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Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: “Peak in Darien” Experiences

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Abstract

The ubiquitous belief that, after death, our consciousness might persist in some discarnate form is fueled in part by phenomena like near-death experiences (NDEs) and deathbed visions, mystical experiences reported on the threshold of death. Some NDEs, called “Peak in Darien” experiences, include visions of deceased people who are not known at the time to be dead. Cases of this kind provide some of the most persuasive evidence for the survival of consciousness after bodily death.
Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died:
“Peak in Darien” Experiencesanhu_1064 159..171
BRUCE GREYSON
Division of Perceptual Studies
Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences
University of Virginia Health System
210 10th Street NE, Suite 100
Charlottesville, VA 22902–5328
SUMMARY The ubiquitous belief that, after death, our consciousness might persist
in some discarnate form is fueled in part by phenomena like near-death experiences
(NDEs) and deathbed visions, mystical experiences reported on the threshold of death.
Some NDEs, called “Peak in Darien” experiences, include visions of deceased people
who are not known at the time to be dead. Cases of this kind provide some of the most
persuasive evidence for the survival of consciousness after bodily death. [Keywords:
near-death experience, deathbed vision, after-death communication, survival of
death, spirit]
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, 1817
The belief that, after the death of our physical body, our consciousness might
persist in some discarnate form has been widely held in almost every culture.
Although skeptics attribute such a belief to a fear of annihilation, it is fueled not
only by our fears and wishes, but also more cogently by our experiences.
Indeed, a wide variety of human experiences suggest to us that our conscious-
ness may not cease when our bodies die.
Experiences that suggest postmortem survival include spontaneous visions
of the deceased, particularly those involving interactive apparitions that com-
municate and converse responsively with the experiencer and often occur
around the time of death. Often the deceased spirit appears to convey some
meaningful message to the experiencer. Additional evidence of postmortem
Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp 159–171, ISSN 1559-9167, online ISSN 1548-1409.
© 2010 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1409.2010.01064.x.
survival comes from “mediums,” people who claim to communicate with
deceased spirits on behalf of bereaved clients (Stevenson 1968, 1977). Although
some mediumistic communications comprise vague messages that might apply
to anyone or that seem to originate in the imaginations of the clients and the
mediums, there have been controlled, double-blind studies in which some
mediums have produced specific and detailed messages (Beischel 2007; Roy
and Robertson 2001). Particularly intriguing evidence comes from “drop-in
communicators,” purportedly deceased spirits who appear unbidden during a
mediumistic séance and unknown to the sitters or to the medium but, never-
theless, communicating messages that turn out to contain accurate information
(Stevenson 1970; Ravaldini et al. 1990).
Additional evidence for survival of consciousness after bodily death comes
from near-death experiences, or NDEs, the mystical or transcendental experi-
ences that some people report when they have come close to death; and from
deathbed visions, comparable phenomena that occur in the last moments of life.
NDEs have been investigated widely over the past three decades, primarily
with regard to their epidemiology, their psychophysiological correlates, and
their effects on the lives of experiencers (Holden et al. 2009). Despite that focus
on mundane aspects of NDEs, however, the main reason that these experiences
generate interest among the general public is that they seem to provide evi-
dence that consciousness can function independent of the human body and
may, therefore, be able to survive bodily death (Serdahely 1989).
NDEs commonly include a number of phenomenological features, which
suggest consciousness to be separate from the physical body, which in turn
suggests it may persist after the death of the body (Kelly et al. 2000). The vast
majority of near-death experiencers report that during the time that their brains
were demonstrably impaired, their thinking, by contrast, was clearer and faster
than ever before, as if the mind had been freed from the distractions and
limitations of the physical brain. Such enhanced mentation is in fact signifi-
cantly more common during NDEs in which proximity to death was well
documented in medical records than during NDEs lacking such documentation
(Owens et al. 1990), and includes increased speed, logic, and clarity of thought;
overall visual and auditory clarity; vividness of colors; and control of cognition.
