Last Laugh: A new Philosophy of Near-Death Experiences, Apparitions, and the Paranormal

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A Near-Death Experience (NDE) researcher and author of the bestselling "Life After Life" gives his latest thoughts on near-death experiences.
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Overview

A Near-Death Experience (NDE) researcher and author of the bestselling "Life After Life" gives his latest thoughts on near-death experiences.
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Editorial Reviews

Anita Manuel
This book is ultimately an absorbing read.
Napra Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571741066
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Pub Co Inc
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 5.53 (w) x 8.47 (h) x 0.58 (d)

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Chapter One


The Experience of Dying


    To journey to the afterlife realm and return may seem an impossible dream, but it is an extraordinary feature of late twentieth-century life. Such adventures have become a commonplace theme of popular culture and an accepted reality of collective consciousness. I have listened to thousands of individuals recount their near-death experiences—tantalizing and inspiring visions they saw as they hovered on the brink of death. Many of them were revived after variable periods of time in cardiac arrest, quite a number of them after their physicians believed them to be dead, or even pronounced them dead.

    The accounts these people give are strikingly similar, so much so that we can now say that for the most part their experiences conform to a pattern that includes a number of separable elements. Although not everyone reports every feature of the pattern, almost everyone reports some of them, and a considerable number report all of them.

    These people say that at the point at which they almost die, often at the moment their hearts stop beating, they undergo a dramatic change of perspective. They seem to leave their physical bodies behind and float upwards, typically to a point above their bodies, perhaps just below the ceiling of the emergency department or operating room of a hospital, or above the scene of an accident. They can clearly see their own physical bodies below, on a table or in the wreckage of a vehicle, and witness the attempt of medical personnel to resuscitate them.

    After a time, they may have the impression that they enter a narrow passageway (often characterized as a dark tunnel) and as they move through it, they see a bright light at the end. As they enter into that brilliant white or golden light, they are permeated and comforted with a sense of love and peace that is beyond description, a feeling of ineffable joy. Often, relatives or other loved ones who have already died are there in that light, as if to greet them and to help them through this transition. They often say that these deceased people seem vitally alive. Loved ones who died years before, decrepit and weakened by illness or by years, appear there in the light, restored to a vibrant youthfulness.

    Some become aware of what they take to be a boundary or a limit that demarcates the world of ordinary life from a realm that lies beyond life as we know it. This zone of demarcation, they say, seems energetic and dynamic, and they sense that, were they to cross it, they would not be able to return. Although they cannot describe it in everyday language, some have likened it to a body of water—a lake or a river.

    As their near-death experiences progress, these dying people may become aware of a loving, luminous presence, a being of love and light, who conducts them through an extraordinary, panoramic review of their lives. Every detail is revealed in colorful, three-dimensional simultaneity, as the loving presence of light helps them to understand the life that now seems to be coming to completion.

    Often by this point they do not wish to go back to their lives, but they are informed by the being of light, or by their loved ones, that it is not their time to die. They must go back; they have things left to accomplish. Or, they may be given a choice: the realm of light, or the lives they have been leading. Almost invariably, these people tell us that the reason they have chosen to return is that they have young children to raise. Left to their own preferences, they would have chosen to stay in the light.

    Near-death experiences frequently are transformative. The most common of the positive after-effects on the lives of those who undergo them is that, thereafter, they are assured through a personal adventure that life continues beyond death, so they have no more fear of death. They are also certain that the most important thing we can do with ourselves while alive is to learn how to love.


Interest Increases Dramatically

    When I was writing my first book, I was one of the few serious students of this subject. During the decades since my initial research was published in Life After Life, however, cardiologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, anesthesiologists, psychologists, scholars who are experts in the field of religious studies, sociologists, and specialists from numerous other clinical or academic disciplines all around the world have scrutinized the near-death experience. A consensus has emerged among these investigators that—just as I observed in my own research—a common pattern of experience unfolds among a significant proportion of persons as they are dying, at least insofar as we can judge from the reports of those who have survived close encounters with the process.

