Betty Moore remembers the first time she died. It happened 15 years ago, when she entered the hospital for minor surgery. She recalls the moment when, under anesthesia, she suddenly found herself “floating above the doctors at about ceiling level, looking down at the surgical caps on top of their heads. I hovered above them for a moment, watching the operating scene, but no one could see or hear me. As I floated there wondering what was happening, I thought to myself, ‘This must be death.’ I wasn’t afraid at all. I was just curious about what went wrong.”
Moore, who is now 60, was raised in the Southern Baptist and Church of Christ traditions. She is not the sort of woman who is given to talk of spiritualism and out-of-body experiences. Yet she describes her own death with stunning, Technicolor vividness. “All of a sudden, I experienced a strong pull and felt myself being suctioned into an iridescent, pearl light,” she says. “I was being swirled into the light as if someone was stirring me into a giant pudding of energy. There was no pain, and it was the most peaceful, wonderfully serene experience. I thought, ‘This is God.’ ”
Moore describes a moment of surreal beauty. However, her story resembles closely the stories told by millions of other people, worldwide, who say they have undergone a “near-death experience.” Again and again, these otherwise unexceptional people tell of traveling on an extraordinary journey, escaping their physical bodies, looking back at their own corpses, which may register no pulse, no heartbeat, not the slightest tremor on an EEG.
Medical history records numerous instances of human bodies, resuscitated after being dead, to all appearances, for a long period of time. The International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS) was founded in 1981 to gather information about near-death experiences and to encourage and support research into the phenomenon. According to a Gallup Poll, supported by IANDS, over 8 million people in the United States alone are veterans of the near-death experience.
“I’m totally convinced that these experiences are true,” says Nashville film producer Peter Shockey, who interviewed supposed near-death survivors for his documentary Life After Life, which won a medal at the New York Film Festival. “I’m generally a skeptic,” Shockey says, “but the facts are too persuasive for any logical mind to deny.” Life After Life was inspired by Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller of the same name. When he read Moody’s book in college, Shockey says, he was inspired by its visionary descriptions and its impressive testimonies. Moody, who coined the phrase “near-death experience” and spearheaded the wave of research into the phenomenon, chronicled more than 100 subjects who claimed to have experienced “clinical death.” Their stories seemed to transcend all barriers of race, religious belief or socioeconomic background, as Moody’s purported near-death survivors gave strikingly similar accounts. Nearly all of them told of a profoundly positive experience. After their returns to life, they said, they had been completely transformed. In their new lives, they said, they had a renewed love for all of humanity, a firm commitment to lifeand no fear of death, whatsoever.
“The near-death experience is the same with small children and with older people,” Shockey insists. During their “deaths,” he says, “people from all walks of life experience only unconditional love and come back with the knowledge that life is about love and forgiveness and that we are alive to learn thisand alive only because of love.”
Nevertheless, individuals who dare to tell of their acquaintances with deathno matter how profound and enlighteningare often met with skepticism and disbelief. According to Shockey, they are even condemned for their crazy, implausible tales of the “other side.” After her surgery, Betty Moore says she “awakened back in [her] body” and attempted to describe her experience to her doctor. “He passed it off as merely a hallucination, a side effect of the anesthesia,” she says, in spite of the fact that she could give him “accurate details” after having witnessed her own operation.
Scott Degenhardt, a laser research technician at Vanderbilt University, was a self-described atheist before he had his own encounter with death in the late 1980s. In his out-of-body experience, Degenhardt says, he visited and talked with his father, only to learn later that, at the time of the conversation, his father was already dead. He had died minutes before in a bed at St. Thomas Hospital. Degenhardt says he kept his story to himself for nine years. “I was afraid to talk about the incident,” he says, “because, when it first happened, my family thought that I had snapped. So I shut up.” It was only when he read John Ronner’s Do You Have a Guardian Angel?, Degenhardt says, that he learned of other people who had had “reunions with deceased loved ones.” He began reading “anything that I could get my hands on about the near-death phenomena, out-of-body experiences, angels and the paranormal in general.” In May 1992, Degenhardt founded the Survivors of Death Network, a support group and monthly gathering for people like himself and Betty Moore.
Ronner, the author of Do You Have a Guardian Angel?, has written three best-selling books about angels and has researched hundreds of accounts of the paranormal, including tales of near-death phenomena. “Skeptics should take note,” states Ronner, who lives in Murfreesboro, “that people reporting near-death experiences are normal, level-headed, intelligent folks, not lunatics.”