Among a large sample of near-death experiencers, 80 percent described their
thinking during the NDE as “clearer than usual” (45 percent) or “as clear as
usual” (35 percent); 74 percent described their thinking as “faster than usual”
(37 percent) or “at the usual speed” (37 percent); 65 percent described their
thinking as “more logical than usual” (29 percent) or “as logical as usual” (36
percent); and 55 percent described their control over their thoughts as in “more
control than usual” (36 percent) or in “as much control as usual” (36 percent)
(Kelly et al. 2007:386). For example, a 33-year-old man who had attempted
suicide by overdose, in his drug-induced delirium started hallucinating small
humanoid figures surrounding his body. As his condition deteriorated, he felt
as if he had left his physical body and hovered above it. From this vantage point
he watched his body looking around in puzzlement at the small humanoid
figures. He himself, from his disembodied location, could not see those
hallucinations—he was thinking and perceiving quite clearly—but he could see
that his body was still hallucinating. By his account, his mind could function
160 Anthropology and Humanism Volume 35, Number 2
much more clearly and was not subject to drug-induced hallucinations once it
was liberated from the brain.
Furthermore, some near-death experiencers report accurate out-of-body
observations that they could not have known about by normal means. For
example, a 56-year-old truck driver who had an NDE during coronary bypass
surgery, although fully anesthetized, claimed he left his body during the opera-
tion and watched from above, where he was surprised to see the surgeon
“flapping his elbows as if trying to fly.” When he later asked the surgeon why
he had engaged in this strange behavior, the surgeon explained that he had
permitted his assistants to start the surgery, and then he entered the operating
suite to supervise them. Having “scrubbed in” and having been gloved and
gowned, and not wanting to risk touching anything that was not in the sterile
surgical field until he was ready to do the surgery, he placed his hands securely
on his chest and motioned with his elbows to emphasize his instructions to the
assistants (Cook et al. 1998).
In addition to out-of-body experiences, NDEs and related deathbed visions
often include apparent encounters with deceased persons, but rarely with
living persons. In our collection of 665 NDEs, 138 (21 percent) included a
purported encounter with a deceased person, whereas only 25 (4 percent)
included a purported encounter with a living person. This discrepancy is
sometimes cited as evidence of postmortem survival of the persons seen,
although it could also conceivably be attributed to the dying person’s expec-
tations of imminent death. Psychologist Emily Kelly (2001) contrasted the
expectation hypothesis with the hypothesis that these visions reflect the con-
tinued survival of deceased persons. She noted that some features of these
cases seemed equally compatible with either hypothesis. Other features
appeared more consistent, however, with the survival hypothesis than with
the expectation hypothesis, such as visions of deceased persons other than the
one(s) the experiencer wished to see and visions of unidentified deceased
persons. That is, the expectation hypothesis would predict that people facing
death might be more likely to hallucinate figures identifiable as welcoming
deceased loved ones.
There is one type of vision of the deceased that cannot be attributed plausibly
to expectation, which challenges most directly the hypothesis that NDEs are
subjective hallucinations and bears most directly on the question of the post-
mortem survival of consciousness. Some experiencers on their deathbeds see,
and often express surprise at seeing, a recently deceased person of whose death
neither they nor anyone around them had any knowledge, thereby excluding
the possibility that the vision was a hallucination related to the experiencer’s
expectations.
Such NDEs have come to be called “Peak in Darien” cases, after a book by
that name published in 1882 by Frances Power Cobbe (Murphy 1945:8). Cobbe
took the title from a poem by John Keats (1994), reproduced at the beginning of
this article. The poem describes the surprise of the Spaniards, who, upon climb-
ing a peak in Darien (in what is now Panama), expect to see a continent laid out
before them, but are faced instead with another ocean. Cobbe appropriated
Keats’s metaphor of the unexpected view from the peak in Darien to describe
surprising visions of the dying, hidden from others at the deathbed:
Greyson Seeing Dead People 161
We have walked in company with our brother...through the wilderness of this
world...and then we have begun to climb the awful Andes which have always
loomed before us at out journey’s end...and beyond them—the Undiscovered
Land. We see our companion slowly approach the mountain’s crown, while our
lagging steps yet linger on the slopes below....There breaks on his vision whatever
there may be of the unknown World beyond....Doesourforerunner on the hilltop
. . . behold, from his “Peak in Darien,” an Ocean yet hidden from our view?
