What is it possible to discover about the experiences we shall meet with after we die - if indeed existence does continue - and about how we can best prepare for them?
If old friends were to return to us after death so changed that we failed to recognise their identity, then it would be impossible for them to convince us of their survival. We can conceive that such a change might come about, but then belief in survival could only be by faith and not from evidence. Therefore, faith apart, the effective case for a world into which men and women do enter after death depends first upon strong enough factual evidence to convince us that our own old friends still exist, that indeed we can and shall encounter them again. Plenty of such evidence exists, although different people give differing valuations to it. For those who find it convincing in general, this kind of evidence, however, is not enough. A good deal more is still required.
For to produce only memories of facts long past amounts to no more than what F. W. H. Myers has called ‘wearisomely presenting his credentials’. What of his present life, into which he carries forward these memories?
Memory cannot be limited to facts. Emotions, sometimes very strong ones, are also intertwined with it. If past facts can be remembered, the old emotions which accompanied them in the past may well continue too in the heart of the one who felt them. With new experiences after death, these emotions could change, grow, and diminish. Life after death will hardly be worth calling life if it remains merely static. That is one reason why nobody believes anymore in the playing of harps.
The evidence gains strength because it points to a process of development, one which starts from the recognisable self we brought from the old life on earth. It strongly suggests a principle of continuity. We ask whether this evidence shows that the dead are still sufficiently like their old selves for us to recognise them, yet different enough to convince us that they have undergone meaningful experiences since they left us, experiences which we in turn will face in due time. If their own reported words depict changes in their situation and in their own characters, whether for better or worse, these must be of an intelligible kind. They must persuade us that as well as a past they also possess an active present and a future, that their life is one which is worth living, that they are indeed something more than a mere memory bank.
This book attempts to assess the composite picture of postmortem experiences as presented by the evidence which we so far possess.
Towards the close of his life Mozart wrote in his most intimate vein to his father: Since death (properly understood) is the true ultimate purpose of our life I have for several years past made myself acquainted with this truest and best friend of mankind so that he has for me not only nothing terrifying any more but much that is tranquilising and consoling! ... Death . . . [is] the key to our true blessedness.
To speak thus at a dinner party today would invite stares and a rapid change of topic. Frank speech about death is uncomfortable. Unlike Mozart, many have not come to terms with it. If the picture we have of living on after death makes more sense than is commonly supposed then death may gradually cease to be the taboo subject of modern times.
In William Morris’s News from Nowhere, the reader finds out that ‘Nowhere’ is a Utopia. The ‘Nowhere’ of life after death, as pictured in popular accounts, has an all too Utopian and unconvincing colouring.
However, when we search within a more serious context, we discover that the picture is somewhat different. The material need not be dismissed with a defensive wave of the hand as nonsense. For evidence does exist of a far more purposeful, strenuous and therefore rewarding kind of life lived after death. We can collect the varying evidence as we would with any type of field evidence, and judge the similarities and differences in the accounts. I shall concentrate largely upon that part which seemingly emanates from witnesses who were of good calibre when on earth and whose accounts strongly suggest they retain this quality. Such accounts are by no means Utopian.
Modem depth psychology has produced a deepening picture of the human psyche and of powerful hidden forces it has discovered at work behind human emotions. Energetic fieldwork in the consulting room has brought about highly effective insights into traumas and into creative individuating patterns found over and over again.
[Jung] established in a way that no scientist can deny that this collective unconscious within man [and] the visions and dreams and imagery in which it communicated with man’s conscious self were utterly objective facts, however subjectively they were experienced.
Similar qualities of insight could well prove rewarding in what is at present regarded by psychical research as largely a subjective area. Surely it can be possible that in time, lying behind the personal accounts, objective patterns of post-mortem experience will gradually emerge.
For instance, it is now beyond dispute that the unconscious finds ways of telling us things which have laid within our nature without our being aware of them, and which it then becomes important for the outer conscious self to learn to deal with. This often brings disclosures of arduous work which must be carried out to bring order both into the outer life and into the inner being or psyche. Sometimes it must come about that this psychological work remains unfinished, or not started, by the time death takes place. If then we continue as ourselves, inheriting our old character, we must expect to inherit our faults along with the rest. A legacy could then be brought from earth, a legacy of work upon the self-unfinished there but which, unlike on earth, cannot subsequently be refused indefinitely. Alleged postmortem narratives describe a continuing therapy carried out by and upon the self through an intimate process of regeneration, a process which replaces old-fashioned and terrifying concepts of final judgement and punishment. We can then begin to ask, partly within the context of the expanding psychological world of modem man, what sort of meaningful causal relationship can exist between a person’s life pattern on earth and the shape it is found to take after it.
