Experiencing the Next World Now
By Michael Grosso, Ph.D.
In 1961, Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research undertook a scientific study of deathbed visions. Osis reasoned that a more objective way to study deathbed visions would be to obtain descriptions of them from medical professionals. He sent a detailed questionnaire to 5,000 physicians and 5,000 nurses; he received in return 640. This was followed by telephone interviews and written correspondence. Nurses, by the way, turned in three times the observations that physicians did.
The questionnaire was designed to find out what caused the experiences. Were there cultural (religious beliefs), psychological (expectation), or medical factors (drugs) causing patients' visions? Or did they occur independently of such factors, thus suggesting an external source? As usual, the method is to try to infer the best explanation of the phenomenon.
Fear apparently is not the main emotion at the time of death; indifference is more common. What was surprising was the number of terminal patients becoming elated at the hour of death. The exaltation of dying persons is often observed to occur suddenly; the external behavior of the dying person clearly suggests they have seen something. This sudden elation is unlike drug-induced euphoria. One physician commented: "There is such a resigned, peaceful, almost happy expression which comes over the patient-it is hard to explain but it leaves me with the feeling that I would not be afraid to die."
The data showed a strong relationship between deathbed elation and religious belief. There are two ways you can interpret this. Religious belief may cause the hallucination or sensitize the patient to transcendent experiences. Other puzzling observations: Some patients display "extreme strength just before death," and two patients, a schizophrenic, the other senile, recovered their normal mental functions just before death. This is a classic anomaly, not easy to explain in terms of the prevailing medical paradigm.
Osis harvested 884 cases of dying people who had visionary experiences. What did all this data tell him? Were there discernible trends pointing toward destruction or toward the afterlife? First of all, this work confirmed earlier findings. Dying people mainly hallucinate the dead. In other types of hallucination, the living, not just the dead, are "seen." The young-not just the old-hallucinate the dead. The dying hallucinate close relatives, a fact consistent with the afterlife hypothesis. Close relatives, if they survived, would be motivated to "visit" the dying. (In nondeathbed hallucinations, close relatives are not typically seen.)
Patients who saw deathbed figures perceived their surroundings in a normal way. Again, this differs from psychotic hallucinations where patients see their surroundings as distorted. Deathbed visions have a clear purpose: It is to take the dying person to another world. Traubel sees Walt Whitman, who keeps saying, "Come on, come on."
Osis found four cases where the apparition was collectively perceived.
Could these visions be explained by disease, toxicity, or pharmaceutical intervention? Nothing in the data supports these explanations. No correlation between deathbed visions and being medicated or delirious was found, and in fact sedatives were found to suppress deathbed visions. An intact consciousness is best for having a deathbed vision. "Deathbed patients see apparitions more often when fully conscious and having proper awareness and capability of responding to their environment." In other words, the patient's consciousness is not impaired at the moment of having the vision.
Could the visions reflect a superstitious lack of education? It turns out that the majority of dying visionaries was educated. Another finding was that ". . . calm and radiant peace emerge in the death situation without any apparent external cause." The immediate impression, especially when the patient suddenly gazes fixedly, rapturously, at a specific spot in the room, is that the exaltation is externally caused. According to Osis, this unexplained elation confirms the afterlife hypothesis.
In 1977, Osis and Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson published a cross-cultural study of deathbed visions. They compared deathbed observations of Indian and American medical professionals, and sought to determine whether the visions depended on cultural, medical, and psychological influences. For the most part, this new survey confirmed the earlier work, adding new observations to an already strange picture.
In one case, a frightened four-year-old girl was admitted to a hospital in Delhi; for three days a god was loudly telling her she was about to die. Physicians examined her and found her in perfect health. The girl stared fixedly at something invisible, shouting, "God is calling and I am going to die," so the distraught parents left her in the hospital for observation. The following day she died from circulatory collapse without apparent cause.
Could this have been caused by autosuggestion? The girl may have come to believe she was going to die, and died as a result of autosuggestion. Physiologist Walter Cannon studied cases of voodoo death, and found that some people, in perfect health, who believe they're under a spell, can indeed die by autosuggestion. So it is physiologically possible; however, the Hindu child wasn't under any spell, and no one planted the idea of death in her head. Nor is there any explanation of why she might have planted the expectation in herself.
Most reported visions dispel fear and facilitate dying. But what of visions that call (Whitman's "come on!") but cause fear and exacerbate dying? These are the "no-consent" cases. No-consent cases strengthen the impression that the caller is external, not part of the dying patient's subconscious fantasy life. For example, a nineteen-year-old woman saw her father coming to take her away, but she was terrified. "Edna, hold me tight," she said to the nurse, and died in her arms.