[1877:374–375]
There are three varieties of “Peak in Darien” experiences that may vary in
their evidential value. The first variety comprises cases in which the deceased
person seen had died some time before the vision, although that death was
unknown to the experiencer, as far as could be ascertained. The second includes
cases in which the deceased person seen had died at the time of, or immediately
before, the vision, thus not allowing any possibility for the experiencer to have
learned of the death. Finally, the third type consists of cases in which the
deceased person seen was someone whom the experiencer had never known.
Reports of “Peak in Darien” cases are scattered throughout the literature, and
they are often inadequately documented; but there are enough of them to
warrant giving them serious attention. What follows is a representative sam-
pling of some of the more illustrative cases of these three types from the
published literature.
Cases in which the Deceased Person Seen Was Thought by the
Experiencer to Be Alive
A 17th-century case of an NDE in which the experiencer saw a deceased
person still thought to be alive was described in a pamphlet by Dr. Henry
Atherton in 1680. Atherton’s 14-year-old sister, who had been sick for a long
time, was thought to have died. Indeed, the women attending to her saw no
breath when they held a mirror to her mouth and saw no response when they
put live coals to her feet. Nevertheless, the girl recovered and related a vision of
visiting heaven, which her relatives dismissed as “dream or fancy” (Atherton
1680:2). The girl then insisted that she had seen several people who had died
after she had lost consciousness. One of those she named was thought to be still
alive; however, her family subsequently sent out inquiries and confirmed that
the girl was correct.
As religious scholar Carol Zaleski (1987) pointed out in her comparison of
medieval return-from-death stories and contemporary NDEs, the narrator’s
purpose in recording an experience frequently influences the range of phenom-
ena described, as well as the interpretation of the experience. Atherton appeared
to have published his sister’s NDE as a cautionary morality tale, if we can judge
by the full title of his pamphlet: The Resurrection Proved: Or, The Life to Come
Demonstrated. Being a Strange but True Relation of what hapned to Mris Anna
Atherton: Who lay in a Trance 7 Days, with her Speech when she came to life, As it
came from her Brother, Dr. Atherton, Physician in Caermarthen. Published, now
seasonably, in this Adulterous, Atheistical and Papistical Generation, wherein neither
God, Christ, Soul, Heaven nor Hell are minded; but Whoring, Swaring, Lying, &c.
and, it may serve as a Curb to Vice, and a Spur to Vertue (Atherton 1680). Notably,
162 Anthropology and Humanism Volume 35, Number 2
the particular focus of our interest, the girl’s identification of a deceased person
not previously known to be dead, was a peripheral detail not essential to the
author’s moral message. It is therefore unlikely that this detail was merely
fabricated for its allegorical impact.
In the publication in which she coined the term “Peak in Darien” (1882),
Cobbe described a woman who, as she was dying, suddenly showed joyful
surprise and spoke of seeing three of her brothers who had long been dead. She
then apparently recognized a fourth brother, who was believed by everyone
present to be still living in India. One of those bystanders was so shocked by the
fourth brother being seen that she “rushed half-senseless from the room”
(Cobbe 1877:378). Sometime thereafter letters arrived announcing the death of
the brother in India, which had occurred prior to his dying sister recognizing
him.
In another 19th-century example, psychologist Edmund Gurney and classi-
cal scholar F. W. H. Myers reported the case of two brothers, ages three and
four, who died of scarlet fever on successive days. Harry, the younger brother,
died on November 2, and David, the older brother, died 14 miles away on
November 3. David’s family took care to keep him from knowing about Harry’s
death, and they felt sure that he did not know. Nevertheless, about an hour
before he died, David sat up in bed and, pointing, said distinctly, “There is little
Harry calling to me” (Gurney and Myers 1889:459).
Gurney and Myers also described the case of John Alkin Ogle, who, an hour
before he died, saw his brother who had died 16 years earlier, calling him by
name. Ogle then called out in surprise, “George Hanley!”—the name of a casual
acquaintance in a village 40 miles away—before expiring. His mother, who was
visiting from Hanley’s village, then confirmed that Hanley had died 10 days
earlier, a fact that no one else in the room had known (Gurney and Myers
1889:459–460).
In the early 20th century, logician and ethicist James Hyslop related the
account of two schoolmates and close friends who both contacted diphtheria.
Jennie, age 8, died on a Wednesday, a fact that was intentionally kept hidden
from her friend Edith. At noon on that Saturday, Edith selected two of her
photographs to be sent to Jennie, providing evidence that she still thought
Jennie to be alive. Shortly thereafter she lapsed into unconsciousness, but that
evening she awakened and spoke of seeing deceased friends. Then suddenly
she said to her father, in great surprise, “Why, papa, I am going to take Jennie
with me!” She then reached out her arms and said, “O, Jennie, I’m so glad you
are here,” lapsed back into unconsciousness, and died (Hyslop 1908:88–89).
There have been a number of additional cases published in the 20th century,
although many of these reports have been rather brief. Philosopher William
Barrett reported the case of a woman who on her deathbed saw her deceased
father beckoning to her and said, with a puzzled expression, “He has Vida with
him.” The woman was referring to her sister, of whose illness and death three
weeks earlier she had not been told (Barrett 1926:12–13).
More recently, Technicolor pioneer Natalie Kalmus wrote an account in a
popular magazine, subsequently reprinted in several books, of her sister Elean-
or’s last moments, in which she began calling out the names of deceased loved
ones whom she was seeing. Just before she died, she also saw a cousin named
Greyson Seeing Dead People 163
Ruth and asked, “What’s she doing here?” Ruth had died unexpectedly the
week before, and Eleanor, because of her condition, had not been told (Kalmus
1949).
Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson described the deathbed vision of an elderly
woman in the United States. When the doctors said that she did not have long
to live, her grandchildren gathered around her bed. Suddenly she seemed much
more alert, and the expression on her face changed to one of great pleasure and
excitement. She raised herself slightly and said, “Oh, Will, are you there?” and
fell back dead. No one named Will was present, and the only Will her family
could recall was a great-uncle who lived in England. Not long after, her family
received word from England that her brother Will had died about two days
before her death (Stevenson 1959:22).
Robert Crookall reported the case of Horace Wheatley, who, while in a coma,
felt himself “floating in an atmosphere of peace and serenity” where he was
approached by a local government officer he knew well. His friend said:
“Welcome Wheatley; I shall have to see you later,” and then faded from view.
Only after recovering from his coma did Wheatley learn from his wife that this
friend had passed on (Crookall 1960:21–22).
Psychologists Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson wrote of a man who died
in a hospital in Connecticut the day after his sister’s death in Ohio. Before
expiring, he mentioned seeing his sister Mary in his hospital room, although he
did not know that she was dead (Osis and Haraldsson 1977:164)
Psychologist Kenneth Ring related the account of a man who experienced a
near-death vision of two of his brothers, one of whom had been dead for years,
while the other had died only two days previously—a fact unknown to the
dying man. Only after he recovered from his near-death state did he learn of his
brother’s recent demise (Ring 1980:208).
Pollster George Gallup reported the case of a woman who announced to
bedside witnesses, “There’s Bill,” immediately before dying. Bill was her
brother, of whose death a week earlier she had not been told (Gallup and
Proctor 1982:14).
Hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley wrote of a 93-year-old
Chinese woman dying of cancer who had recurrent visions of her deceased
husband calling her to join him. One day, much to her puzzlement, she saw her
sister with her husband, and both were calling her to join them. She told the
hospice nurse that her sister was still alive in China, and that she hadn’t seen her
for many years. When the hospice nurse later reported this conversation to the
woman’s daughter, the daughter stated that the patient’s sister had in fact died
two days earlier of the same kind of cancer, but that the family had decided not
to tell the patient to avoid upsetting or frightening her. When her daughter
then told the patient about her sister’s illness and death, she relaxed, the
puzzle solved, and she died at peace shortly thereafter (Callanan and Kelley
1993:93–94).
Callanan and Kelley also reported the case of two childhood friends who
died around the same time, hundreds of miles apart. Steve, who lived in Boston,
used to spend each summer at the family’s beach house on Cape Cod, next door
to his friend Ralph, whose family came each summer from Ohio. After college,
their Cape Cod summers together and close friendship ended; they rarely got to
164 Anthropology and Humanism Volume 35, Number 2
see each other, and, apart from Christmas cards, did not correspond. At age 27,
an automobile accident left Steve paralyzed from the neck down. Unable to care
for him at home, his family placed him in a nursing home, where he eventually
succumbed to pneumonia. Weeks later a letter arrived from Ralph’s widow in
Ohio, saying that Ralph had died recently of cancer. Ralph had not known of
Steve’s paralysis or death, but in the last few weeks before he died, Ralph began
to have visions. Just before he died, and just after Steve had died, Ralph said
excitedly: “Oh, look! Here comes Steve! He’s come to take me swimming”
(Callanan and Kelley 1993:86–87).
Most recently, intensive care nurse Penny Sartori reported the vision of one
of her hospitalized patients whose condition was so severe that his family was
called to the hospital at 3:00 a.m. to say good-bye to him.At one point, he smiled
and appeared to converse with someone no one else could see. He subsequently
told his family that he had been visited by his deceased mother and grand-
mother, and also by his sister. His sister had died the previous week, but the
family had made a point of not telling him for fear of setting back his recovery.
He died a few days later (Sartori 2008:300).
Cases in which the Person Seen Died Immediately before the Vision
As suggestive as the above cases are, the lapse of time between the death of
the person seen and the experiencer’s vision permits speculation that the expe-
riencer had known of the prior death, albeit unconsciously. That speculation is
less plausible when the death of the person seen coincides with or immediately
precedes the vision.
One of the earliest cases of a near-death experiencer seeing a recently
deceased person still thought to be alive was published by Pliny the Elder, in
Book 7 of his Natural History (1942[A.D. 77]). The account involves two noble
Roman brothers, both named Corfidius. When the elder brother appeared to
have died and stopped breathing, his will was opened, naming his younger
brother as his heir. The younger brother then engaged an undertaker to arrange
the funeral. The apparently deceased older Corfidius, however, stunned the
undertaker by clapping his hands in a typical signal to summon his servants. He
then awoke and announced that he had just come from the house of his younger
brother. He reported that the younger brother requested that the funeral
arrangements he had made for the now-revived older Corfidius be used for
him instead, entrusted the care of his daughter to his older brother, and showed
his older brother where he had secretly buried some gold underground. As the
older Corfidius was relating the account of his NDE, his younger brother’s
servants burst in with the news that their master had just unexpectedly died;
and the buried gold, of which no one else knew, was found in the place
indicated by the revived older brother (Pliny 1942[A.D. 77]:624–625).
Some detailed cases were published in the 19th century in the Proceedings of
the Society for Psychical Research. Eleanor Sidgwick wrote of an English gentle-
woman, who was seeking someone to sing with some visiting children. She
engaged Julia X, the daughter of a local tradesman, who was training as a public
singer, to spend a week with them. When she left, Julia X told her father she had
never had as happy a week. Shortly thereafter, Julia X married and moved away.
