They can fly through walls or circle the planets, turn into pure light or meet long-dead relatives. Many have blissful experiences of universal love. Most do not want to return to the living. When they do, they're often endowed with special powers: They can predict the future or intuit people's thoughts.
Many end up unhappy and divorced, rejected by their loved ones or colleagues, burdened with a knowledge they often dare not share. They are the "death travelers."
If this sounds like the movie Flatliners or a science fiction novel by J. G. Ballard, it isn't. These are the testimonies of people who have had near death experiences (NDEs) and returned from the other side to tell the tale.
Journalist Judy Bachrach decided to listen to their stories, and on the way cure her own terror of death.
Here she talks about how advances in medicine are enabling us to raise the dead, why the scientific and religious communities are hostile to the idea of NDEs, and how a British traffic controller returned from the dead with the ability to predict the stock market.
Your book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death, opens with you volunteering to work in a hospice. Why?
The person who put the idea in my head was former First Lady Barbara Bush, whose own daughter had died in hospice at the age of four. One of my best friends was dying of cancer. We were both at the time 32 [years old], and I couldn't get over it. I was terrified of death, and I was terrified of her dying. So I decided to start working in a hospice to get over my terror of death.
Until the 20th century, death was determined by holding a mirror to a patient's mouth. If it didn't mist over, the person was dead. We now live in what you call the "age of Lazarus." Can you explain?
Everybody who's been revived by CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation—and there are more and more of us—is a formerly dead person. We walk every single day among the formerly dead. Death is no longer simply the cessation of breath or heartbeat or even brain stem activity. These days people can be dead for up to an hour and come back among us and have memories. I call them "death travelers" in the book.
One scientist you spoke to suggests that NDEs may simply result from the brain shutting down, like a computer—that, for instance, the brilliant light often perceived at the end of a tunnel is caused by loss of blood or hypoxia, lack of oxygen. How do you counter these arguments?
The problem with the lack of oxygen explanation is that when there is a lack of oxygen, our recollections are fuzzy and sometimes non-existent. The less oxygen you have, the less you remember. But the people who have died, and recall their death travels, describe things in a very clear, concise, and structured way. Lack of oxygen would mean you barely remember anything.
Most death travelers don't want to return to the living, and when they do, they find it is a painful experience. Tell us about Tony Cicoria.
Tony Cicoria is a neurosurgeon from upstate New York. He was like the rest of us once upon a time. He believed death was death, and that was the end. Then he got struck by lightning. He was on a picnic with his family, talking to his mother on the telephone, when a bolt of lightning hit the phone. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground saying to himself, "Oh, my God, I'm dead."
The way he knew he was dead is because he saw his mother-in-law screaming at him. And he called out to her and said, "I'm here! I'm here!" But she didn't hear anything.
Next he was traveling up a flight of steps without walking. He became a bolt of blue light and managed to go through a building. He flew through walls, and he saw his little kids having their faces painted. Right after that, he felt somebody thumping on his chest.
A nurse who was in the vicinity was thumping on his chest. But he did not want to come back to life. Very much like other death travelers, he wanted to stay dead. Being dead is evidently a very interesting experience. And exciting.
You suggest there is a difference between brain function and consciousness. Can you talk about that idea?
This is an area where a lot more scientific research has to be done: that the brain is possibly, and I'm emphasizing the "possibly," not the only area of consciousness. That even when the brain is shut down, on certain occasions consciousness endures. One of the doctors I interviewed, a cardiologist in Holland, believes that consciousness may go on forever. So the postulate among some scientists is that the brain is not the only locus of thought, which is very interesting.
You coin several new terms in the book. What's a Galileo?
I call the scientists who are involved in research into death travel "Galileos" because, like Galileo himself, who was persecuted by the Inquisition for explaining his theories about the universe, scientists involved in research into what occurs after death are also being persecuted. They're denied tenure. They're told that they're inferior scientists and doctors. They're mocked. Anthony Cicoria, the man who was struck by lightning, didn't tell any of his fellow surgeons about his experience for something like 20 years.
Why do you think the scientific community is so hostile to the idea of NDEs?
It's a really good question. I think the scientific community is very much like I used to be. Journalists tend not to be very religious, we tend not to be very credulous, and we tend to believe the worst possible scenario, which, in this case, is nothing. The scientific community is very materialistic. If you can't see it and you can't measure it, it doesn't exist.
When I gave a speech at the NIH [National Institutes of Health], I talked with the top neurologist there. I said, "Are you doing research on what used to be called near death experiences?" He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, "Why? Does it cure anything?"
The Christian Church is also not very keen on this area of inquiry. Why is that?
I think that religion, very much like science, likes to rely on everything that's gone on before. If your grandfather believed something, then you want to believe it. If the scientists who came before you want to believe something, then you believe in it. Because the options for those who deviate are very scary.
Most of the people I interviewed got divorced. That is not uncommon among death travelers. You come back and tell your husband or lover or wife what went on, and they look at you like you're nuts. It's a very scary thing to come back and say, "I remember what happened after death."