Nor need death inevitably extinguish old relationships. They may continue in a new shape, springing from a change of heart towards a person left behind, and bringing altered feelings, as in Mrs Willett’s posthumous letter to her son, quoted later in this chapter.
Another and wider element has also to be assessed. The accounts speak of teachers who exhibit a brotherly concern for their fellows recently arrived. Their insight, personal and impersonal, can perhaps also bear meanings relevant for those of us who remain on earth. It is worth examining.
Essentially, then, we shall be concerned with studying human values in a lifespan much extended by further experiences claimed to come about after death, and which, if true, could have very important relevance’s to our present life.
The picture we are to study is a mosaic made up of contributions both small and large. In Dr Robert Crookall’s books alone -The Supreme Adventure and its companion volumes - will be found several hundred fragments of accounts of alleged discarnate experiences. My particular task is to seek contributions from post-mortem minds of good calibre. If a report were to appear of an unannounced arctic or tropical exploration we would examine it for internal coherence and then examine the reputation for truth and integrity of those who produced it. If people who on earth were of substance and integrity claim to send back after their death reports of what they have found, these are worthy of being read with special care. Those to whom the reports were addressed, and who express confidence in them, must expect to find their own integrity similarly scrutinised. This is perfectly fair.
I will now introduce some of the characters in whose name communications have since appeared, and who form the main cast of communicators in this book.
The volume and quality of psychical research carried out over the last hundred years by scientifically qualified minds is not yet generally recognised. It is too easily assumed that material which relates to posthumous communications is largely confined to the ramblings of uneducated mediums, and to listeners whose minds have been disturbed and made credulous by grief, with a consequent loss of all critical faculty. This is an erroneous and unrealistic view. The actual situation is otherwise.
This common opinion supposes that Sir Oliver Lodge, distracted by grief over the loss of his son Raymond in the First World War, allowed his emotions and his desire for comfort to overcome him and thus to bring about a conviction of survival which his unclouded scientific mind would never have reached. However, to examine his many contributions to the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research is to recognize that before he lost his son Oliver Lodge, with impressive scientific integrity, had spent thirty years in persistent and at times ingenious inquiry into communications claiming to be from discarnate sources. It took him a very long time to reach a working hypothesis of survival. As he said himself, the death of Raymond and the evidence he then received did not bring about his acceptance of survival, it merely confirmed for him the hypothesis which he had already reached from his many years of detached scientific labour in this field.
If communications claiming to be from Oliver Lodge show something of this same integrity, they will surely require to be looked at with care, irrespective of what any reader’s final verdict may be. If Lodge survives, he will be particularly well qualified to produce material of significance. He is one member of our cast.
The next is the lady known as ‘Mrs Willett’, a pseudonym, her real name being Mrs Coombe Tennant. She was a J.P. and the first woman delegate from Britain to the League of Nations. The sensitive, mediumistic side of her life was kept very strictly private. Thus, Professor C. D. Broad, as a member of the Society for Psychical Research (and twice later to be its President), was familiar with her work, but although Mrs Coombe Tennant’s son was his pupil at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he met her occasionally and also visited her London house, he had no clue that his acquaintance was the well-known ‘Mrs Willett’.
Mrs Willett was one of a handful of highly educated nonprofessional sensitives who were members of a team which included a group of Cambridge scholars. Their work continued for a number of years, and allegedly some of these scholars continued it after their own deaths. Other sensitives included Mrs Verrall, a classical lecturer at Newnham, her daughter Mrs Helen Salter, and Mrs Holland, who lived mostly in India and sent communications from there. The Cambridge scholars included the philosopher Professor Henry Sidgwick; a classical scholar, Professor A. W. Verrall; Frederick W. H. Myers, the poet and psychical researcher; Professor Butcher, The Right Hon. Gerald Balfour, and Mrs Nora Sidgwick (the first Principal of Newnham College). Mrs Sidgwick’s brother, Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister, O.M., and a President of the Society for Psychical Research, was the recipient of some of the most touching and intimate of these communications.