Greyson Seeing Dead People 165
Six or seven years later, the gentlewoman who had engaged Julia X lay dying
and was talking over some business matters, appearing “perfectly com-
posed and in thorough possession of her senses.” Suddenly she changed the
subject and said, “Do you hear those voices singing?” No one else present heard
them, and she concluded: “[The voices are] the angels welcoming me to
Heaven; but it is strange, there is one voice amongst them I am sure I know, and
cannot remember whose voice it is.” Suddenly she stopped and, pointing up,
added: “Why there she is in the corner of the room; it is Julia X.” No one else
present saw the vision, and the next day, February 13, 1874, the woman died. On
February 14, Julia X’s death was announced in the Times. Her father later
reported that “on the day she died she began singing in the morning, and sang
and sang until she died” (Sidgwick 1885:92–93).
Alice Johnson reported a case in which Mrs. Hicks, on her deathbed in
England, had a vision of her absent son Eddie, who happened to be dying at the
same time in Australia. A few days before Mrs. Hicks died, she looked earnestly
at the door to the room and said to her nurse, husband, and daughters, “There
is someone outside, let him in.” Her daughter assured her there was no one
there and opened the door wider. After a pause, Mrs. Hicks said: “Poor Eddie;
oh, he is looking very ill; he has had a fall.” Her family assured her that the last
news they had heard from him was that he was quite well, but she continued
from time to time to say, “Poor Eddie!” Some time after she died, her husband
received a letter from Australia announcing their son’s death. He had suddenly
become feverish the day of his mother’s vision and was found dead, having
fallen from his horse at about the time of his mother’s vision (Johnson 1899:290).
Several cases rich in detail were published in books in the 20th century. John
Myers related the case of a woman who, in an NDE, perceived herself leaving
her body and viewing the hospital room and saw her distraught husband and
the doctor shaking his head. She reported that she went to heaven and saw an
angel and a familiar young man. She exclaimed: “Why, Tom, I didn’t know you
were up here,” to which Tom responded that he had just arrived. The angel then
told the woman that she would be returning to earth, and she found herself
back in the hospital bed with the doctor looking over her. Later that night, her
husband got a call informing him that their friend Tom had died in an auto
accident (Myers 1968:55–56).
More recently, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described a Native Ameri-
can woman who was struck by a hit-and-run driver on a highway and, before
dying, was comforted by a stranger, who stopped his car to help her. When he
asked her if there was anything he could do for her, she said: “If you ever get
near the Indian reservation, please tell my mother that I was OK. Not only OK,
but very happy because I am already with my dad.” The woman died a few
minutes later, before an ambulance arrived. The stranger was so moved that he
drove far out of his way to the Indian reservation, where the mother of the
victim told him that her husband had died of a coronary 700 miles away, just one
hour before the car accident had occurred (Kübler-Ross 1983:208–209).
Kübler-Ross also described the case of a mother and two young sons who
had been in an automobile accident. Kübler-Ross was attending to one of the
sons and was aware that his mother had died at the scene of the accident. His
brother Peter had not died but had been taken to a special burn unit in another
166 Anthropology and Humanism Volume 35, Number 2
hospital because the car had caught fire before he was extricated from the wreck.
Kübler-Ross’s patient told her: “Everything is all right now. Mommy and Peter
are already waiting for me.” Then smiling, he slipped back into a coma and
died. Kübler-Ross resolved to check on the brother in the burn unit, but as she
passed the nursing station she received a call from the other hospital to inform
her that Peter had died a few minutes earlier (Kübler-Ross 1983:210).
Psychiatrist Raymond Moody described the NDE of a man who was near
death with heart problems at the same time that his sister was near death in
another part of the same hospital in a diabetic coma. The man reported that he
left his body and watched the physicians work from his vantage point in the
corner of the room. Suddenly, he claimed, he found himself conversing with his
sister, who was up there with him. As she began to move away from him, he
tried to go with her, but she told him: “You can’t go with me because it’s not
your time.” Then she receded into the distance through a tunnel. When he
awoke, he told the doctors that his sister had died, but they reassured him that
she hadn’t. At his insistence, they had a nurse check, and, in fact, she had just
died (Moody and Perry 1988:136).