Still, Degenhardt maintains that, even though their near-death experiences may be extremely positive, survivors of death may find themselves feeling troubled. They may discover that they are condemned by religious groups and misunderstood by the public in general. “Who can you turn to,” asks Degenhardt, “after you’ve been dead, out of your body and in the presence of the most powerful supreme ‘being of light?’ ” Near-death survivors “can suffer alienation and a strong sense of sorrow at having to return to our world from such a wonderful, all-loving place,” he says.
Degenhardt wanted to spread the word about his support group, but he was wary of putting an ad in the paper. When he happened to see an announcement for a WSMV-Channel 4 feature about near-death experiences, he contacted Channel 4 news anchor Demetria Kalodimos. The first meeting of Degenhardt’s support group was featured in the televised report, which aired during the June ratings sweeps. “Following the program,” Degenhardt says, “strangers would approach me and thank me for bringing the near-death experience out into the open, saying that they had been living in the closet with their experience, feeling like they were crazy.”
Fifty-five-year-old Peggy Hiam says that, if it had not been for Degenhardt’s support group, she would never have “spoken out” about her near-death experiences. “I was 5 when I died, and I kept quiet for most of my life,” she says. Having “died” of complications from pneumonia, Hiam still has a vivid recollection of the experience: One moment she was lying in her bed, and the next moment she was somewhere else, looking down at her body. “I felt this crackle-pop inside my head, and then all of a sudden I was floating above the doctors and nurses,” she says. “It was bewildering to watch them from a third-person perspective. I didn’t feel emotionally tied to my body. I was just interested in the scene, so I stayed there for a few moments.” Then, Hiam claims, everything suddenly went pitch black and she felt that she was falling through a dark tunnel at high speed.
It was through the Channel 4 report that Hiam learned about the Survivors of Death Network, and it was through the network that she gained the confidence to tell her story. “I get tremendous positive reactions,” she says. “People open up to me and tell me their paranormal experiences. It seems that most everyone has had something unusual happen to them.”
The details of Hiam’s journey into the beyond are typical of the accounts of many people who claim to have had a brush with death. She tells of a loud ringing or popping noise, a realization of being outside one’s own body, and then a long, dark tunnel. Often near-death survivors say that, while outside their bodies, they have found themselves in the company of a departed loved one or a “being of light” who aids them in the transition from one world to the next. “I was frightened at first,” says Hiam, “until I realized that someone was with me. I could barely see a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, and it kept growing bigger and bigger.” Hiam recalls hearing wind chimes and flute-like sounds in the tunnel, another sensation frequently reported by people who say they have come close to death.
Falling through the tunnel, Hiam says, she could hear voices, and she was distracted by the presence of other figures. “I kept concentrating on the light. I was totally mesmerized by it and felt completely at peace,” she says. “I finally arrived at the tunnel’s end into the most brilliant light, yet it didn’t hurt my eyes.” In his film, Shockey uses breathtaking special effects to illustrate the near-death phenomenon. He even attempts to depict the often-mentioned presence of a powerful, all-loving supreme being, waiting within the light to welcome the deceased person at the tunnel’s end. In most accounts, this being does not communicate through words. Instead, it fills the “dying” person with an immediate awareness and knowing.
Sixty-four-year-old Gino Marchetti, a retired senior master sergeant in the Air National Guard, died almost 30 years ago. He was 36 and suffered an allergic reaction to penicillin while on duty. “I remember being in a euphoric state as the medics put my body into the meat wagon and took it to General Hospital,” Marchetti recalls. “I was looking down at my body in the emergency room as the doctors and nurses worked feverishly to revive me. Then I began drifting away into this long, dark tunnel that reminded me of a train tunnel with the train’s headlight growing bigger and bigger towards me.”
Along the sides of the tunnel, Marchetti says, he saw “smiling-faced people” who extended their hands and ushered him along. Despite the strangeness of the experience, Marchetti insists, he was “happy and surprisingly relaxed. As I floated through, looking from side to side, I recognized my grandmother on the right. As I passed by her, she spoke to me in Italianthe English translation being ‘Don’t be afraid.’ ”
Marchetti, who is a devout Catholic, says that, in the light at the tunnel’s end, he saw a vision of Jesus: “He was standing there with his arms extended towards me. The brilliant light emanated from behind him and completely engulfed both of us. He never spoke, but I felt the most indescribable power of love and compassion, with no judgment whatsoever.”
Then, however, Marchetti says, he began to “slip backwards fast.” He was reluctant to return to life, he says. “I wanted to continue on, and I had a very sad feeling as I was going back. The next thing I knew, my spirit was hovering back in the operating room, and I was above the doctors again. I heard one of them say, ‘I think he’s going to make it.’ ” At that point, as Marchetti recalls it, he fell back into his body and woke up. It was years before he told anyone about his experience.