The Christian Church, or the Jewish faith, whichever we're talking about, also have very specific views of what life after death should involve. Everybody I interviewed deviated from the traditional theological views. They didn't see angels necessarily. They don't float in heaven. It's not some happy-clappy area of the universe. It's far more complicated—and interesting—than that.
One of the curious facts I discovered reading your book is that women are far less optimistic about their chances of going to heaven than men are. Why is that?
This was told to me by a monk who died by drowning and then returned. Obviously, he'd had a good deal of experience with people confiding in him and confessing. I think it's because women are very self-critical. We're very hard on ourselves. Nothing is ever good enough about us. We're not smart enough. We're not beautiful enough. Look at what we do to our bodies and our faces in the name of perfection! And I think that applies to our chances of getting, if you will, into heaven.
For her new book, journalist Judy Bachrach collected the testimonies of people who had near death experiences and returned to tell the tale.
Photograph Courtesy of National Geographic Books
Why is it important for you to believe that there is life after death?
It was not important for me, at all, to believe. I'm a journalist. I don't go around thinking, "I really hope there's life after death." Indeed, at the beginning I was the opposite—I didn't want to believe. Yes, death was a source of terror. For me, the worst thing that could happen was nothingness. I would have far preferred to hear that Satan was waiting for me than to learn that there was nothing. But I was absolutely positive that there was nothing after death—that the curtain descends, and that's it. Act III. It's over. The stage is black.
And when I first ventured into this strange area of research, I was pretty sure, just as you said, that it was all the result of oxygen deprivation and that these were hallucinations. It was only after I discovered that it can't be the result of oxygen deprivation, and these were not hallucinations, that I realized I had to change my views. That's a very difficult thing to do, particularly when you're past adolescence. But every bit of evidence, every single person I interviewed, forced me to change my views. It was something I did quite unwillingly and with a good deal of skepticism.
What I tried to do, as a journalist, was simply record what these people say happened. All I know is what I've reported, which is, when you die, that is not the end. Stuff goes on. That, to me, is weird. But it's true.
Did engaging with this research make you want to die?
No! Nothing makes me want to die! But it did make me less fearful of dying. It was a long process, though. After the first 20 or 30 interviews, I was still terrified of death. All these people were telling me stuff that I never believed could happen. But gradually I came to accept that what they said was true. So I'm a little less terrified of death now.
You say that having an NDE often invests people with special powers. Tell us about the British air traffic controller.
[Laughs] The British air traffic controller makes me laugh. He told a person I interviewed, a British neuropsychiatrist named Dr. Fenwick, that he had a death experience. Oddly enough, as a result of this death experience, he became terrific at picking and choosing stocks. [Laughs]
The psychiatrist goes, "Uh-huh." The guy says, "Yeah, you really should invest in British Telecom."
Dr. Fenwick says, "Uh, yeah. Right." And of course the stock soars right after that!
Usually these powers involve perceptual abilities, though, [such as] the ability to know what other people are thinking, the ability know what's going to happen next. So they're usually less materialistic than this gentleman's powers. [Laughs] But, hey, whatever floats your boat.
NDEs are, surely, not the same as a complete death experience. These are generally short episodes not lasting more than an hour and often in hospital settings. No one, as far as I know, has returned from the dead after a long period of time and told us about it. Do we know any more than we did before about what will actually happen when we die?
What's happening now is revolutionary. If you'd told somebody a hundred years ago that they could die for an hour and come back and tell you what happened, that would have been in the realm of theology or philosophy. But now it's in the realm of the real world.
It's absolutely true that we don't know what happens, say, after six days being dead. All we know now—and that's one of the reasons I think it's important for scientists to investigate far more—is what happens up to an hour.
How did your friends and peers in the journalistic world react to you writing this book?
It depends who they are. Some of them looked at me like, "Oh, OK. You're nuts. I never really thought you were before. But now I know you are."
Others, because National Geographic is publishing the book, said, "Oh, National Geographic! It must be true then." [Laughs] My religious journalist friends said, "Thank God you're doing it. You were always such a skeptic and a cynic."
I have to say that I fall into none of those categories. I'm just a journalist doing what journalists do. I'm interviewing people and trying to find out what is true.
After writing this book, can you say with any more certainty what death is?
Yes, I can. I can say that death is an adventure, which to me is the oddest thing in the world. It takes you from this Earth, this ordinary Earth, into extraordinary places.
One of the experiences I describe is of the renowned psychologist Carl Jung, who died when he had a heart attack in his 60s. He was ultimately revived, and came back describing, in great detail, how he had seen the universe.
One of the people I interviewed had a similar experience. And that shocked the hell out of me because that's the kind of experience I would love to have. Like an astronaut's delight. You're up there. You can move toward planets or away from planets. You can see the Earth. It's gorgeous. It's interesting. And it doesn't cost a thing.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.