For thousands of years, many individuals have received personal proof of survival by observing their fellow humans at the moment of death. Reports of deathbed experiences have long intrigued physical researchers, but systematic investigations of such accounts were not attempted until the pilot study of Dr. Karlis Osis (Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses, 1961) sought to analyze the experiences of dying persons in search of patterns.
Because of their specialized training, ability to make accurate medical assessments, and proximity to dying patients, Osis selected doctors and nurses as informants. Each of the 640 respondents to Osis's questionnaires had observed an average of 50 to 60 deathbed patients—a total of over 35,000 cases. The parapsychologists followed up the initial questionnaire with telephone calls, additional questionnaires, and correspondence.
A total of 385 respondents reported 1,318 cases wherein deathbed patients claimed to have seen apparitions or phantasms. Fifty-two percent of these apparitions represented dead persons who were known to the patients; 28 percent were of living persons; and 20 percent were of religious figures. Visions that either gave the dying patient a view of the traditional heaven or depicted scenes of wondrous beauty and brilliant color were reported by 248 respondents to have been observed in 884 instances. Mood elevation—that is, a shift in the patient's emotions from extreme pain and fear to tranquility—was reported by 169 respondents in 753 cases.
About half of the apparitions reported by the dying patients seemed to have appeared for the purpose of guiding them through the transition from death to the afterlife. One distinct observation emerging from Osis's study was that few patients appeared to die in a state of fear.
Age and sex showed no correlation with the phenomena of deathbed apparitions, visions, or mood elevations. Interestingly enough, the more highly educated patients evidenced more deathbed phenomena than the less well educated, thus contradicting the allegation that the more superstitious are likely to experience deathbed phenomena.
Religious beliefs correlated in a positive manner, as might be expected. Only those patients who believed in life after death experienced visions depicting scenes in the other world. Religious figures were sometimes reported by those with no religious affiliation, but those with strong beliefs most often identified a biblical or saintly figure.
Another interesting statistic revealed by the study is that visions, apparitions, and mood elevations are reported more often in cases where the dying patient is fully conscious and appears in complete control of his senses. Sedation, high fever, and painkilling drugs seem to decrease, rather than to increase, the ability to experience these phenomena. By the same token, cases of brain damage or brain disease were found unrelated to the kinds of deathbed experiences relevant to Osis's study.
The questionnaire and subsequent follow-up also uncovered some intriguing areas for additional research. There were cases, for example, in which collective viewings of apparitions were reported by those who had gathered around the patient's deathbed. There were numerous instances of "extrasensory" interaction between patients and attending physicians and nurses; and many cases wherein observers underwent a change in their own personal philosophy after witnessing the experience of the dying person.
Among the many patterns disclosed by the study, Osis feels that one of the most consistent was that phenomena relevant to the survival hypothesis occurred most often when the physiological and psychological balance of the patient was not greatly disturbed. According to the research project's findings as reported by Osis, "Trends in line with the survival hypothesis occurred predominantly in patients whose mentality was not disturbed by sedatives or other medications, who had no diagnosed hallucinogenic pathology, and who were fully conscious as well as responsive to their environment." The study found that experiences irrelevant to the survival hypothesis occurred more often in those patients who were generally prone to hallucinate, "such as the sedated patients, those whose pathology was diagnosed as hallucinogenic, or those whose consciousness and contact with the environment was impaired."
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ( 1926– ) has said that the turning point in her work as a medical doctor occurred in a Chicago hospital in 1969 when a deceased patient appeared before her in fully materialized form. Kubler-Ross had been feeling discouraged about her research with the dying because of the opposition that she had encountered among her colleagues, but the apparition of Mary Schwartz appeared to her to tell her not to abandon her work because life after death was a reality.
"Death is simply a shedding of the physical body, like the butterfly coming out of a cocoon," Kubler-Ross has told her lecture audiences in presentations which she had conducted around the world. "Death is a transition into a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, to be able to grow, and the only thing you lose is something that you don't need anymore— and that is your physical body."
The thousands of case histories that Kubler-Ross has studied have demonstrated to her that while, in some cases, dying may be painful, death itself—as described by those who have survived near-death experiences (NDE)—is a completely peaceful experience, free of pain and fear. Kubler-Ross also found that when one of her patients died, someone was always there to help in the transition from life to death, often a deceased family member or friend. Those who had experienced a "comeback" from death to life assured her that to die was to experience a feeling of "peace, freedom, equanimity, a sense of wholeness," and they told her that they were no longer afraid to die.
While the great majority of today's scientists may consider the quest to discover the world beyond death a waste of time and energy when there are so many physical challenges awaiting humankind in the twenty-first century, Dr. Karlis Osis has spoken to this issue and advised his more materialistic colleagues to take a "wider look toward the far horizons which have attracted the best minds through the centuries." There is, of course, greatness in defeating humankind's diseases and in conquering new worlds in outer space, but, Osis wonders "how the age-old problem, 'What happens when someone dies?,' compares with these material challenges? Is it not equally important to know the certain answer to such a basic question of human existence?"
In his A Practical Guide to Death and Dying, (1988) author John W. White, a founding member of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, quotes the philosopher Socrates' (c. 470–399 B.C.E.) statement just before drinking the hemlock that would kill him: "To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greater of blessings for a human being, and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that it is the greatest of evils."
White states that, in his opinion, the current research on death and dying indicates that one's personality will survive death of the body and, in all likelihood, will be reincarnated. "Death challenges us to find the meaning of life," he writes, "and with it, genuine happiness. It is nature's way of goading us to discover our true condition, our real self—beyond the transience and ephemerality of this material world. And not only this world, but all worlds."