    This discovery has fueled an even more noticeable upswing in the scope of interest in the phenomenon. That interest is now truly global. Near-death experiences have been systematically studied by investigators in the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, Holland, the Czech Republic, and Australia. The popular interest in these findings all over the planet is reflected both in the continuing enormous worldwide sales of books devoted to the subject, and in the international fascination with numerous recent films exploring this theme.

    Why do near-death experiences appeal so strongly to so many people, and what does their appeal have to do with their bearing on life after death? What is new, and what comes next, in research into the astonishing peri-mortal visionary experiences that are so common throughout the world?

    These are pressing questions, because startling new information is waiting in the wings, further glad tidings from the near beyond that are dormant in what the general public and many qualified professionals and academicians already affirm.


A New Kind of Near-Death Experience

    We have now learned that there is a new kind of near-death experience. This has been discovered and confirmed by the same kinds of first-person accounts from trustworthy individuals, and the same kinds of independent investigations by numerous professionals, that have sought to establish that there are near-death experiences of any kind in the first place.

    I do not believe this "new type" of near-death experience has been previously reported, or surely not widely so.

    The near-death experience with which most of us are now familiar is the experience of a person who almost dies, but does not, and "comes back to life" to tell extraordinary stories about what happened.

    The new kind of near-death experience is the experience of a person who is not dying, but who is with another who is dying. I have called this an "empathic near-death experience," shared near-death experience, conjoint near-death experiences, or mutual near-death experience.

    I don't know yet just what name is best or most accurate, but whatever this experience is to be called, it is now clear to me that it is very common for someone at the bedside of a person who is dying to participate empathetically in the dying experience of that other person.

    Dozens upon dozens of first-rate individuals have related to me that, as a loved one died, they themselves lifted out of their own bodies and accompanied their dying loved ones upward toward a beautiful and loving light. Others have said that, as they sat with their dying loved ones, they perceived deceased relatives coming to greet the one who was passing away.

    Those in close attendance at the bedside often are convinced they are participating simultaneously, intuitively, and intimately in the ongoing transcendental experience of the dying. From what I have heard of these shared near-death experiences, they are bringing the same message of the overriding importance of love as did the initial wave of first-person near-death experiences.

    Having a close personal attachment to the dying person may increase the likelihood that someone else will have a shared near-death experience, yet that does not seem to be a necessary condition. Lots of doctors and nurses have described to me how they perceived patients' spirits leaving their bodies at the point of death. Helping professionals often have other extraordinary spiritual experiences under those circumstances as well. These statements will be borne out by many other investigators who are physicians, nurses, psychologists, and hospice counselors. In fact, I have already discussed these findings with several other well-known authorities in the field, all of whom agreed from their own professional experience that conjoint near-death experiences are remarkably common.

    There are already enough grounded, responsible individuals out there who have shared in the dying experiences of their loved ones to allow any sympathetic, careful, and well-intentioned clinical investigator who desires to do so to be able to confirm what I am claiming.

    Indeed, there appears now to be a sudden flood of reports of "shared near-death experiences," and countless people are going through a lot of soul-searching about their personal experiences of this nature. The flood has been caused, no doubt, by the fact that the vast group of Americans known as the baby boomers, however vaguely or precisely that term may be defined, now are coming into the times of their lives in which it is common to lose parents or other dear ones. Nor can it be forgotten that many young persons now are losing others at ages far too young.

    Not only are more of us enduring the death of our loved ones, more of us are experiencing their death right in front of our eyes. Customs are no longer what they were a couple of decades ago, when the family at the bedside was shooed out of the room before death actually occurred. Today, relatives are encouraged to be there at the end.

    For these reasons, we now have more witnesses to the deaths of loved ones—and a corresponding increase in the opportunities for empathic, or shared, near-death experiences.


Barriers to Acceptance

    Sooner or later this additional information about the new kind of near-death experience is bound to come out into the open (as it is doing with this book).

    "Shared near-death experiences" are becoming so widespread in the population that virtually anyone who has not had such an experience personally will soon be hearing about it directly from some other trustworthy personal acquaintance or loved one—a wizened Uncle Herman, a beloved parent, a longtime best pal, or a close confidant. Once the volume of this anecdotal data reaches critical mass, it will be virtually impossible to ignore it. Accepting it may be another matter.

