Thanatology is the scientific study of death that almost always involves deathbed visions. Such visions are regarded as showing that death is not an extinction of life but the transition of life. Many see this transition as a rite of passage that should be undergone consciously and with dignity. There are various arts to “right dying” as described in the ancient Western mystery traditions and in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (see Egyptian Book of the Dead). However, in the technologically advanced societies of the West such dignified rites of passage are too often forgotten and abandoned in effort to prolong life as long as possible with advanced techniques and machines.
There are two major contributors to the Western forgetfulness and abandonment of the dignified rite of passage. One is the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors to help sustain life as long as possible. Within this oath there seem to be no exceptions. At times the quality of life that the ill person is living seems to have no consideration. Coinciding with the Hippocratic oath, in many instances, seem to be the economics of the medical profession. People are being artificially kept alive today on machines who fifty to a hundred years ago would have died naturally. This is not to say that these machines are not necessary in some cases, but to say a terminally ill individual should be kept alive by a machine seems at times to beg for some sounder judgment. It must be noted that the physician and institution that is keeping the individual alive are also making a living and profit in doing so. This is not an argument that authorities or medical practitioners should have the right to decide life and death, no, far from it, but that the individual when able should have the freedom to share in a dignified rite of passage.
The second contributor is religious, particularly the Christian religion. Hardly anyone can deny this. The Judeo-Christian religion has inspired the fear of death. Its origin lies in the story or fable of Adam and Eve; because of Adam’s sin humankind inherited death, and with it came the fear of hell. Also, coupled with the teaching is the concept that since God made life, only he can take it away. The advocates of the death penalty seem to forget that, don’t they? The entire complex involvement between Christian teachings and death is too lengthy to be fully discussed here. It will be suffice to say that many think such teachings interfere with the individual’s dignified rite of passage. This is not an argument for suicide or euthanasia, but this is an argument that the belief that one has to suffer needless pain for God might hinder one’s rite to passage.
Deathbed visions are paranormal experiences of the dying. Most commonly the visions are apparitions of the dead or mythical or religious figures, and visions of an afterworld. The significance of these deathbed visions is that they provide evidence, although not scientific, to support the concept of the survival of consciousness after death. These visions share certain characteristics with mystical experiences, such as being regarded as sacred, profoundly peaceful, and giving a sense of elation.
Descriptions of deathbed visions date back to ancient times. Psychical and other researchers have studies many cases. Early psychical researchers James H. Hyslop and E. Buzzano collected data at the beginning of the 20th century. William Barrett, English physics professor and psychical researcher, conducted the first systematic study in 1924. His wife, an obstetrical surgeon, sparked him interest in such visions when she described to him a woman whose deathbed visions had transformed her into a state of peace and radiance just before she died.
Karlis Otis, under the auspices of the first Parapsychology Foundation and then the American Society for Psychical Research, conducted a significant research study. During 1959 and 1973, he collected data on tens of thousands of deathbed and near-death experiences (NBEs) in the United States and, in a joint effort with Erlendur Haraldsson, in India. Their findings confirmed Barrett’s research, the experiences of Elisebeth Kubler-Ross and others who work with the terminally ill and dying, and research of near-death experiences.
It is recorded that deathbed visions have common characteristics regardless of racial, cultural, religious, educational, age, and socioeconomic lines, such as radiant lights, scenes of great beauty, beings of light, and feelings of great peace. Most of these visions are apparitions of light beings that may be dead persons known to the dying, or great religious or mythical figures, such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and so on. These figures are called “take-away apparitions” because their apparent purpose is to summon or escort the dying to the afterworld. Generally their appearance elicits a response of joy, peace, happiness, and cessation of pain, but a small number of individuals have reacted with fear and denial.
People that are with the dying sometimes, through rarely, report perceiving the take-away apparition, which is sensed as an unusual light or energy in the room. At times an energy cloud may appear over the dying, and in fewer instances, may assume the shape and appearance of the dying, connected to the body by a silvery cord. At death when this cord is severed, the astral shape dissipates.
In one-third of the visions reported, the dying beheld (or saw when transported out of their body) a preview of the afterworld. Other visions include great architectural structures, and symbolic transitional figures such as gates, bridges, rivers, and boats. The afterworld scenes are populated with angels or spirits of the dead. In a small number of instances celestial music may permeate the vision. The typical colors seen are vivid. Rarely does the vision conform to the religious expectations of the dying.
The length of the visions may vary. About half of the deathbed visions studied by Osis and Haraldsson lasted less than five minutes. Another 17 percent lasted between six and fifteen minutes. Approximately 76 percent of the individuals died within ten minutes of their vision, and almost all died within one or several hours afterwards.
Theories that discount deathbed visions cite the possibilities that they are hallucinations induced by drugs, fever, disease, oxygen deprivation, wish fulfillment, and depersonalization. However, it has been noted that hallucinations arising from these factors generally concern the present and not the afterworld. Also, Osis and Haraldsson discovered that deathbed visions mostly occur when patients are fully conscious.
Physician Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has conducted considerable study in the field of thanatology, and is author of Death and Dying. Also she founded Shanti Nilaya, a center for healing and growth in Escondido, California. A.G.H.