Deathbed visions are experiences of the dying, most of which are Apparitions of the dead or mythical or religious figures, and visions of an afterlife place. Deathbed visions share common characteristics that cut across racial, cultural, religious, educational, age and socioeconomic lines. The importance of deathbed visions is that they are evidence in support of Survival After Death. Although nearly all cultures assume an afterlife, Western science holds the Aristotelian view that consciousness cannot exist separately from form, the body, and that therefore death is the total destruction of the personality.
Deathbed visions are reported in the biographies and literature of all ages, and have been researched Scientifically in modern times. Early psychical researchers, including Frederic W.H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, Frank Podmore, and James H. Hyslop, recorded cases of deathbed visions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first systematic study of the phenomena was done in the early 20th century by Sir William Barrett, a distinguished professor of physics and psychical researcher. Barrett’s interest in deathbed visions was aroused in 1924 when his wife, a physician specializing in obstetrical surgery, told him about a woman patient who spoke of seeing visions of a place of great beauty and her dead father and sister shortly before she died. The visions were very real to the patient, and had transfigured her into a state of great radiance and peace. When shown her baby, she had pondered staying for its sake, and then had said, “. . . I can’t stay; if you could see what I do, you would know I can’t stay.” What struck Barrett was the fact that the woman had not known her sister had died about three weeks earlier, yet she saw an apparition of the sister along with that of the dead father.
Several decades later, Barrett’s research interested Karlis Osis, then director of research for Eileen J. Garrett’s Parapsychology Foundation. Under the auspices of the Foundation in 1959–60, and later the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in 1961–64 and 1972–73, Osis collected information from doctors and nurses on tens of thousands of deathbed and near-death experiences in the United States and India. The Indian survey (1972– 73) was conducted with Erlendur Haraldsson. Of those cases, more than 1,000 were examined in detail. The findings of these studies confirmed Barrett’s findings, as well as the experiences of individuals who have worked with the terminally ill and dying, such as the late Elisabeth Kübler- Ross. The findings also are in agreement with many of the findings of research into the Near-Death-Experience (NDE) by Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring and others.
Deathbed visions often occur to individuals who die gradually, such as from terminal illness or serious injuries. The majority of visions are of apparitions of the dead, who often are glowing and dressed in white, or are beings of light perceived as mythical or religious figures or deities: for example, angels, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Krishna, Yama (Hindu god of death), Yamhoot (messenger of Yama), or similar figures. Apparitions of the dead usually are close family members, such as parents, children, siblings or spouses. The apparent purpose of these apparitions— “take-away apparitions,” as they are called—is to beckon or command the dying to accompany them; i.e., they appear to assist in the transition to death. The response of most of the dying is one of happiness and willingness to go, especially if the individual believes in an afterlife (deathbed visions occur to those who do not believe as well as those who do). If the patient has been in great pain or depression, a complete turnaround of mood often is observed, and pain vanishes. The dying one literally seems to “light up” with radiance.
When take-away apparitions appear, the patient usually is cognizant of the real physical surroundings and other living people present, who in all but rare cases cannot see the apparitions. Approximately one-third of deathbed visions involve total visions, in which the patient sees another world which appears objective and real. The descriptions most frequently given are of endless gardens of great beauty. Some also see gates, bridges, rivers, boats and other symbols of transition, as well as castles and other architectural structures. Regardless of image, the visions are resplendent with intense and vivid colours and bright light. The otherworld places may be populated with apparitions of the dead or spiritual beings. The vision either unfolds before the patient, or the patient feels transported out-of-body to the location. Again, the usual emotional response of the patient is one of happiness and anticipation at going to the beautiful place. Few total vision cases conform to religious expectations about the nature of the afterlife. Osis found only one case of a vision described as hell, from a Catholic woman who seemed to be carrying a great burden of guilt about her “sins.”
A small number of those studied in the Osis-Haraldsson research reported hearing nonearthly music. The incidence of music appears to have been higher in cases collected around the turn of the century by earlier psychical researchers; perhaps this is a reflection of cultural differences in the role of music in everyday life.
Most deathbed visions are short in duration: approximately 50% last 5 minutes or less; 17% last 6–15 minutes; and 17% last more than one hour. The visions usually appear just minutes before death: approximately 76% of the patients studied died within 10 minutes of their vision, and nearly all of the rest died within one or several hours. In a few cases, one or more visions were seen by Woodcut of the Duke of Buckingham on his deathbed, attended by the ghost of his father. deathbed visions 123 a patient over the course of several days, as though they were announcing appointments with death at a certain time. The appearance of the vision seems to have little connection with the physical condition of the patient. Some who seemed to be recovering, then had visions, quickly fell into comas and died.
Similarities are found between deathbed visions and mystical experiences: a sense of the sacred, feelings of great peace, or a heightened sense of elation. However, the ineffable nature of mystical experiences—that they are beyond description—occurs in very few deathbed visions.
Various explanations have been advanced to attribute deathbed visions to natural causes. Drugs, fever, disease-induced hallucinations, oxygen deprivation to the brain, wish-fulfilment and depersonalization have all been advanced as possible causes. While these factors can cause hallucinations, they are found not to concern the afterlife, but to relate mostly to the present. The Osis-Haraldsson research found that deathbed visions are most likely to occur in patients who are fully conscious. Medical factors do not generate true deathbed visions. Nor is wish fulfilment a likely explanation, as the visions by and large do not conform to expectations of patients, and appear even to those who want to recover and live.
Related to a deathbed vision of the dying is a deathbed vision seen by the living who are in attendance to the dying. As the person dies, clouds of silvery energy are sometimes reported floating over the body. In some cases, the energy is seen to clearly form into the astral body of the dying one, connected by a silvery cord which severs at the moment of death. The living also have reported seeing the “take-away” apparitions both of the dead and of angelic beings. Such visions seen by the living appear in the literature of the early psychical researchers, but not in the later researches by Osis and Haraldsson, who report the living saw no astral bodies and only rarely saw the take-away apparitions. The most likely reason for this apparent decrease is that in earlier times, more people died at home. Familiar surroundings and constant attendance to the dying might have been more conducive to such visions than the impersonal surroundings of a hospital.
Deathbed visions are significant to thanatology, the Scientific study of death and dying, from physiological, psychological and sociological perspectives, for they Demonstrate that the transition of death is not to be feared, but is a wondrous experience. Dying is a rite of passage that should be undertaken with as much dignity and clear mindedness as possible. There are various arts of dying, as exemplified in the ancient Western mystery traditions and in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (see Bardo Thödol), in which deathbed visions are integrated by the dying person.
- Barrett, William. Death-Bed Visions: The Psychical Experiences of the Dying. Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1986. First published 1926.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y., comp. and ed. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
- Gurney, Edmund, Frederic W. H. Meyers, and Frank Podmore. Phantasms of the Living. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1918.
- Osis, Karlis. Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses. Monograph No. 3. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1961.
- Osis, Karlis, and Haraldsson Erlendur. At the Hour of Death. Rev. ed. New York: Hastings House, 1986.