Near-Death Experiences Handbook(1):Accounts from past centuries

PureInsight | January 5, 2001

Throughout life, preparations are made for the various rites of passage, from weaning a baby, to preparing for retirement, by listening to the voices of those who have already passed through those various stages. Yet the voices of those who may have undergone at least a temporary death are only now beginning to be taken seriously by mainstream society and mainstream science. This is despite the fact that the written descriptions of changes in consciousness during Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) have been available for centuries. The earliest English account comes from the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, who tells the story of a man who was thought to be dead:

An eighth century account
He came back to life and suddenly sat up - those weeping around the body were very upset and ran away. 'I was guided by a handsome man in a shining robe,' he said. 'When we reached the top of a wall, there was there a wide and pleasant meadow, with light flooding in that seemed brighter than daylight or the midday sun. I was very reluctant to leave, for I was enraptured by the place's pleasantness and beauty and by the company I saw there. From now on I must live in a completely different way.' He later left all his wordly responsibilities and entered the Melrose monastery.
Adapted extract from 'A History of the English Church and People' by the Venerable Bede.

Likewise, Montaigne, in the sixteenth century, described the pleasure of nearly dying, having been thrown from his horse. As he lay inanimate:

Pleasure in letting go
My attendants tried to revive me but in vain and, thinking I was dead, they began to carry me with great difficulty to my house.
On the way, after having been taken for dead for over two hours, I began to move and breathe. It seemed to me that life held only from the tip of my lips and I was closing my eyes to keep life out: I was taking pleasure in letting myself go. My life was merely a perception passing fleetingly though my soul, which was as weak as the rest of me, although the whole experience was not only truly free of pain but was reminiscent of the gentle sensation felt by those who abandon themselves to sleep. I believe that this is the same state that people find themselves in whom we see fainting in death agony, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.

From Montaigne's 'Essays', Bk II ch. II, On Training, translated by

Marcelle Papworth.

Not only pleasure but an elongation of time were reported by a Victorian parson caught outside in a blizzard:

Review of life during fall
The story of the Reverend Edmund Donald Carr, who miraculously survived on the Lond Mynd on a January night in 1865 can still be found in the libraries of Shropshire country houses. In the weeks preceding Carr's adventure the snow had fallen to a greater depth than in the previous 51 years; however he set off to walk four miles from Woolstaston to Ratlinghope after lunch, to preach to three people, after which he set off home in a blizzard. He was not found for 18 hours, having lost most of his outer clothing before he finally passed out. In the course of one of the many falls he had before this, he experienced what is described as the agonal phenomenon.
'The pace I was going in this headlong descent must have been very great, yet it seemed to me to occupy a marvellous space of time, long enough for the events of the whole of my previous life to pass in review before me.'

From an article by Julian Critchley in the Independent Magazine

(May 23rd 1992).

Albert Heim, writing in 1892, made a special study of NDEs resulting from falls, and gave as one instance his own such experience:

A fall in the mountains
As soon as I began to fall I realized that now I was going to be hurled from the crag and I anticipated the impact that would come. With clawing fingers I dug into the snow in an effort to brake myself. My fingertips were bloody but I felt no pain. I heard clearly the blows on my head and back as they hit each corner of the crag and I heard a dull thud as I struck below. But I first felt pain some hours afterward. The earlier-mentioned flood of thoughts began during the fall. What I felt in five to ten seconds could not be described in ten times that length of time. All my thoughts and ideas were coherent and very clear, and in no way susceptible, as are dreams, to obliteration. First of all I took in the possibilities of my fate and said to myself: 'The crag point over which I will soon be thrown evidently falls off below me as a steep wall since I have not been able to see the ground at the base of it. It matters a great deal whether or not snow is still lying at the base of the cliff wall. If this is the case, the snow will have melted from the wall and formed a border around the base. If I fall on the border of snow I may come out of this with my life, but if there is now more snow down there, I am certain to fall on rubble and at this velocity death will be quite inevitable. If, when I strike, I am not dead or unconscious I must instantly seize my small flask of spirits of vinegar and put some drops from it on my tongue. I do not want to let go of my alpenstock; perhaps it can still be of use to me.' Hence I kept it tightly in my hand. I thought of taking off my glasses and throwing them away so that splinters from them might not injure my eyes, but I was so thrown and swung about that I could not muster the power to move my hands for this purpose. A set of thoughts and ideas then ensued concerning those left behind. I said to myself that upon landing below I ought, indifferent to whether or not I were seriously injured, to call immediately to my companions out of affection for them to say, 'I'm all right!' Then my brother and three friends could sufficiently recover from their shock so as to accomplish the fairly difficult descent to me. My next thought was that I would not be able to give my beginning university lecture that had been announced for five days later. I considered how the news of my death would arrive for my loved ones and I consoled them in my thoughts. Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful without grief, without anxiety and without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife; conflict had been transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine calm swept through my soul. I became ever more surrounded by a splendid blue heaven with delicate roseate and violet cloudlets. I swept into it painlessly and softly and I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snowfield lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous. Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over.
From an article by Albert Heim in Jahrbuch des Schweitzer Alpenklub 27 (1892):327, quoted in 'The Human Encounter with Death' by Stanislav Grof

and Joan Halifax.

Until recently, the main reporters of near-death changes of state were philosophers, mystics and poets, from Plato and Pythagoras to Walt Whitman and Tolstoy. However, today, interest in the phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) is more likely to be promoted by developments in psychiatry and psychology and the resultant interest on the fringes of science in different states of human consciousness. Furthermore, modern resuscitation techniques have increased the number of people now alive who have 'temporarily died' and have generated a considerable amount of new research data.

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