According to Life After Life producer Shockey, many near-death survivors claim that, after “reaching the light,” they resisted being forced to return to everyday life. “They [come back] practically kicking and screaming,” Shockey says. “Frequently, there is something left for the individual to accomplish, such as the care of a child, for example.”
Peggy Hiam argues that the “last thing you want to do after experiencing the light is to return to this life.” For her own part, she was “standing in the brilliant white light,” in the presence of a “being” who gave her “total, complete love. When he smiled, I could feel it. The sensation is beyond comprehension and anything we know here. But he told me that I had things to do and that I had no choice but to return. I threw a tantrum. I begged. I pleaded. I cried. I felt rejected and devastated. He said lovingly but firmly that I had to go back because it wasn’t my time. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that.”
While supposedly in the out-of-body state, individuals say, they have experienced fewer limits on their powers of thought and perception. They indicate that the “spirit body” is weightless; their disembodied beings seem to float. The disembodied spirit, they say, can move through solid objects such as doors and windows and even through the physical bodies of others. They say that their mode of travel is like flying, instantaneous and thought-driven.
Traditional concepts of time, they insist, become irrelevant. Even though the spirit body cannot communicate directly to earthbound humans, survivors claim that while in an extracorporeal state, they were able to hear the thoughts of other people, as if by telepathy. Even after they have settled back into their bodies, survivors say, they discover that they have developed new, paranormal abilities. Some say that they have become clairvoyants and have developed prophetic skills.
Degenhardt insists that such “special powers” actually “lie dormant in all of us.” The near-death experience, he says, merely “activates these abilities. We are all cable-ready; the near-death experience just unscrambles the channels.”
Such newfound skills can be disconcerting, even, as Hiam puts it, “extremely annoying.” After her return to life, she says, she discovered that she had developed “the ability to read minds. It wasn’t anything that I tried to do or wanted to do; it just happened. I could hear the thoughts of the nurses and doctors chattering away in their heads, and it was so disturbing that I had to try to shut it out.” Over time, she says, “the ability faded to just periodic occurrences.”
Skeptics have their own explanations for the supposed phenomenon of near-death encounters. Some doubters say that the survivors have simply suffered a lack of oxygen, caused by clinical death and severe bodily stress. Others argue that the nervous system malfunctions when the brain flatlines, while other debunkers suggest that the supposed survivors are just hallucinating as a side effect from medication or anesthesia.
“There is nothing you can say to someone who doesn’t believe in the validity of the near-death experience to make them believe,” Degenhardt concedes. “In extraordinary cases, survivors can recount events to the minute detail, repeat conversations word for word, and describe places with vivid clarity that they have never seen with the eyes in their physical body.” Shockey maintains that “debunkers don’t have a response to the incredible evidence that proves the disembodied perspective.” Yet people who claim to have been to the “other side” remain cautious about publicizing their experiences.
For all their reluctance to go public with their stories, defenders of the near-death experience claim that they have ample supporting evidence for their arguments. In the Bible, they point out, Jesus referred to himself as “the light.” Meanwhile, they contend, conventional religious teaching pales in comparison to the magnificence of their personal experiences. “Nothing I have experienced in church comes close to this,” Hiam insists. “I think these experiences are far more prevalent than the churches admit.”
Some ministers scoff at reports of paranormal experiences, while others seem more open-minded.
According to Irene Boyd, associate director of lay ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, the Catholic Church has no problem with the concept of “near-death experiences.” Boyd maintains that “Catholics do believe in life on the other side of the grave. The possibility that people could encounter a being, Jesus, God, or a deceased relative isn’t out of the question. The Church believes in visions, private revelations and the communion of saints. We do not have a reason to dispute an experience like this.”
David Kidd, senior minister of Hillsboro Presbyterian Church, admits that, even though the Presbyterian Church may have no standard teaching on the subject of paranormal experiences, he takes reports of near-death experiences very seriously. Such experiences, he says, may be “a light from ahead, a beacon and a signal that there is life awaiting us. We are seeing one more glimpse of the reality of the next stage of life.” He argues that claims of near-death experiences “corroborate what we’ve been hearing about the resurrection for 2,000 years.”