    Because so much of the latest information about perimortal visionary experiences is of surpassing strangeness, neither the public nor the informed specialists are able to easily accept it. They can listen to it, but they cannot hear it.

    What makes the new information "surpassingly strange" is not that it is "strange" in and of itself, but that it falls outside of the currently familiar ways in which most people think about near-death experiences—and all seemingly "paranormal" phenomena. A large part of the first portion of this book is going to be devoted to looking at that, for just this reason.

    These familiar, if inaccurate, perspectives—the way most people think about near-death experiences—have their antecedents in very early times, and these perspectives are all fixtures of a continuing debate going back at least two millennia. That debate will go on for the next two millennia if someone or something doesn't break up the logjam.

    That's precisely what this book hopes to do.

    Just as Life After Life broke the silence and opened the floodgates around the topic of near-death experiences of the dying, now The Last Laugh seeks to pry open the dam holding back the stream of information about the near-death experiences of those with the dying.


Breaking Up the Logjam

    It's time we discussed the entire subject. And not just this subject, but the whole topic of what we have called "the paranormal." My first book, Life After Life, can no longer be, and should never have been, considered outside of the context of the material in The Last Laugh. To consider near-death experiences, or any other paranormal experience, outside of the new and larger context this book will create is to take the potatoes out of the oven before they are fully cooked. The results will be conclusions that are half-baked.

    The fact that these are precisely the kinds of conclusions so many have come up with is, I think now, partly my fault. Life After Life was printed just as I wrote it, except that my publisher deleted the lengthy section at the end in which I explained in greater detail why near-death experiences can't be counted as scientific evidence of life after death.

    The publisher worried that the appendix would go over the public's head. He said that no one would understand it and that, to a general reader, it would seem, in the final analysis, that I was taking back much of what I had said.

    I didn't put up as much of a fight as it turns out I should have, and Life After Life was published with its last part missing. In my defense, I should say that, at that time, it never entered my mind that the book would become a major best-seller, that it would be of long-lasting interest to so many people the world over, that it would help set off a tidal wave of fascination with these unusual experiences, and, finally, that failure to insist on including there what I have included here would add to the stalemate effect.

    Anyone who has monitored the dialogue on the nature of this phenomenon that has been going on now for two decades probably shares my impression that it has stagnated, with the same points being rehashed again and again. Even the cast of characters in the talk show confrontations on the subject has become stereotyped.

    There is (a) the sympathetic physician or psychologist who has investigated the phenomenon and who is willing to allow that something unusual and important is going on; (b) the "scientific skeptic" who purports to explain it all away in terms of juddering neurons or oxygen deprivation or wishful thinking, and, on occasion, (c) the dour representative of the religious right who warns about demons and the torments of hell.

    Deadlocked or not, the discussion will not go away. The fact that most of the "experts" have been getting nowhere in their attempts to come to some sort of conclusion (or even greater understanding) has done nothing to end the fascination of the public at large.

    Interest in near-death experiences and the hereafter is now at a fever pitch, and scholars and clinicians will be discussing the subject for many years to come. In that climate, my stricken appendix will finally come home to roost. It is personally important to me that Life After Life be amended to accommodate the heretofore unreported information, as well as even later developments, not only so it will better reflect my original intentions and meanings, but also so that it will open up what are perhaps the first new areas for discussion on this topic in a quarter century—and offer new ways of exploring the topic itself.


Questioning the Basic Assumption

    I'll begin with what for many of you may seem a new—and, considering the source, shocking—idea from me: there may be no such thing as life after death.

    If I have unwittingly helped to create the impasse, maybe that statement will help break up the logjam. Logjams occur when everyone becomes "certain" about something—or as close to "certain" as nonevidentiary arguments can get. I'm afraid I have helped to make people feel "certain" about the existence of life after death because of my work in reporting near-death experiences. This is ironic, since I have never been certain.

    What I am saying is that I have never equated—and I never meant to equate—my reporting of so-called "near death experiences" with a declaration on my part of the unquestioned existence of "life after death." The media did that. And my publishers did that, with the way they edited and marketed my book. I simply meant to report the experiences of people who were "near death." I never assumed myself to be reporting the experiences of people after death, nor have I ever reached the conclusion that because people were having certain kinds of experiences when they were near to death, an ongoing "life" after death had now been proven beyond question. The purpose of my first book, in fact, was to raise the question, not to answer it.

