The origin of neardeath studies

The first more formal studies of near-death-related phenomena developed in the late 1800s, when the Swiss geologist, Albert von St Gallen Heim (1849-1937), who was a mountain climber, had a profound mystical experience, having fallen down a mountain:

What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time. All my thoughts and ideas were coherent and very clear, and in no way susceptible, as are dreams, to obliteration. First of all I took in the possibilities of my fate and said to myself: 'The crag point over which I will soon be thrown evidently falls off below me as a steep wall since I have not been able to see the ground at the base of it. It matters a great deal whether or not snow is still lying at the base of the cliff wall. If this is the case, the snow will have melted from the wall and formed a border around the base. If I fall on the border of snow I may come out of this with my life, but if there is no more snow down there, I am certain to fall on rubble and at this velocity death will be quite inevitable. If, when I strike, I am not dead or unconscious I must instantly seize my small flask of spirits of vinegar and put some drops from it on my tongue. I do not want to let go of my alpenstock; perhaps it can still be of use to me.' Hence I kept it tightly in my hand. I thought of taking off my glasses and throwing them away so that splinters from them might not injure my eyes, but I was so thrown and swung about that I could not muster the power to move my hands for this purpose. A set of thoughts and ideas then ensued concerning those left behind. I said to myself that upon landing below I ought, indifferent to whether or not I were seriously injured, to call immediately to my companions out of affection for them to say, 'I'm all right!' Then my brother and three friends could sufficiently recover from their shock so as to accomplish the fairly difficult descent to me. My next thought was that I would not be able to give my beginning university lecture that had been announced for five days later. I considered how the news of my death would arrive for my loved ones and I consoled them in my thoughts. Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful without grief, without anxiety and without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife; conflict had been transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine calm swept through my soul. I became ever more surrounded by a splendid blue heaven with delicate roseate and violet cloudlets. I swept into it painlessly and softly and I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snowfield lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous. Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over.7

This profound experience stimulated his interest in finding out whether other people had reported similar events in their lives. It was not a difficult search. In a short period of time, Heim was able to collect a large number of accounts from war soldiers wounded in battles, masons and roofers who had fallen from heights, workers who survived disasters in mountain projects and railway accidents, and fishermen who had nearly drowned, and, above all, Alpine climbers, like him, who had survived near-death situations. He presented his findings in a paper given at the Swiss Alpine Club in 1892. Heim reported that 95 per cent of the cases he collected were strikingly similar. He came to the conclusion that some accidents were much more 'horrible and cruel' for observers than for the victims.

Further studies were made on 'death-bed visions' (DBV), which emerged from the observers of the last moments of the dying, rather than from individuals who recovered from a situation of temporary death. DBVs present strong similarities to near-death accounts. The phenomenon was largely investigated by Ernesto Bozzano (1862-1943), an Italian psychical researcher and a strong defender of the concept of survival of bodily death, whose work is almost forgotten today. His survival model is based on what he called the phenomenon of 'bilocation', a term he used for the phantom limb sensations experienced by amputees, autoscopy, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and a variety of luminous or cloud-like emanations that clairvoyants claimed left the body at the moment of death that he thought of 'decisive importance' to the argument for the survival of death (Alvarado 2005). He believed these phenomena indicated the existence of an 'etheric body' within the somatic body that may exit the physical body during its life (Bozzano 1934: 8). The interest Bozzano showed in survival after-death later continued with Sir William Barrett, a member of the Society for Psychical Research. In collaboration with his wife, Barrett collected numerous accounts of dying persons who reported the presence of deceased relatives, or religious figures, who were assisting them during the process of dying (Barrett 1986). However, the most extensive investigation into DBV was carried out in 1961 by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson. Their work was initially published as a pilot study Death bed Observations of Physicians and Nurses (1961), and later as a book entitled At the Hour of Death (1977), where they provided an examination of a detailed questionnaire from two thousand doctors and nurses about the experiences of their dying patients in the US and in India. They came to the conclusion that 10 per cent of patients, who were conscious in the last hour before dying, experienced vivid visions; 52 per cent of these visions represented dead persons who were known to the patients; 28 per cent were of living persons; and 20 per cent were of religious figures (Osis and Haraldsson 1977). Other interesting results emerged from a study by Russell Noyes and Donald Slymen in 1971, who interviewed 186 survivors of serious illness or accidents. The researchers were able to identify recurrent patterns and they divided them into three stages: (1) the first stage is the phase of resistance, which is characterized by the fear of dying and the struggle for life; (2) the second stage is a 'life review', during which the person relives important events, or their entire life; and (3) the final stage is a period of transcendence, during which the dying experience a mystical rapture and a sense of union with a cosmic consciousness (Noyes and Slymen 1971).

Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax carried out research with dying patients with cancer. In their book The Human Encounter with Death (1977), they argued that the passage from life to death could be seen as a 'rite of passage'. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross also studied the cases of many terminally ill patients, some of whom recovered from nearly fatal experiences. In her book, On Death and Dying published in 1969, she came to the conclusion that death is simply like 'the butterfly coming out of a cocoon'. Some of her patients described how 'someone' was there to help them during this transition from life to 'death'. This figure was sometimes identified as a deceased family member or friends, an angel or a spirit being.

In 1975, German Lutheran minister Johann Christophe Hampe was working on similar studies on dying people and on victims of accidents, which were later published in English in 1979 under the title To Die is Gain. In his book, Hampe attempts to illustrate the experience of death as lived 'from within'. He came to the conclusion that, far from being anticipated with fear and dread, death should be experienced as a gain. The presence of some commonalities in the accounts he collected made him conclude that these experiences were something more than dreams and hallucinations. He wrote:

If dying is not oppression, my knowledge that I am going to die will no longer oppress me. Instead of making me feel melancholy it will expand and deepen me . .. My loneliness is broken because these experiences strengthen my belief in the continuance of an indestructible core in me and my fellow men.

As has been argued, Hampe's study is particularly important in the field because 'it represents the very first attempt from within the context of theology to investigate the phenomenon that only later became known as the "near-death experience" ' (Fox 2003: 55).

There was some popular excitement as a result of these early reports on life after death, which for some people seemed to provide evidence for an afterlife, while for many scientists these were (and, for some, still are) studies of little value. The situation developed enormously when medical science became more successful in terms of its ability to resuscitate those individuals who might otherwise have died from heart attacks, automobile accidents, and other physical trauma. Some of these patients came forward to tell of having met deceased friends and relatives, guardian angels, or beings of light in other dimensions or realms of existence before returning to their bodies. It was at this time that Raymond Moody brought the phenomenon to the attention of the general public and coined the term 'near-death experience' (NDE) (Moody 1975). Moody interviewed 50 people who were considered clinically dead by their doctors and then had recovered. He published his findings in a book Life after Life (1975), among other publications.

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