The Changing Face of Death

by Laura Bryannan

Common Boundary comes through again with a thought-provoking piece in it's 1991 January/February issue called "The Changing Face of Death." The author, Pythia Peay, discusses how near-death experiences (NDEs) are substantially changing how the world looks at death. Peay cites a Gallup poll taken in 1981 "which reported that eight million (1 in 19) Americans had experienced the near- death phenomenon. Applying that ratio to today's population, the figure would be close to 13 million people...And that is just in the United States."

The popularity of movies such as Flatliners and Ghost reflect, according to Peay, the way society is letting go of the idea of death as the fearful Grim Reaper: "...this familiar figure of death is being edged out of view and replaced by new images, images gleaned from those who report NDEs...The Grim Reaper, says Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers in the field of near-death studies, has been eclipsed by a Being of Light seen very often in the visions of NDEers." Researchers maintain that NDEers are completely remythologizing the way we think about death.

Peay discusses how, as the number of NDEers continues to grow, more and more people have glorious stories to tell about how things are on the "other side." Near-death researchers equate these people to shamen, who come back with new wisdom concerning the most mystical of human experiences. This wisdom not only provides comfort, but also new information about priorities and how to live one's life in the time remaining to us.

In our secularized society, many people are drawn to the stories of NDEers because of the obvious sacredness of the experience. "This point was illustrated by a man who, after listening to a panel of NDEers share their stories at a recent conference, stood up from the audience and said, 'This is the most real and genuine church service I've ever been to.'"

Just what is a near-death experience? An NDEer is a person who medically crosses the threshold of death, but is then brought back to life, usually through the intervention of medical technology, and regains full health. The first person to write about this phenomenon was Raymond Moody, M.D., in his book Life after Life. Since it's publication in 1975, additional research has shown that all NDEs "contain one or more of Moody's core elements. These include: an out-of-body experience, during which one's body is viewed and conversations overheard; a feeling of peace; traveling through a tunnel; meeting or seeing a dead relative, beings of light, or historical religious figures; a life review, in which the events in one's life are reevaluated in the light of greater understanding; experiences in preternatural realms of light; being told to return to life to complete unfinished business; and a deep feeling of sadness upon leaving this blissful dimension."

In 1981, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was formed to serve as a clearinghouse for persons interested in near-death experiences, whether professional or laypeople. With local branches across the United States and around the world, NDEs are becoming a widely talked about phenomenon. Peay reports that the most recent IANDS conference held last summer attracted an incredible amount of media attention: from "Entertainment Tonight" to the Washington Post and the Discovery Channel, to name a few.

This grass-roots movement is forcing the traditional medical community to take a second look at the NDE. The number of people reporting a near-death experience is now so large that doctors are finding that it is more unusual for a resuscitated patient to not have a NDE than to have one. More and more doctors are seeing the NDE "as part of a natural, psychological process...Researchers have turned from questioning the reality of the NDE to studying its aftereffects."

In most cases, a person who has had an NDE "returns" dramatically changed. Some common aftereffects are "less concern for the material world, a heightened sense of purpose in life, belief in God, joy in life, increased compassion and, most important, intense feelings of unconditional love...[as well as] increased psychic abilities or the sudden development of healing powers." Because there is no correlation between religious belief and NDEs, these experiences often happen to people who are not prepared for a spiritual event of this kind. After an NDE, a person's priorities are often permanently changed--something friends and family members may have a hard time adjusting to.

Most researchers agree that after a near-death experience, a person has a greater appreciation of life, possibly due to the fact that they have faced death and found there is nothing to fear. NDEers are counseled that providing service of some kind is often the best way to integrate this incredible experience into their day-to-day lives--that they should find "a way to bring into daily life the love that he or she received in the NDE."

Peay closes the article with this quote from Kenneth Ring: "There is a beautiful phrase from a tradition which says that, if you look at death from afar, its specter is hideous; but when you approach it and see it closely, it has the face of the Beloved." How much would human behavior change if people could really get that it's not a horrible thing to let go of their bodies? It seems that we can all find something to learn from the research and literature available on this subject. Below is a brief bibliography culled from the article:

Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children, by Melvin Morse, M.D.

Coming Back to Life, by P.M.H. Atwater. A personal exploration of the aftereffects of an NDE.

Full Circle, by Barbara Harris. A memoir of the transformations following the author's own NDE, as well as the results of Harris' years of NDE research.

Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience, by Kenneth Ring. Research on the NDE as a possible catalyst for human evolution.

Life after Life, by Raymond Moody, Jr. Exploration of the NDE by the pioneer researcher.

Otherworld Journeys, by Carol Zaleski. Historical research into the NDE during ancient and medieval times contrasted with modern NDE accounts.

International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), P.O. Box 7767, Philadelphia, PA 19101. Publishing a quarterly newsletter, Revitalized Signs, and the quarterly Journal of Near- Death Studies.

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan