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Angels of Death
Deathbed Phenomena Prove Life After Death?
Dr. Danny Penman
Penny Sartori was barely halfway through her night shift at Morriston
Hospital in Swansea when one of her patients began behaving in a most
Through the maze of equipment keeping Peter Holland alive, Dr Sartori
could see him slowly regaining consciousness and becoming increasingly
Peter was staring intently at the foot of his bed - and then started talking
to an invisible presence.
"He suddenly regained his energy," says Dr Sartori.
"He seemed to be having a conversation with someone we could not
see. After a while, a beautiful peaceful smile crossed his face and he
"When his family arrived, he told them that he'd been visited by
his sister in the night and that they'd had a long chat.
"The strange thing was, his sister had died the week before, but
nobody had dared tell him because they thought the shock might kill him.
There was absolutely no way he could have known about his sister's death."
It was in that moment, says Dr Sartori, that she realised Peter was going
to die, no matter how much medical attention he received.
"When a patient says that they have been 'visited' by a dead loved
one, you know that their time has come," she says.
"It's commonly accepted by nurses and we see it quite a lot. Nurses
will tell each other that 'he's just had a visit so he'll be off soon'."
Indeed, shortly afterwards, 75-year-old Peter Holland did die.
Such deathbed phenomena, of the type experienced by Mr Holland, are surprisingly
According to recent research at King's College London, around 10 per
cent of the terminally ill or those caring for them report some kind of
mysterious, inexplicable event that gives them a glimpse of an afterlife.
Patients may report visits from deceased loved ones or experience visions
of a heavenly realm.
While such deathbed phenomena are undoubtedly comforting for the dying
and their loved ones, could they really shed light on the vexed question
of whether there is life after death? It seems so.
Over the past few years, a growing number of scientists have begun studying
such events and have concluded that many of them defy all rational understanding.
Professor Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at King's College London,
who leads the research team investigating the phenomena, says the sheer
number of reports he has examined makes for compelling evidence: "One
possible interpretation of the data is that there really is life after
death," he says, "while another would be that something paranormal,
such as Extra-sensory perception (ESP), is behind them."
So how exactly do these haunting experiences manifest themselves?
Types of Deathbed Phenomena
"Deathbed phenomena come in three forms," says Professor Fenwick.
"The dying can receive visits from dead loved ones or they may have
visions of lights and other worlds.
"They may experience strange coincidences such as receiving a visit
from a relative they did not know had died.
"Their loved ones and family may experience inexplicable events such
as clocks stopping or strange lights appearing around the patient. Others
have seen a translucent shape leave the body at the time of death.
"You don't need a religion or a belief system to believe in these
phenomena; you just have to look at the data and make up your own mind."
Of course it's easy to dismiss anecdotal cases like that of Peter Holland,
and the "visit" from his dead sister.
Sceptics argue that such apparitions result from a heady cocktail of a
patient's faulty memory, powerful painkillers and the desire to believe
in an afterlife at an intolerably stressful time.
Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of biology at University College London,
denounces deathbed phenomena as mere delusions.
"Such stories are the result of hallucinations, wishful thinking
or coincidence," he says.
"There is no evidence for God or life after death. I have no doubt
that it must be reassuring for those who believe in these things.
"On the whole, religious people do tend to be happier. I would love
to be religious and think that there was a heaven - but it simply doesn't
Doesn't exist? Or hasn't yet been scientifically proven?
For despite the scepticism of the atheists, there remain many deathbed
encounters that defy easy answers. And these are the cases that Professor
Fenwick's team are studying.
Linda Jacobs's experience is typical.
Her father was terminally ill at a Manchester hospital, but as the family
gathered around his bedside for what they believed was his last night,
he became increasingly alert.
"He kept saying 'move out of that smoke'," says Linda. "He
then began smiling and laughing as though he was meeting with people we
could not see.
"He then turned and looked at my mother and said 'your Mum is here!
What on earth is she doing here?'" But the figure wasn't really there,
for one very good reason. She had died earlier in the week, but the family
had decided to keep the news secret for fear of causing further upset.
Linda's father also passed away - with a smile on his face.
What can account for such mysterious events Linda is convinced that it
provides evidence for an afterlife.
And her case is far from unique. The story of Kate Batchelor, a sheep
farmer in the Western Isles of Scotland, is equally puzzling. Her brother
died in hospital, and a friend was dispatched to tell her the news.
When they reached the farmhouse, they were greeted by Kate, who said:
"I know why you've come. I heard him calling me. He was saying 'Kate,
Kate' as he passed over."
She even knew the exact time her brother had died.
Of course not all of the cases being studied by Professor Fenwick are
Far more common are stories involving clocks or other household items
that suddenly began malfunctioning at the precise time that a person passed
"One lady told me that all of the clocks in her house stopped working
at the time of her husband's death. They started again a week later,"
says Prof Fenwick.
Other cases have involved mobile phones, video recorders, and TVs that
all mysteriously ceased to function at the moment of a loved- one's death,
only to resurrect themselves shortly after. Pets, too, can mysteriously
fall ill or even die at the same time as their owner.
These, too, could be dismissed as mere coincidence. But far less easy
to rationalise are cases where people have witnessed the precise moment
of an individual's death, and have seen mysterious shapes emerge from
the body, or circle nearby.
For example, one acquaintance of Professor Fenwick's, a GP from New Zealand,
went to the aid of a golfer who suffered a sudden, and overwhelming, heart
"As he was going to help, he saw what he described as a white form
which seemed to rise and separate from the body," says Professor
Even more dramatic was the case of Diane Smyth, from Harlow in Essex,
who recalls the time she sat with her elderly father as he died.
As she awoke in the darkened room, she noticed something strange hovering
above her father's body. As her eyes focused on the mysterious shape,
she couldn't help but notice "a flame licking the top of the wall
against the ceiling".
Diane says: "I saw a plume of smoke rising, like the vapour from
a snuffed-out candle. It was being thrown off by a single blade of phosphorous
light and was indescribably beautiful. It seemed to express perfect love
"I eventually switched on the room light. The mysterious light vanished
and the room was the same as always on a November morning, cold and cheerless,
with no sound of breathing from Dad's bed. His body was still warm."
the Process of Dying
Professor Fenwick hopes that research into these bizarre apparitions will
not merely offer insights into the paranormal but will help us come to
terms with the process of dying and of death.
He plans to produce a textbook for doctors and nurses caring for the terminally
ill. It will be the 21st century equivalent of the Ars Moriendi, the 15th
century classic on the art of dying, which described how best to prepare
A common thread runs through many of Professor Fenwick's case studies,
and he has now been able to build up a tentative picture of what he believes
happens in the hours before death.
Often the first thing that those close to death experience is the realisation
that there are friendly spirits in the room, who arrive with the express
purpose of carrying them to another realm. As the patient becomes more
aware of their presence, fear turns to happiness and eventually bliss.
These spirits will often sit for hours comforting the dying person as
their body progressively shuts down and dies.
As part of this process, the spirits precipitate a review of your life
- including all of its failings - that enables a dying patient to resolve
any lingering conflicts with friends and loved ones.
It would appear that when this process is complete then death quickly
follows. It's almost as if, in the final moment of peace, the body finally
offers up the ghost.
So what advice can Professor Fenwick give us about preparing for death?
He says: "You should be ready to die at a moment's notice. Those
with a clear conscience die well. Those who are angry or frustrated have
a much more difficult death." Just as there is a good way to live,
it seems there is also a good way to die.
Happens After Death?
more about the After-Death Experience
by downloading Adrian Cooper's FREE sampler e-book here.
This book includes 5 fascinating chapters:
Happens After "Death"?
of the Imagination
Your Own Reality