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Varieties of Experience of Death by Cynthia Pettiward

Before discussing varieties of experience undergone by the earthbound, I should like to take a look at the experience of death itself. My chief authority on this subject is again Dr Robert Crookall, who has treated the matter very thoroughly. Certainly anybody interested should read Wickland and Crookall for themselves, for I have only tried to summarise what are considerable works of reference. In The Supreme Adventure alone, Dr Crookall lists a bibliography of one hundred and sixty-four books which he has consulted.

People do not readily talk about death, yet we all have to die. Neither the Church nor our teachers prepare us for this experience. Geoffrey Gorer in his Death, Grief and Mourning notes that death has superseded sex as The Taboo Subject. The attitude of a great number of human beings is not only fraught with terror, but also quite illogical, for we are faced on the one hand with an almost frenzied fear of death, and on the other with the conviction that it is the ultimate blotter-out, and the means that can be taken to end an intolerable condition. Certainly the concept of finality is the one held by those who take their own lives. One is only too familiar with the phrase:

“I can’t go on: the only thing is to end it all.”

These two attitudes, fear of even considering the matter on the one hand, while on the other welcoming death as the ultimate anaesthetic are obviously incompatible. Perhaps those who fear death also unconsciously fear it as a kind of penal state, in fact as Hell, in which they may find themselves if they are not careful.

Yet if one pursues this line of thought, one finds that Hell is no longer officially believed in – ‘Oh! That is just an old bogy invented to frighten us’ is preached in churches and written by advanced clerics. When Jesus invoked Hell, as he very often did, he was only referring, we are told, to Gehenna, a rubbish-dump outside Jerusalem. This does not help to soften the idea very much. Nobody would relish the prospect of being cast on an Oriental rubbish-dump. There is not much object in trying to palliate what Jesus said: it is quite clear that he was not describing an attractive prospect. There can be little doubt that he was alluding to a place of profound misery, relegation to which was in the nature of chastisement.

Karma, on the other hand, lays its stress on the re-educative process, and, it has been said, is no more of a punishment than gravity is a punishment for dropping things. Not one of us is in a position to pontificate about the validity of these theories, any more than the worm, cut in half by the gardener’s spade, is in a position to give a lecture on the ethics underlying its fate. According to the Karmic concept a man may well be suffering now from the consequences of failure in an earlier life; a life which he does not remember.

For the nature of memory: race-memory, pre-natal memory, group-memory, cell-memory, unconscious memory – is something we only remotely understand. The deceased F.W.H. Myers, communicating with Geraldine Cummins, showed impatience with our belief that memory is centred in the physical brain. If we are reincarnated our brains may not remember where we went astray last time, but some aspect of us would seem to have taken it in. An earthworm, introduced into a tube that forks, receives an electric shock each time it takes the left-hand fork. After some fifty attempts it ‘learns’ to avoid the left and to bear right. This is not memory as we understand it, but it is a kind of educative process, though, maybe, it is ‘not fair’. And you may regard the shock either as a punishment for making a mistake, or you may regard it as an indication that the worm should try something else. I think this is how Karma with its postulate of Reincarnation can fit in with the teaching on Outer Darkness as a place of chastisement. In other words, whether you slap the baby for grabbing a fistful of jam, or whether you let it be sick from gorging, the educational impact is much the same. Nor will the baby, grown to adulthood, ‘remember’ how it learned moderation. ‘Outer Darkness’ is not the End: even the most depraved can be redeemed and led to the light, as they are by other discarnate beings whose work it is to rescue them. That this is so is recorded in numerous communications from discarnates.
But the plight of the souls who dwell in these regions, referred to as Outer Darkness, Shadowland, Sheol, the Lower Astral, Hell – the Hell of their own making – is far worse than that of the merely earthbound. It is these, the earthbound, who are displaced and lost, and who seek shelter in the auras of sensitives, literally making them mad or sometimes physically ill. Thus, again and again, the same phrases are repeated: ‘I walked and walked but couldn’t find anywhere to go’ ... ‘I talked to people but nobody would answer me’ ... ‘It was like walking in a mist’ ... ‘I wasn’t in ’Eaven, l wasn’t in ’Ell; I wasn’t nowhere’. Fog, bewilderment, a sort of no-man’s land is the state of those who are not ready to proceed to the next phase: the main cause seems to be spiritual underdevelopment. This is not Purgatory, for Purgatory is thought of as a state consequent on judgement, whereas these souls have not yet reached a stage where they are mature enough to review their past lives.

If I try to assess my own response to the question: ‘What do you think the next step will be?’ I find that I am thinking in terms of the current Western Civil-Service-controlled world into which I was born. St Peter is at the barrier, I unconsciously feel, waiting for us to produce our documents. Perhaps They are expecting us on Their side, and, as at an airport, They will call out our names: ‘Will the following passengers please come to the Customs Barrier: Miss Eliza Dolittle, Mr Soames Forsyte? . . . and so on’ They will consult our credentials, They will know where we should go, whether our passports are in order, whether They will or will not accept us for the next venture. It will be clear whether we have/have not, deserved to go somewhere nice/somewhere not at all nice, or perhaps to be kept hanging about. These Civil-Servants will be all too well-informed: if you told a lie about your Income Tax, be sure They will know it. We hope they will not have forgotten, either, the time when we gave a lift to old So-and-So, in spite of his rather unappetising appearance. We hope They will not be too hard to please, that a moderate ‘O Level’ in moral behaviour will get us by. We have a sneaking fear that we do not quite know how our standards approximate to Theirs. After all, there was the Prodigal Son. His brother behaved much better than he did, but fared worse.

I do not suppose that I am unique in this matter, and it seems to me that many of us, unthinkingly and unconsciously, expect something rather on these lines. Indeed, since the next world is a thought- world, something of this sort may literally occur, as is related of a young Frenchwoman who told of her arrival with a small suitcase in front of a portal inscribed: ‘Royaume des Cieux’.

I have read many accounts of the moment of passing. They come from well-authenticated sources; doctors and hospital nurses, for instance, and have been analysed under various headings by Dr Crookall. I present them as they are told.

1. The first thing that strikes me is that ‘They’, the officials, are not waiting for us at all. There is nobody at the barrier to register your arrival. Indeed, there is no barrier. You will be asked neither for your passport nor for the keys of your luggage.

2. The second is that one of the most common of all phenomena is that many of the ‘dead’ have not the slightest idea that they are dead. Here I quote from Dr Wickland.
Doctor. “How long have you been dead?”
Spirit. “Why do you speak that way? I am not dead. I am as alive as I can be, and I feel as if I were young again.’’
Doctor. “How long have you been dead, Jimmie?”
Spirit. “What do you mean?”
Doctor. “I mean, how long is it singe you lost your body?”
Spirit. “I haven’t lost it yet.”

And from Lord Dowding: (He mentions the state of two airmen and a soldier.
“They are awake, but don’t know that they are dead. They have created their own surroundings. Crowds are waiting to help them, but the three can’t see them.’

And from the Proceedings of the S.P.R.:
‘George Pelham’, killed in an accident, at first found everything ‘dark’. He could not distinguish anything at first. This caused him to be ‘puzzled’ and ‘confused’. (He may have been still partly blinded by the vehicle of vitality.)

These discarnate spirits try to make themselves known to those still on earth, and fail to do so. One young man, killed on the way to see a friend, nevertheless reached the house and succeeded in ringing the bell. When his friend came to the door nobody could be seen. The episode of the bell-ringing was disclosed later through a medium.

3. The third noticeable point, that follows from the second, is that these spirits do not know that they have died because conditions in the next world are so very similar to conditions in this. We ought not to find this disconcerting. After all, why should Stan at the garage who has worked honestly all his life among spare-parts and oily rags and petrol-pumps, suddenly find himself in some sort of numinous environment where he will be totally bewildered? It seems that he does not in fact find himself in such an environment. What is all right for the Archbishop is not right for Stan. Tales come through to us of cigarette-smoking, of ‘a home very like ours in Seattle’ on the other side, and people here, reading such accounts, comment: ‘I can’t believe anything so humdrum: it’s the most ghastly bathos’. But if Stan is to take his personality and his experience with him, he will have to be acclimatised gently. If he is not to take his personality with him, then he is no longer Stan, and Stan has been snuffed out. It seems that this ‘Paradise’ or ‘next place’ is only the Lower Fourth, to which we graduate from the Upper Third. Everything in this Lower Fourth is still far from clear and we continue to evolve there, Stan in the same way as another, till we are ready to move on and up. Nobody should find this shocking. Though it may be true that eventually ‘There is nothing hid that shall not be revealed’, evidence shows that it is certainly not true at this stage of transition.

There is no more uniformity about death than about birth – often a very much more traumatic experience. Those who have witnessed hundreds of natural deaths in hospitals say that the majority of deaths, though often preceded by suffering, are, at least outwardly, peaceful. From Crookall’s many accounts, the moment of passing can vary from being one of supreme joy, to being one of confusion and distress.

One can divide these moments into three broad main types.

Natural Death

First there is death as it comes to the loved, the loving, the well-adjusted, the creative, the joyful, the faithful, the well-integrated, and above all to those who are prepared for it. When these die, at the end of their natural term, when they have, as one might say, ‘been dying’ first, friends or relations, or even spirits whose work it is to help them, come to them to receive them into the next world. Here they understand that they are no longer incarnate in their earthly bodies. They are quickly able to adjust themselves to their new state, or, if they are very old and tired, they have a period of rest before settling down to their new lives.

A person who is in course of natural transition is said, in communications from ‘beyond’ to send out a kind of ‘call’ to friends and relations who have gone before. This ‘call’ sometimes consists of conscious and deliberate thought; sometimes it is more or less intuitive and subconscious. Many instances of such well-adjusted deaths are recorded in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, this one, for instance:

‘A Miss Pearson, when dying, claimed to see her deceased sister Ann, who had come to call her. Ann was also seen, independently, by two nieces and a housekeeper who were in the house at the time.

It appears that there are also in this ‘Earth Sphere’ – another name for ‘Paradise conditions’ – spirits who are trained to receive those newcomers who had no dead friends or relations of their own, so that when it is known that somebody is about to die, this person can be saved from bewilderment by such helpers. It is interesting, in this connexion, to note that dogs, which are clearly endowed with extrasensory perception, and can sometimes be seen to be watching, in a rather hair-raising manner, entities invisible to us, have often been recorded as sensing that a death was imminent. A corroboration of this occurs in Dr Karl Novotny’s account of his experience (Mediate Schriften, 1968.) The writer had died, but did not realise it. He wrote:

“It was very upsetting, too, to look down at my dead body . . . while I felt in perfect health.”
And there was my dog, who kept whining pitifully, unable to decide to which of me he should go. For he saw me in two places at once, standing up and lying on the ground.”

Dom Robert Petitpierre takes his dog on his exorcising expeditions and is able to gauge the degree of haunting by this dog’s behaviour.

Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of the sudden lighting-up of the face of someone about to die, accompanied by a smile and a look of recognition. This occurrence, though, is only perceptible when the subject is conscious. Most deaths of old people happen while they are asleep or unconscious. There appears to be no difficult transition in such a case. Psychic sensitives have very often seen the spirits of such people leaving their bodies, to which they are attached by a luminous thread, the ‘silver cord’ to which I have already referred: this thins and finally breaks, leaving the spirit free. Many examples of this have been recorded. Dr A.J. Cronin, author of The Citadel and of many other well-known books, speaks of such an experience witnessed by him, and when it was objected that he might have imagined it he replied:

“Later in life I was to meet a famous physician who told me that in all his years of practice he had never sat beside a death-bed without experiencing in some degree the sensation that had been mine. He called it unashamedly ‘the flight of the soul’.” So much for the deaths of the ‘well-adjusted’, though these are not inevitably the well-behaved, the orthodox, or the do-gooders.

Sudden, but Easy, Death

Secondly, though death may be sudden, and the subject unprepared, the spirit has been able quickly to adapt himself to his new surroundings and passes smoothly to the next phase. In Dr S. Ralph Harlow’s book, “A Life after Death” he tells of a missionary, Miner Rogers, who was shot and fell to the ground. Miner told of his own death in automatic writing. He saw his colleague, Dr Chalmers, run from the mission gate toward a body lying on the ground, and thinking that this was the body of a fellow-missionary he helped Dr Chalmers carry the body back to the compound. “As we entered the gate,” Miner wrote, “I looked down and for the first time saw the body that I was helping to carry. It was my own. And at that moment I felt free from my earthly body.” He added that he had been able to get in touch with his distant wife at once by means of telepathy and to inform her that he had survived physical death. This man was a missionary and consequently accustomed to the idea that death was not the end; he was therefore able to accept his new status easily.

But the master of the dog to which I referred was quite unprepared. He had gone for a walk feeling rather tired, but suddenly felt quite free of fatigue and in the best of health:

“I turned back to my companions and found myself looking down at my own body on the ground. My friends were in despair, calling for a doctor and trying to get a car to take me home. But I was well and felt no pains! I couldn’t understand what had happened. I bent down and felt the heart of the body lying on the ground. Yes, it had ceased to beat – I was dead. But I was still alive! I spoke to my friends, but they neither saw nor answered me. I was most annoyed and left them .. . When ... my body had been put into the coffin, I realised that I must be dead. But I wouldn’t acknowledge the fact; for, like my teacher, Alfred Adler, I did not believe in an afterlife.”

When he finally admitted the truth, he was able to see his mother coming to greet him. One may be certain that Dr Novotny would not have been familiar with Miner Rogers’ account and this makes the similarity of the two experiences very striking.

Distressing Death

Thirdly there are sudden and violent deaths that are tragic and bewildering. No kindly spirits are perceived by these new recruits, and it is very common for them to remain in ignorance of their deaths for some time. Dr Crookall lists ‘death by explosion’ in a different category from normal death. Dr Wickland had a patient who cried incessantly and complained of intense head pains. By means of electrical treatment, one of several spirits possessing this patient was released, and spoke through the mediumship of Mrs Wickland. This was the spirit of a little girl, Minnie Day, who had been brutally killed by her father. She wept piteously and said: “After Ma died Papa was so mean to me and Willie, and he hit me so many times. I feel so bad and my head hurts. I have been to so many places and my Ma is dead, and I don’t know where to go.” Dr Wickland explained that she was now dead, and she replied:

“Did I die? Sometimes I feel as if I were in a box. We were a big crowd, (Spirits possessing the patient) and they pushed and pushed, and there was one big man and he was so mean to us. He chased us one way and then another, but one day we lost him. (Spirit removed from patient) ... He was awful mean; he bit and scratched and would fight.”