    The purpose of this book, likewise, is not to answer this question, but to reopen it.

    So now, here, let's look at what is really "so."

    For decades now there has been a general presupposition that near-death experiences cannot safely and reliably be reproduced for study under conditions approximating a laboratory setting. This has left investigators with only retrospective first-person accounts upon which to base their assessments. Because persons offering these first-person accounts phrase their extraordinary personal narratives in terms of a life after death, we have automatically assumed that this means there is a life after death.

    Yet, the visions of the dying offer no such positive proof, but merely provide data to be taken into the larger controversy.

    And why have people offering their first-person accounts phrased their narratives in terms of a life after death? I submit that it is because this is the scenario with which they are most culturally familiar. That is, this is the only "logical" explanation their culture allows them to come up with—illogical as that explanation may be!

    Movie and television writers call this the "back story." It is the background for what is now being experienced by the characters in their dramas. The back story provides a context, a rationalization, for their present-moment behaviors and conclusions.

    The back story of our entire human culture has provided a backdrop against which the experiences some people have when they are "near death" are played out in their minds.

    Thus, it is clear to me that, in order for us to consider those experiences as they have been interpreted as valid evidence of life after death, we must consider the context within which those first-person accounts have been offered.

    This context includes our cultural stories about not only life after death, but stories surrounding all purportedly paranormal phenomena—stories that have been going around and around without letup since antiquity.

    To help us understand any of these phenomena, so-called near-death experience among them, we have to understand why such stories have been going around for so long, why we are fascinated by them, and how we have been telling them.

    It is to this exploration that the next section of this book will be devoted.


Changing the Ground Rules for This Discussion

    The ground rules of this ancient controversy—that is, the ways in which we have allowed ourselves to explore and discuss the whole topic of the paranormal in the past—have themselves become part of the problem.

    We can't allow this to go on. Genuine advances in the understanding of near-death experiences, as well as the public's hunger to know the truth at last about these topics that place such impact upon the meaning of life, require that the age-old wrangle about everything paranormal be reconceptualized by working out a new set of ground rules.

    What we need is a new, and yet an old, way of thinking—one that will remain true to, while finally shedding the light of greater understanding upon, that most curious and alluring dimension of consciousness that we have called the paranormal.

    So, that's where we're going to begin. We're going to take a look at the old way we've been discussing these issues up until now, and then we'll work into some new ways in which we can have those discussions from this point forward.

    All of this will lead us on a journey that I think your mind will very much enjoy. And wouldn't it be interesting if, at the end of that journey, we decided that the "paranormal" was nothing of the sort, and that reported phenomena were nothing "other than" or "larger than" normal—but actually, quite normal after all?

    I realize that this would tremendously upset the apple cart—an apple cart that I, myself, helped (however unwittingly) to set up—but I think it just might be time to do exactly that. Then we can see at last who, here, is going to have the last laugh.

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Table of Contents

Preface vi
Introduction viii
1. The Experience of Dying 1
2. Play and the Paranormal 11
3 Breaking Up the Logjam: Unriddling the Controversy about
the Paranormal 47
4. Miracles, Meanings, and Merriment 55
5. Believing the Unbelievable Believably 72
6. Knowing the Unknowable 83
7. Classifying the Paranormal 98
8. Justifying the Paranormal, or Even the Study of It 109
9. The Rhetoric of Dysbelief 126
10 The Only Way a Serious Study of the Paranormal Will Be
Legitimized 136
11. A Treasure Chest Waiting to Be Opened 145
12. Coming Full Circle: Back to the Subject of Life after Life 158
13. Having the Last Laugh 163
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First Chapter

The Experience of Dying

To journey to the afterlife realm and return may seem an impossible dream, but it is an extraordinary feature of late twentieth-century life. Such adventures have become a commonplace theme of popular culture and an accepted reality of collective consciousness. I have listened to thousands of individuals recount their near-death experiences--tantalizing and inspiring visions they saw as they hovered on the brink of death. Many of them were revived after variable periods of time in cardiac arrest, quite a number of them after their physicians believed them to be dead, or even pronounced them dead.