Callanan and Kelley described the case of Peggy, a young hospice patient
dying of lymphoma. One day, she seemed to the visiting nurse much more
bright, radiant, and active than usual. She reported that the previous day she
had been drifting in and out of sleep, remembering back to a happy time in her
childhood when she and her brother were taken in by a beloved aunt. She woke
up with a start when she felt a warm, caring hand on her shoulder, and looking
around behind her saw her aunt, who lived in another state, smiling and
touching her. She felt her aunt with her off and on all day, and late that night her
uncle called to say her aunt had died at the same time that she was first aware
of her presence (Callanan and Kelley 1993:94–95).
Physician K. M. Dale related the case of 9-year-old Eddie Cuomo, whose
fever finally broke after nearly 36 hours of anxious vigil on the part of his
parents and hospital personnel. As soon as he opened his eyes, at 3:00 in the
morning, Eddie urgently told his parents that he had been to heaven, where he
saw his deceased Grandpa Cuomo, Auntie Rosa, and Uncle Lorenzo. His father
was embarrassed that Dr. Dale was overhearing Eddie’s story and tried to
dismiss it as feverish delirium. Then Eddie added that he also saw his 19-year-
old sister Teresa, who told him he had to go back. His father then became
agitated, because he had just spoken with Teresa, who was attending college in
Vermont, two nights ago; and he asked Dr. Dale to sedate Eddie. Later that
morning, when Eddie’s parents telephoned the college, they learned that Teresa
had been killed in an automobile accident just after midnight, and that college
officials had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Cuomos at their home to inform
them of the tragic news (Steiger and Steiger 1995:42–46).
Cases in which the Deceased Person Seen was Unknown to
the Experiencer
There are fewer published cases of the third type of Peak in Darien vision,
in which the experiencer sees a deceased person that he or she did not
know, because the unknown nature of the deceased person generally makes
Greyson Seeing Dead People 167
verification difficult. In some cases, a near-death experiencer will encounter an
unknown person that he or she later recognizes when shown photographs of
deceased family members. The evidential value of these cases is decreased
because the verification relies on the experiencer’s own testimony that the
unknown deceased visitor corresponds to someone in the photograph. There
are nevertheless a few impressive examples of this type of case from recent
decades.
Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings described the case of a 48-year-old man who
had a cardiac arrest. In a NDE he perceived a gorge full of beautiful colors, lush
vegetation, and light, where he met both his stepmother and his biological
mother, who had died when he was only 15 months old. His father had remar-
ried soon after his biological mother’s death, and the experiencer had never
even seen a photo of her. A few weeks after this episode, his aunt, having heard
about this vision, visited and brought a picture of his mother posing with a
number of other people. The man had no difficulty picking his mother out of the
group, to the astonishment of his father (Rawlings 1978:17–22).
Kübler-Ross wrote of a girl who, after almost dying during heart surgery,
said she had met her brother, who seemed familiar to her, even though she
thought she never had a brother. Her father, very much moved by her testi-
mony, told her that she did, in fact, have a brother, who had died before she was
born (Kübler-Ross 1983:208).
Pediatrician Melvin Morse described the case of a 7-year-old boy dying of
leukemia, who told his mother that he had traveled up a beam of light to
heaven, where he visited a “crystal castle” and talked with God. The boy said
that a man there approached him and introduced himself as an old high school
boyfriend of the boy’s mother. The man said he had been crippled in an
automobile accident, but in the crystal castle he had regained his ability to walk.
The boy’s mother had never mentioned this old boyfriend to her son, but after
hearing of this vision, she called some friends and confirmed that her former
boyfriend had died the very day of her son’s vision (Morse and Perry 1990:53).
Cardiologist Pim van Lommel reported the extensive NDE of a Dutch man
who, during a cardiac arrest, saw his deceased grandmother and a man who
looked at him lovingly, but whom he did not know. More than a decade after his
NDE, his mother, on her deathbed, confessed to him that he had been born from
an extramarital relationship, and that her husband was not his biological father.
His biological father in fact was a Jewish man who had been deported and killed
during World War II. She showed her son a photograph of his biological father,
whom he immediately recognized as the man he had seen in his NDE a decade
earlier (van Lommel 2004:122).
