This is a true story.
In the early morning hours of March 2, 1957, two sisters, Jean and Alice, sat in a hospital room, watching their seventy-nine-year-old mother, Ella, die.
On December 28 of the preceding year, Ella had fallen and broken her hip. Complications from a hip fracture — potentially fatal even today — were a virtual death sentence in the 1950’s.
The sisters, both in their late thirties, knew that the journey was nearly over — for several hours, Ella had been conversing with relatives who had passed away, as if preparing for whatever was ahead.
Ella was particularly engaged with her late husband, Henry. Although her words were coherent, the subject matter was elusive: she seemed to be responding, she seemed reassured, but what she was saying was not detailed enough for either sister to follow along.
At 1:20 am, Ella took her final breath.
And then a mist, a white cloud, emerged from the trunk of her body, rose in the air and evaporated.
Both sisters were convinced that they saw their mother’s spirit leave her body.
This story is also true.
In the early 1990’s, a woman in her late forties was involved in a serious automobile collision. Ambulances were summoned and crews attempted to remove her crushed body from behind the wheel of the damaged car.
At some point during the process, she passed away.
As emergency measures were applied, the woman floated above the scene, observing details that were later confirmed to be accurate.
Eventually, she was revived — today, still slightly crippled by the accident, she is in reasonably good health. Although she is happy and wants to continue to live, she has no fear of death.
The End-of-Life-Experiences, or ELE’s as researchers label them, chronicled in these two episodes are the subject of much debate in deathcare circles. Reports indicate that 95 percent of the cultures of the world have recorded some form of ELE’s; studies have also demonstrated that as many as 8% of deaths are accompanied by these phenomena.
Researching ELE’s, Near Death Experiences (NDE’s, an umbrella term which encompasses the full range of occurrences connected to a near passing) and Out of Body Experiences, is formidable. As Dr. Janice Holden has said, it’s impossible to find “reliable, irreversibly dead people to participate in studies.”
Given this limitation, hard science has tended to dismiss these events as biochemical creations of dying minds, simply wishful thinking (sometimes based on religious convictions) about the hereafter.
But can biochemical hallucinations, theological convictions and wishful thinking explain away the complete spectrum of NDE’s?
Author Leslie Kean, whose Surviving Death is a classic summation of evidence for an afterlife, writes: “we must also understand that human beings have extraordinary mental abilities that science cannot explain. They may be controversial, but they have been documented by legitimate scientists for many years. I have personally witnessed them in operation.”
In her book, Kean explores the work credible scientists have done on NDE’s; many of these scientists were skeptics before undertaking their research. The studies in Surviving Death are not based on dogmatic considerations, nor are they intended to buttress theological viewpoints — there’s no agenda but an honest examination of life’s end.
Kean pays particular attention to the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. The mission of this department is to study “phenomena related to consciousness clearly functioning beyond the confines of the physical body, as well as phenomena that are directly suggestive of post-mortem survival of consciousness.”
In Surviving Death, Peter Fenwick, the eminent neuropsychiatrist, recalled the deathbed of Thomas Edison: “the great inventor Edison, just hours before his death, emerged from a coma, opened his eyes, looked up, and said, ‘it’s very beautiful over there.'”
Whatever, if anything, Edison saw is up for scientific debate – and that debate may never be resolved in this life.