The accounts these people give are strikingly similar, so much so that we can now say that for the most part their experiences conform to a pattern that includes a number of separable elements. Although not everyone reports every feature of the pattern, almost everyone reports some of them, and a considerable number report all of them.

These people say that at the point at which they almost die, often at the moment their hearts stop beating, they undergo a dramatic change of perspective. They seem to leave their physical bodies behind and float upwards, typically to a point above their bodies, perhaps just below the ceiling of the emergency department or operating room of a hospital, or above the scene of an accident. They can clearly see their own physical bodies below, on a table or in the wreckage of a vehicle, and witness the attempt of medical personnel to resuscitate them. After a time, they may have the impression that they enter a narrow passageway (often characterized as a dark tunnel) and as they move through it, they see a bright light at the end. As they enter into that brilliant white or golden light, they are permeated and comforted with a sense of love and peace that is beyond description, a feeling of ineffable joy. Often, relatives or other loved ones who have already died are there in that light, as if to greet them and to help them through this transition. They often say that these deceased people seem vitally alive. Loved ones who died years before, decrepit and weakened by illness or by years, appear there in the light, restored to a vibrant youthfulness.

Some become aware of what they take to be a boundary or a limit that demarcates the world of ordinary life from a realm that lies beyond life as we know it. This zone of demarcation, they say, seems energetic and dynamic, and they sense that, were they to cross it, they would not be able to return. Although they cannot describe it in everyday language, some have likened it to a body of water--a lake or a river.

As their near-death experiences progress, these dying people may become aware of a loving, luminous presence, a being of love and light, who conducts them through an extraordinary, panoramic review of their lives. Every detail is revealed in colorful, three-dimensional simultaneity, as the loving presence of light helps them to understand the life that now seems to be coming to completion.

Often by this point they do not wish to go back to their lives, but they are informed by the being of light, or by their loved ones, that it is not their time to die. They must go back; they have things left to accomplish. Or, they may be given a choice: the realm of light, or the lives they have been leading. Almost invariably, these people tell us that the reason they have chosen to return is that they have young children to raise. Left to their own preferences, they would have chosen to stay in the light.

Near-death experiences frequently are transformative. The most common of the positive after-effects on the lives of those who undergo them is that, thereafter, they are assured through a personal adventure that life continues beyond death, so they have no more fear of death. They are also certain that the most important thing we can do with ourselves while alive is to learn how to love.

Interest Increases Dramatically

When I was writing my first book, I was one of the few serious students of this subject. During the decades since my initial research was published in Life After Life, however, cardiologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, anesthesiologists, psychologists, scholars who are experts in the field of religious studies, sociologists, and specialists from numerous other clinical or academic disciplines all around the world have scrutinized the near-death experience. A consensus has emerged among these investigators that--just as I observed in my own research--a common pattern of experience unfolds among a significant proportion of persons as they are dying, at least insofar as we can judge from the reports of those who have survived close encounters with the process.

This discovery has fueled an even more noticeable upswing in the scope of interest in the phenomenon. That interest is now truly global. Near-death experiences have been systematically studied by investigators in the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, Holland, the Czech Republic, and Australia. The popular interest in these findings all over the planet is reflected both in the continuing enormous worldwide sales of books devoted to the subject, and in the international fascination with numerous recent films exploring this theme.

Why do near-death experiences appeal so strongly to so many people, and what does their appeal have to do with their bearing on life after death? What is new, and what comes next, in research into the astonishing peri-mortal visionary experiences that are so common throughout the world?

These are pressing questions, because startling new information is waiting in the wings, further glad tidings from the near beyond that are dormant in what the general public and many qualified professionals and academicians already affirm.

A New Kind of Near-Death Experience

We have now learned that there is a new kind of near-death experience. This has been discovered and confirmed by the same kinds of first-person accounts from trustworthy individuals, and the same kinds of independent investigations by numerous professionals, that have sought to establish that there are near-death experiences of any kind in the first place.

I do not believe this "new type" of near-death experience has been previously reported, or surely not widely so.