Minnie Day was a child who was quite innocent and a victim of brutality. I have no intention of soft-pedalling Dr Wickland’s findings for the sake of comfort. If he is to be believed, not only, in such cases, has justice not been seen to be done, but injustice most palpably has been seen to be done, according to the way we see things. Wickland records many cases that fall into this category and any reader would find them terrifying and tragic. The Karmic theory would have it that the child had brought this upon herself in a previous incarnation.

Certainly civilisation should make it increasingly difficult for little girls to be murdered, as Minnie was a ‘battered baby.’ If more work could be done of the kind undertaken by Dr and Mrs Wickland it might be easier for a tragic post-death situation to be put right also. The spirit of Minnie’s father next ‘controlled’ the medium, suffering intensely for what he had done, and the doctor was able to enlighten the whole family about their condition. After this, more ‘advanced’ spirits were asked to help both father and child to lead a more constructive life.

As a footnote to this on the point of the crowding in of entities – (My name is Legion, for we are many), the S.P.R. Proceedings describes a case in which entities appearing to speak through the medium consisted of: 7 or 8 obsessors, about 24 workers, trying to help patient, 7 relations, 9 incidentals, and this party included: A silly girl, apparently epileptic, a criminal, a drug fiend, an alcoholic, a syphilitic woman, a ‘simple’ woman and ‘underworld characters’.

In all the cases I have studied so far I have the impression of groups organising what has to be done, or perhaps a ‘group-spirit’. Though there appear to be Great Beings, their vibrations are too intense for spirits still in paradise conditions to be exposed to them. For, as I have already indicated, paradise is only the first step of the soul’s journey.

To sum up what I have been trying to say in this chapter:

The transition from this world to the next is so unremarkable as often to pass unperceived, and there is no obvious arrival in an unknown country, similar to that of disembarking at, say, Shanghai, after a journey from England. Though death is often an occasion of delight and passing souls may be welcomed and helped, other souls are lost, unaware of their state, unhappy, and even in ‘physical’ pain, because they are in bondage to imaginings of pain.
And these, because they are astray, seek out a haven where they would be. This haven is occasionally the body/mind of a man, woman or child still living on this earth. And having found this haven they cause at the best, confusion, at the worst, unbelievable misery and insanity. With the help of holy men in the past it has been possible to expel such entities from the bodies and minds of human beings. This is not good enough, for it still leaves these unhappy spirits homeless. They are then free to seek further victims. It is here relevant to quote from Canon Pearce-Higgins’ article on Wickland in a recent number of the Quarterly of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. Canon Pearce-Higgins finds exorcism an almost full-time job. He writes:

“. . . my own experiences of dealing with haunted houses during the past three years has convinced me of the truth of Wickland’s cases, and also that in principle there is little difference between a haunted house and a haunted person. With the aid of a medium, and after conducting a Requiem Holy Communion in the house, I have been used to clear some thirty houses, during the past two years, of uninvited guests. Who are these people, who produce alarming poltergeist phenomena which often terrify the occupants into leaving their homes incontinently? The answer is that they are not Devils or Demons in the accepted sense of the word, any more than were the entities removed by Wickland. They are unhappy ‘lost’ earthbound spirits, usually former occupants of the house, or people tied to the house by the memory of some trauma experienced in the house, during their lifetime, who have died, and DO NOT REALISE THAT THEY ARE DEAD. They do not require ‘exorcism’ or consigning to outer darkness, as medieval ritual laid down, but rather need compassion, help, prayers and enlightenment. All I can record of these cases is that exactly the same thing happens with them as happened with Wickland’s cases.”

Expulsion of such spirits unaccompanied by rehabilitation gives rise to the condition pictured by Jesus in the story of the man into whose swept and garnered house there entered seven other devils worse than the first. We have to discover how to protect the weak from this sort of possession, and we ought to be able to comfort and rehabilitate the unhappy spirits who molest them. Dr Wickland, Dr Ferreira and many modern sensitives have shown that this can be done, and all the more readily in view of the miserable existence led by such wretched creatures. Nor must one discount the importance of the help indubitably given from the other side. If one can bring oneself to consider such therapy brought to the redemption of people one has known, either as possible hosts or as possible possessing spirits, one can grasp the extent of the relief and comfort it could afford.

“Varieties of Experience of Death” is an excerpt fromWhite Crow Books.

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