder, I looked back at the clouds,” he said, commenting that he was completely aware and definitely not imagining what was taking place. “These floated silently toward the bed and enshrouded it completely.” He then saw a vaporous body form above his wife’s physical body, attached to her body by a vaporous cord. Soon after his wife took her last breath, he observed the cord break and the vaporous body disappear. “I must leave it to the reader to judge whether I was the victim of a hallucination brought on by grief and exhaustion, or whether perhaps my mortal eyes had been privileged to catch a glimpse of the spirit-world in all its happiness, repose, and peace,” he ended his account.
Geraldine Cummins, a renowned Irish automatic writing medium, channeled much information purportedly coming from Frederic W. H. Myers, one of the pioneers of psychical research, who had died in 1901. Myers explained that the “double” hovers above the physical shell for a brief time, during which some can discern a “little white cloud” or “pale essence.”
Eileen Garrett, a respected trance medium and clairvoyant, observed a “vital synthetic essence” leave the body of several people as they died, the first when she was a small girl and was present at the death of her cousin. “I became aware of a dim mist that was exuded from her body, weaving intricately within itself in a rhythm that was without agitation, tension, strain, or pressure,” she wrote, “Fascinated, I watched the faint small cloud move off into space.”
She further witnessed it when her two sons died within a few months of each other. “The dim misty cloud spiraled out from those small bodies as I held them in my arms, and moved away; and with an intensity of desire that was made poignant by my emotional feeling of personal loss, I followed those dim vitalities out and out into endless distances, till the throbbing in my head broke in upon the focus of my concentration.”
Later, she observed it with a friend. “I perceived two small clouds emitted from his body—one from the right side of the torso, at the level of the spleen, the other from the top of his head.”
Various spirit communicators have said that the afterlife condition, at least in the lower realms, planes, or spheres, is composed of matter so fine and of so etheric a texture as to be largely malleable by thought. Thus, it seems very possible that the “misty cloud” seen leaving the body at death is the soul, or the spirit body, etheric body, astral body, double, whatever name be assigned to it by various esoteric schools, and does, in fact, have particles and weight, however microscopic. On the other hand, it could very well be that what some people are seeing is non-matter, or a form of energy, without discernible weight and visible only to some who can tune into higher vibrations. Either way, it is apparently beyond the grasp of modern science.
And while the debunkers and pseudo skeptics no doubt claim that the many sightings of “soul mist” are nothing but hallucinations, Dr. Moody points out that it is one thing to suggest that the dying person is hallucinating, quite another to suggest that healthy and alert witnesses in the room are also hallucinating, especially when two or more observe the same phenomenon.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed and The Afterlife Explorers.