The near-death experience with which most of us are now familiar is the experience of a person who almost dies, but does not, and "comes back to life" to tell extraordinary stories about what happened.

The new kind of near-death experience is the experience of a person who is not dying, but who is with another who is dying. I have called this an "empathic near-death experience," shared near-death experience, conjoint near-death experiences, or mutual near-death experience.

I don’t know yet just what name is best or most accurate, but whatever this experience is to be called, it is now clear to me that it is very common for someone at the bedside of a person who is dying to participate empathetically in the dying experience of that other person.

Dozens upon dozens of first-rate individuals have related to me that, as a loved one died, they themselves lifted out of their own bodies and accompanied their dying loved ones upward toward a beautiful and loving light. Others have said that, as they sat with their dying loved ones, they perceived deceased relatives coming to greet the one who was passing away.

Those in close attendance at the bedside often are convinced they are participating simultaneously, intuitively, and intimately in the ongoing transcendental experience of the dying. From what I have heard of these shared near-death experiences, they are bringing the same message of the overriding importance of love as did the initial wave of first-person near-death experiences.

Having a close personal attachment to the dying person may increase the likelihood that someone else will have a shared near-death experience, yet that does not seem to be a necessary condition. Lots of doctors and nurses have described to me how they perceived patients’ spirits leaving their bodies at the point of death. Helping professionals often have other extraordinary spiritual experiences under those circumstances as well. These statements will be borne out by many other investigators who are physicians, nurses, psychologists, and hospice counselors. In fact, I have already discussed these findings with several other well-known authorities in the field, all of whom agreed from their own professional experience that conjoint near-death experiences are remarkably common.

There are already enough grounded, responsible individuals out there who have shared in the dying experiences of their loved ones to allow any sympathetic, careful, and well-intentioned clinical investigator who desires to do so to be able to confirm what I am claiming.

Indeed, there appears now to be a sudden flood of reports of "shared near-death experiences," and countless people are going through a lot of soul-searching about their personal experiences of this nature. The flood has been caused, no doubt, by the fact that the vast group of Americans known as the baby boomers, however vaguely or precisely that term may be defined, now are coming into the times of their lives in which it is common to lose parents or other dear ones. Nor can it be forgotten that many young persons now are losing others at ages far too young.

Not only are more of us enduring the death of our loved ones, more of us are experiencing their death right in front of our eyes. Customs are no longer what they were a couple of decades ago, when the family at the bedside was shooed out of the room before death actually occurred. Today, relatives are encouraged to be there at the end.

For these reasons, we now have more witnesses to the deaths of loved ones—and a corresponding increase in the opportunities for empathic, or shared, near-death experiences.

Barriers to Acceptance

Sooner or later this additional information about the new kind of near-death experience is bound to come out into the open (as it is doing with this book).

"Shared near-death experiences" are becoming so widespread in the population that virtually anyone who has not had such an experience personally will soon be hearing about it directly from some other trustworthy personal acquaintance or loved one--a wizened Uncle Herman, a beloved parent, a longtime best pal, or a close confidant. Once the volume of this anecdotal data reaches critical mass, it will be virtually impossible to ignore it. Accepting it may be another matter.

Because so much of the latest information about peri-mortal visionary experiences is of surpassing strangeness, neither the public nor the informed specialists are able to easily accept it. They can listen to it, but they cannot hear it.

What makes the new information "surpassingly strange" is not that it is "strange" in and of itself, but that it falls outside of the currently familiar ways in which most people think about near-death experiences--and all seemingly "paranormal" phenomena. A large part of the first portion of this book is going to be devoted to looking at that, for just this reason.

These familiar, if inaccurate, perspectives--the way most people think about near-death experiences--have their antecedents in very early times, and these perspectives are all fixtures of a continuing debate going back at least two millennia. That debate will go on for the next two millennia if someone or something doesn’t break up the logjam.

That’s precisely what this book hopes to do.

Just as Life After Life broke the silence and opened the floodgates around the topic of near-death experiences of the dying, now The Last Laugh seeks to pry open the dam holding back the stream of information about the near-death experiences of those with the dying.