From this work which spanned many years there resulted the celebrated Cross-Correspondences, which form the best sustained and carefully recorded evidence we have of survival and continuing purpose after death. A central feature was the production of recondite classical allusions, some requiring specialised knowledge to unravel them. Another feature was an apparent attempt to overcome the theory that all material might be derived telepathically by the sensitive from the mind of the recipient, by an ingenious plan to give one fragment of a communication to one sensitive, another fragment to a second, in such a way that the connection between the two only made sense when the final part of the message was given through a third sensitive. Mrs Willett (if it is she) thus described the Cross-Correspondences after her death, writing through the hand of Geraldine Cummins:
The . . . Case might be likened to an orchestra’s perfect performance. The several communicators were scholars, whose intellects were married to imaginations that cherished an ideal image of scholarly perfection in the evidence . . . The investigators and the mediums had sufficient imagination to envisage the . . . objective of perfection. Thus deep called to deep in a unified desire. An orchestra must play as one if the performance is to reach towards perfection . . .
Mrs Willett and Frederick Myers, the third member of our cast, are, if one can so put it, important post mortem contributors to the material in this book. Helen Salter, of the Cross-Correspondences group, also contributes, though more briefly.
Frances Banks was for many years a nun in an Anglican teaching order in Africa. Comparatively late in her life she developed powers of extra-sensory perception. As there was no room intellectually in her order for the implications of this gift, she eventually left with the blessing of her superiors, returned to England and took a job teaching male prisoners in Maidstone gaol. She became an active member of The Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. From the results of a questionnaire seeking psychic experiences, which she sent to several hundred Christian members, she wrote Frontiers of Revelation. A close friend of hers, Helen Greaves, is a nonprofessional sensitive; Frances Banks and Helen Greaves practised telepathy together in the hope that after Frances’ death she would be able successfully to convey to Helen that she indeed survived and to describe her post-mortem experiences. The scripts Helen Greaves later received from her are recorded in her book Testimony of Light. Again we have a person of proven integrity and one, moreover, of deep piety and of mystical perception.
The Rev. C. Drayton Thomas, a Methodist parson and a well-known and respected member of the Society for Psychical Research, contributed a number of papers to its Proceedings. With the help of Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard a professional medium who for a number of years worked exclusively for the Society for Psychical Research, he was able to question his father, also a Methodist minister, and his sister, on the experiences they met with and how they reacted to them. He also received news of a number of former parishioners with whose characters he had been reasonably familiar.
T. E. Lawrence, that highly individual but difficult and unforthcoming figure, whose courage none could dispute, describes through the hand of Mrs Jane Sherwood the formidable difficulties which faced him after death, difficulties clearly related to events of his life on earth, though in an unexpected way. Albert Pauchard, an important contributor, was during his life President of the Metapsychical Society of Geneva, again a man of intelligence and probity, and very confident about the sort of experiences he expected would await him. These, however, turned out to be somewhat different from his expectations.
Other characters quoted more briefly include W. T. Stead, the humanitarian journalist; Father Tobe, a Roman Catholic priest; Sir William Barrett, F.R.S., one of the earliest members of the Society for Psychical Research; Thoreau; a Lieutenant General (name given by communicator in full, but withheld from publication); and an unnamed Doctor of Divinity. The recipients include Frederick Lawrence, an ecclesiastical architect; Baron Palmstierila, a Swedish ambassador; Lady Barrett, Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women; Jasper Swain, a South African lawyer and magistrate; J. H. Remmers, an engineer; Dr Sherwood Eddy, an American scholar and author of thirty-five books on international, social and religious questions; Rosamond Lehmann, the novelist; Jelly d’Aranyi, the concert violinist, whose sister, Adila Fachiri, also a concert violinist, was the medium; and Brigadier R. C. Firebrace, who served as an interpreter between Stalin and Churchill.
Post-mortem accounts are often considered as no more than rosy wish-fulfilment narratives, as brightly coloured as a travel brochure. Some accounts are of this kind but, as has been said, quite a different picture emerges when more serious communications are examined. There is nothing rosy, for example, in the posthumous letter to one of her sons which ‘Mrs Willett’ wrote shortly after her death through another sensitive, Geraldine Cummins. Miss Cummins had never met this son. It records a very early post-mortem experience of a change of heart.