Conclusion
Humanity’s perennial belief that some part of our personality may survive
bodily death is owing to more than just wishful thinking and denial. It is also
linked inextricably to common experiences that offer evidence for the postmor-
tem survival of consciousness. Although these phenomena have been reported
for centuries, they have become more prevalent as modern biomedical technol-
168 Anthropology and Humanism Volume 35, Number 2
ogy has allowed us to bring people back from the brink of death and, indeed, to
blur the boundary between life and death.
Technological medical advances and societal acceptance in recent decades
have helped to increase the number of reported near-death experiences, which
commonly include a number of features that suggest the persistence of con-
sciousness after the death of the body. These features include enhanced cogni-
tive function in the presence of demonstrable brain dysfunction, accurate
perceptions from a visual perspective out of the physical body, and apparent
encounters with deceased spirits who often appear to welcome the experiencer
to the afterlife or send the experiencer back to this life. Although some of these
visions of the deceased may be attributed to expectation and wishful thinking,
that explanation cannot account for “Peak in Darien” cases in which the
deceased person seen was not known or expected to be dead.
Stevenson, in reporting one such case, noted some of the difficulties in his
investigation. Although several witnesses may hear the dying person relate the
vision, they rarely make any written record of the event before receiving cor-
roboration that the person seen in the vision had indeed died. This lapse
permits the explanation that the whole story might be a retrospective falsifica-
tion of memory. Stevenson did not himself believe that to be plausible in all
Peak in Darien cases, but acknowledged that the difficulties of obtaining reliable
testimony dissuade many researchers from investing the extraordinary effort,
time, and patience required to sift the evidence carefully (Stevenson 1959:22).
Despite these difficulties, Barrett concluded that the type of deathbed vision
in which experiencers “appear to see and recognize some of their relatives of
whose decease they were unaware, affords perhaps one of the strongest argu-
ments in favour of survival” (Barrett 1926:10). Such cases cannot easily be
explained as hallucinations based on expectation; in fact, the experiencer is
usually quite surprised and sometimes puzzled by the vision of someone
thought to be alive. In some of these cases, the appearance of the vision sug-
gests strong motivation on the part of the deceased individual to communicate
a message. As such, these Peak in Darien cases provide some of the most
persuasive evidence for the ontological reality of deceased spirits. Recent
medical and societal advances in end-of-life care offer favorable opportunities
for the further investigation of these cases.
Notes
Acknowledgments. I wish to thank Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., and the late Jeno Platthy,
Ph.D., for bringing to my attention the earlier cases of Peak in Darien experiences; and
Edward F. Kelly, Ph.D., and Emily W. Kelly, Ph.D., for their helpful comments on this
manuscript.
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... This is a report of an NDE emphasizing the OBE component of a 48-year-old patient [37] [42]. Here is a meeting of deceased people, their stepmother and their biological mother 36, that the experimenter did not know his biological mother, quoted in [40]: Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings described the case of a 48-year-old man who had cardiac arrest. In an NDE, he noticed a gorge filled with beautiful colors, lush vegetation and light, where he met his stepmother and birth mother who died when he was just 15 months old. ...
... 97). He also cited Greyson's (2010) article on the subject, in which Greyson explained precisely why "cases of this kind provide some of the most persuasive evidence for the survival of consciousness after bodily death" (p. 159)-though Schlieter did not discuss it. ...
... 29,30,33 However, evidence has been published over the last decades both in near-death experience research and ADC research showing accounts of verified awareness of physical events or reception of information that appeared to occur through other than the five senses. These include (1) the verified perceptions occurring during near-death experiences when the individual underwent cardiac arrest, flat EEG, and thus the inability to perceive events through the five senses, [34][35][36] as well as (2) verified accounts of information that no one else had knowledge of, being conveyed from the perceived deceased in ADCs. 4,8 Our collection also includes cases in which percipients received information during an ADC that no one else had prior knowledge of, including the location of hidden objects and documents (E20, E210, S83, S90). ...
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