Breaking Up the Logjam

It’s time we discussed the entire subject. And not just this subject, but the whole topic of what we have called "the paranormal." My first book, Life After Life, can no longer be, and should never have been, considered outside of the context of the material in The Last Laugh. To consider near-death experiences, or any other paranormal experience, outside of the new and larger context this book will create is to take the potatoes out of the oven before they are fully cooked. The results will be conclusions that are half-baked.

The fact that these are precisely the kinds of conclusions so many have come up with is, I think now, partly my fault. Life After Life was printed just as I wrote it, except that my publisher deleted the lengthy section at the end in which I explained in greater detail why near-death experiences can’t be counted as scientific evidence of life after death.

The publisher worried that the appendix would go over the public’s head. He said that no one would understand it and that, to a general reader, it would seem, in the final analysis, that I was taking back much of what I had said.

I didn’t put up as much of a fight as it turns out I should have, and Life After Life was published with its last part missing. In my defense, I should say that, at that time, it never entered my mind that the book would become a major best-seller, that it would be of long-lasting interest to so many people the world over, that it would help set off a tidal wave of fascination with these unusual experiences, and, finally, that failure to insist on including there what I have included here would add to the stalemate effect.

Anyone who has monitored the dialogue on the nature of this phenomenon that has been going on now for two decades probably shares my impression that it has stagnated, with the same points being rehashed again and again. Even the cast of characters in the talk show confrontations on the subject has become stereotyped.

There is (a) the sympathetic physician or psychologist who has investigated the phenomenon and who is willing to allow that something unusual and important is going on; (b) the "scientific skeptic" who purports to explain it all away in terms of juddering neurons or oxygen deprivation or wishful thinking, and, on occasion, (c) the dour representative of the religious right who warns about demons and the torments of hell.

Deadlocked or not, the discussion will not go away. The fact that most of the "experts" have been getting nowhere in their attempts to come to some sort of conclusion (or even greater understanding) has done nothing to end the fascination of the public at large.

Interest in near-death experiences and the hereafter is now at a fever pitch, and scholars and clinicians will be discussing the subject for many years to come. In that climate, my stricken appendix will finally come home to roost. It is personally important to me that Life After Life be amended to accommodate the heretofore unreported information, as well as even later developments, not only so it will better reflect my original intentions and meanings, but also so that it will open up what are perhaps the first new areas for discussion on this topic in a quarter century--and offer new ways of exploring the topic itself.

Questioning the Basic Assumption

I’ll begin with what for many of you may seem a new--and, considering the source, shocking--idea from me: there may be no such thing as life after death.

If I have unwittingly helped to create the impasse, maybe that statement will help break up the logjam. Logjams occur when everyone becomes "certain" about something--or as close to "certain" as nonevidentiary arguments can get. I’m afraid I have helped to make people feel "certain" about the existence of life after death because of my work in reporting near-death experiences. This is ironic, since I have never been certain.

What I am saying is that I have never equated--and I never meant to equate--my reporting of so-called "near death experiences" with a declaration on my part of the unquestioned existence of "life after death." The media did that. And my publishers did that, with the way they edited and marketed my book. I simply meant to report the experiences of people who were "near death." I never assumed myself to be reporting the experiences of people after death, nor have I ever reached the conclusion that because people were having certain kinds of experiences when they were near to death, an ongoing "life" after death had now been proven beyond question. The purpose of my first book, in fact, was to raise the question, not to answer it.

The purpose of this book, likewise, is not to answer this question, but to reopen it.

So now, here, let’s look at what is really "so."

For decades now there has been a general presupposition that near-death experiences cannot safely and reliably be reproduced for study under conditions approximating a laboratory setting. This has left investigators with only retrospective first-person accounts upon which to base their assessments. Because persons offering these first-person accounts phrase their extraordinary personal narratives in terms of a life after death, we have automatically assumed that this means there is a life after death.

Yet, the visions of the dying offer no such positive proof, but merely provide data to be taken into the larger controversy.

And why have people offering their first-person accounts phrased their narratives in terms of a life after death? I submit that it is because this is the scenario with which they are most culturally familiar. That is, this is the only "logical" explanation their culture allows them to come up with--illogical as that explanation may be!