My dear, dear Alexander,
It is my urgent need to write to you on a private matter that concerns us two. I have a humiliating confession to make and must cast away all pride . . . I have been a witness of the film of memory, the record of my life ... There are, as you may know, underground chambers of the mind ... I have ... had a dismaying revelation of one of them. I feel I must share it with you or in future I shall have no peace of mind ...
The year before you were born . . . my little girl Daphne died. Then . . . came the lovely hope of another baby-girl to replace Daphne. Oh I was so bitterly disappointed when I learnt this happy dream was a deluding fancy . . . I repulsed my baby-son, visited my bitterness on his tiny innocent self. It was more in thought than in act. But at that very early age the babe is subconsciously acutely sensible of the mother’s emotion towards himself ... It produced in you a certain shyness and caution in regard to your apparently capricious mother. For later . . . I felt remorseful and went from one extreme to the other and became devoted . . . But it was too late. My tiny boy, just beginning to walk, was independent, withdrew from my kisses, rejected my impulsive, violent affection. He was deep down alarmed by it. So eventually that primitive mother became hurt and annoyed and turned away from him just when she might have won by her persistence and gentleness. Thus a psychological barrier began to grow up between us . . . I see now that fundamentally I was a possessive mother ... You, a sturdy little boy, refused to be owned . . . Quite often I have thought evilly of you . . . because you were completely independent of me ... I have even in these posthumous messages written, I believe, false things about you but these were all derived from my baffled emotional vanity because I failed in any sense to possess you. In this life when studying our past memories we assume the mood of the time in which these memories were happening. So I beg of you to remove from your mind any cruel, false thing I wrote of you in a posthumous message . . . Mine has been the initial offence all along. If you have felt a barrier between us, I created it not you. For the sake of my peace of mind I beg of you to forgive my grievous fault ... Dear sons, I send you from the hither world my true love in equal shares.
Do these strike the reader as indeed the words of a woman who after her death has undergone a real experience, a change of perspective which requires her to set old emotions right?
Let us take a bird’s-eye view of the material we shall examine. It contains a good deal of variety. There are many stories of immediate arrival into the post-mortem situation. A good number tell of new surroundings; these are discovered later on to be partly conditioned by the survivor’s own mental and emotional states. Such suroundings are not necessarily what they first appear to be. They have illusory elements. There is a wide variety of difficulties and of adjustments.
Post-mortem values have very little to do with earth reputation or achievement, nor are they always speedily discovered. Persons well known on earth, T. E. Lawrence for example do not always get on well.
These travellers gradually extricate themselves from their difficulties, with help, but fundamentally by their own efforts. We see various ways in which, meanwhile, some remain entangled in the same problems they failed to deal with when on earth. In time a self-judgement arises of all the events of the past life and the result is sometimes painful. With adjustment to this new life, the mental and emotional powers gradually become keener and deeper, but the resulting growth and change in values calls for a good deal of strenuous effort. Ethical and spiritual laws are found to govern life after death, but these do not fully coincide with those given in conventional religious teaching on earth.
Many accounts picture how human beings come to revalue the various aspects of their own character. They reorient themselves, too, to changes in the nature of human relationships. Meetings are described with superior intelligences who, it becomes evident, have little interest in what we would call their own personality. Companionship alters and intensifies. As such changes come about, narrators proclaim that they are finding that life is much larger than foreseen by them on earth, and yet they recognise that they are still only at the very beginning of knowledge.
It is not an easy task to assess the pictures of postmortem existence claimed to be given by men and women actually living it. The reader is not expected to share my assumptions, to accept the narratives, or my interpretations, or the existence of the communicators themselves. It would be tedious in the extreme, however, if intellectual reserves and qualifications were added on every page. The reader if he wishes can add his own. My intention is to report with as faithful an understanding as I can muster what these narratives, taking one with another, are attempting to tell us, and then to leave the reader to form his own judgements.
Before commencing to sift the evidence, we must take a look in the next chapters at some fundamental problems it raises for us. How strong has psychical research so far found the evidence for survival itself? As for the experiences described as taking place subsequently, can a sound methodology be found to assess such elusive material? What confidence can be felt in its sources? How reliable can we judge them to be? And some persons will wish to ask in particular: it is morally justified to approach the material at all?
Readers, however, who prefer to proceed straight to the narratives can turn to Chapter 5, omitting Chapters 2-4, or reading them after the rest of the book.
“A Case to Consider” is an extract from Living On: How Consciousness Continues and Evolves After Death by Paul Beard, published by White Crow Books.