Even though he may not be convinced by all people who claim to be near-death survivors, Dan Dozier, associate minister of Madison Church of Christ, concedes that “a person’s perception is a person’s perceptionand ultimately their realityeven if I don’t agree with them.” According to Dozier, “The Church of Christ believes that the Bible teaches that we have both a physical human body, which is not eternal, and a separate, eternal spirit. When the person dies, the spirit leaves the body. Maybe this is what is going on, and when the process of dying is cut short, the spirit is brought back.” Even the Apostle Paul, he notes, wrote of “a man in Christ who...was caught up to the third heaven...and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, senior rabbi at The Temple, says that he has “heard people of the Jewish faith talk about having [near-death] experiences,” and he is convinced that “there is reality here.” Variations in accounts of near-death experiences, Fuchs suggests, “could be a result of the cultural background and religious traditions.” In Judaism, he says, “we have mystical and folkloristic traditions of people getting a glimpse of the afterlife, but I haven’t heard of anyone of the Jewish faith state it was Jesus waiting for them on the other side.”
Meanwhile, medical professionals often concede that near-death experiences, if they exist, fall in a category that James Nash, current president of the Tennessee Psychiatric Association, describes as “a large stew of phenomena that we don’t know what to make of.” Nash says he has never dealt with a patient who has supposedly been to death and back, but he says he is aware of patients who “complain” about their near-death memories.
The phenomenon, he says, is “controversial,” but only because some medical professionals “are concerned that near-death experiences are created in the minds of suggestible individuals, while others say that the phenomena are very real for the individuals themselves.” In hospital intensive-care units, Nash suggests, talk of near-death experiences may not be “uncommon.” Choosing his words carefully, he admits that “near-death experiences have a profound effect on the individuals” and adds, “We have to respect this.”
Stories of near-death experiences have existed since ancient times, and they can be found in many different cultures and civilizations. Nashvillian Dawn Raven, a Native American teacher of Cherokee descent, says that such experiences have been documented since the beginning of time. “In the near-death state,” Raven explains, “the spirit is free to fly as it is unencumbered by its physical body. This is the natural state of the spirit, and the image of the bird has been used to represent the flight of the soul in many cultures throughout time. In modern Christianity, the dove represents the Holy Spirit, or the higher consciousness. In the Native American tradition, the mythical phoenix symbolizes the spirit energy as the bird rises from its ashes during resurrection to a state of purification. This is analogous to the near-death experience, as the experiencers seem to return in a state of enlightened spiritual awareness and a higher consciousness.”
Ancient Egyptians, Raven says, were ‘‘devoted to the cult of their dead” and “carved the graceful heron bird in the pyramids as a symbol of death and resurrection.” Egyptian priests, as well as pharaohs, all participated in “the sacred ceremony of inducing the near-death experience,” she says: “Deep in the underground chambers of the Great Pyramid, the priests and pharaohs-to-be were suffocated in an air-tight casket sealed in wax to the point of death in order to induce a near-death experience.”
According to Raven, the ritual “was timed to the exact moment of death. As the pharaoh passed out from lack of oxygen, the lid would be removed, and the rush of air would resuscitate him. The enlightened pharaoh would return from his near-death experience in the light with the gods with messages of eternal life and great spiritual insight.”
In some Native American cultures, Raven says, “the sacred ceremony of the ‘shaman’s death’ is the mandatory initiation of the highest revered tribe member, the medicine man. He is given an herbal preparation that slows the heartbeat and respiration to the point of death, where the shaman’s soul leaves the body and travels the sacred path.”
The sacred Buddhist manual, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was written thousands of years ago to serve as a guide for the dying and the dead, says Raven, who notes that famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung used the Book of the Dead as a source of inspiration after he reported having a near-death experience, as the result of a heart attack. “With startling accuracy,” Raven says, “the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the stages a soul goes through after physical death. They are practically identical to those reported by the near-death experiencers.”
The continuing success of books about near-death experiences suggests that readers are fascinated by the subject of the afterlife and by spiritual subject matter in general. Embraced By the LightCloser to the Light and Saved By the Lighteach of which purportedly recounts near-death experienceshave all made strong showings on best-seller lists nationwide. Images of angels turn up on note cards, stationery, calendars and license plates, suggesting a longing for guidance, answers and comfort in an all-too-uncertain world.
Meanwhile, reports of near-death experiences seem to suggest answersanswers that have little conflict with traditional religious teaching but also have little to do with traditionally moralistic dogma. Such reports suggest a comforting, welcoming afterlife, a sort of paradigm for peace. According to Ronner, “The near-death phenomena tells us what kind of universe we live ina spiritual, soulful one with a higher calling.”
Ultimately, in a world of unpredictable violence and unhealable disease, stories of near-death experiences promise a truly otherworldly comfort and assurance. The stories told by these peoplewho claim to have seen the unseeablepromise, in the words of Shockey, that “death is just a doorway, something you walk through with a lot of help, to the light of everlasting love.”
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