Movie and television writers call this the "back story." It is the background for what is now being experienced by the characters in their dramas. The back story provides a context, a rationalization, for their present-moment behaviors and conclusions.

The back story of our entire human culture has provided a backdrop against which the experiences some people have when they are "near death" are played out in their minds.

Thus, it is clear to me that, in order for us to consider those experiences as they have been interpreted as valid evidence of life after death, we must consider the context within which those first-person accounts have been offered.

This context includes our cultural stories about not only life after death, but stories surrounding all purportedly paranormal phenomena--stories that have been going around and around without letup since antiquity.

To help us understand any of these phenomena, so-called near-death experience among them, we have to understand why such stories have been going around for so long, why we are fascinated by them, and how we have been telling them.

It is to this exploration that the next section of this book will be devoted.

Changing the Ground Rules for This Discussion

The ground rules of this ancient controversy--that is, the ways in which we have allowed ourselves to explore and discuss the whole topic of the paranormal in the past--have themselves become part of the problem.

We can’t allow this to go on. Genuine advances in the understanding of near-death experiences, as well as the public’s hunger to know the truth at last about these topics that place such impact upon the meaning of life, require that the age-old wrangle about everything paranormal be reconceptualized by working out a new set of ground rules.

What we need is a new, and yet an old, way of thinking--one that will remain true to, while finally shedding the light of greater understanding upon, that most curious and alluring dimension of consciousness that we have called the paranormal.

So, that’s where we’re going to begin. We’re going to take a look at the old way we’ve been discussing these issues up until now, and then we’ll work into some new ways in which we can have those discussions from this point forward.

All of this will lead us on a journey that I think your mind will very much enjoy. And wouldn’t it be interesting if, at the end of that journey, we decided that the "paranormal" was nothing of the sort, and that reported phenomena were nothing "other than" or "larger than" normal--but actually, quite normal after all?

I realize that this would tremendously upset the apple cart--an apple cart that I, myself, helped (however unwittingly) to set up--but I think it just might be time to do exactly that. Then we can see at last who, here, is going to have the last laugh.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2006

    Short on execution, long on integrity

    One cannot escape a sense of wonder when reading the various descriptions of NDEs by those who have had them. These experiences are invariably fascinating, often life changing for those who have them, and reading about them nudges us toward cautious optimism, for exactly what, we do not know. An undirected, unspecific and limited optimism is the most we can take from these experiences without overreaching. Moody tells us that the trouble comes when we embrace these NDEs as proof of life after death, to legitimize our work or opinion about them or when we use their subjective quality and lack of scientific access to dismiss them altogether. And of course, science (scientific method) has been unable to explain either what they are or to explain them away. It is easy to agree with Dr. Moody¿s sense that those fundamentalists who dismiss these experiences as the work of the Devil are the most deplorable of the whole lot of interested parties. Still, all of these groups holding claims as to what NDEs really are, or are not, share more with one another than they would have you believe. The all have emotional investments in their positions that are not justified by the quality of their knowledge. Even with regard to science, as long as there is the unknown, which there certainly always will be, it, too, is ultimately another ¿ism¿ or ¿belief¿. Just as mystical union, enlightenment, the spontaneous mystical experience and Deity itself, are beyond the domain of proof or dismissal, so should we deem the mysterious, even if tantalizing, NDE. Moody encourages us to take comfort from NDEs, laugh at them or be skeptical, but not to take ourselves any more seriously than is merited by what we really know about them. Clearly, the interested parties, whether parapsychologists, fundamentalists or skeptics, feel obliged by the strength of their emotional investment regarding NDEs to say more about them than is justified by what they know, and don¿t know. One can feel the disappointment, even anger, in the reviews of those whose prejudices have been challenged by Moody¿s plea to consider NDEs in a more honest, realistic and humorous context. It is one thing to be inclined toward one or the other of the primary positions regarding NDEs but is another to claim unquestionable knowledge of what they are and what they are not. I would have given 5 stars for this book if Moody¿s awkward, certainly odd, writing style and attempts at humor (faults mentioned by other reviewers) weren¿t so distracting, not to mention tedious. It¿s one thing to talk about humor, another to be humorous. Nonetheless, this work earned a solid four stars for its integrity, a quality that is too often missing in this genre.

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