Life Before Life
A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives
By Jim B. Tucker
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Jim B. Tucker
All rights reserved.
Children Who Report Memories of Previous Lives
John McConnell, a retired New York City policeman working as a security guard, stopped at an electronics store after work one night in 1992. He saw two men robbing the store and pulled out his pistol. Another thief behind a counter began shooting at him. John tried to shoot back, and even after he fell, he got up and shot again. He was hit six times. One of the bullets entered his back and sliced through his left lung, his heart, and the main pulmonary artery, the blood vessel that takes blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs to receive oxygen. He was rushed to the hospital but did not survive.
John had been close to his family and had frequently told one of his daughters, Doreen, "No matter what, I'm always going to take care of you." Five years after John died, Doreen gave birth to a son named William. William began passing out soon after he was born. Doctors diagnosed him with a condition called pulmonary valve atresia, in which the valve of the pulmonary artery has not adequately formed, so blood cannot travel through it to the lungs. In addition, one of the chambers of his heart, the right ventricle, had not formed properly as a result of the problem with the valve. He underwent several surgeries. Although he will need to take medication indefinitely, he has done quite well.
William had birth defects that were very similar to the fatal wounds suffered by his grandfather. In addition, when he became old enough to talk, he began talking about his grandfather's life. One day when he was three years old, his mother was at home trying to work in her study when William kept acting up. Finally, she told him, "Sit down, or I'm going to spank you." William replied, "Mom, when you were a little girl and I was your daddy, you were bad a lot of times, and I never hit you!"
His mother was initially taken aback by this. As William talked more about the life of his grandfather, she began to feel comforted by the idea that her father had returned. William talked about being his grandfather a number of times and discussed his death. He told his mother that several people were shooting during the incident when he was killed, and he asked a lot of questions about it.
One time, he said to his mother, "When you were a little girl and I was your daddy, what was my cat's name?" She responded, "You mean Maniac?"
"No, not that one," William answered. "The white one."
"Boston?" his mom asked.
"Yeah," William responded. "I used to call him Boss, right?" That was correct. The family had two cats, named Maniac and Boston, and only John referred to the white one as Boss.
One day, Doreen asked William if he remembered anything about the time before he was born. He said that he died on Thursday and went to heaven. He said that he saw animals there and also talked to God. He said, "I told God I was ready to come back, and I got born on Tuesday." Doreen was amazed that William mentioned days since he did not even know his days of the week without prompting. She tested him by saying, "So, you were born on a Thursday and died on Tuesday?" He quickly responded, "No, I died Thursday at night and was born Tuesday in the morning." He was correct on both counts — John died on a Thursday, and William was born on a Tuesday five years later.
He talked about the period between lives at other times. He told his mother, "When you die, you don't go right to heaven. You go to different levels — here, then here, then here" as he moved his hand up each time. He said that animals are reborn as well as humans and that the animals he saw in heaven did not bite or scratch.
John had been a practicing Roman Catholic, but he believed in reincarnation and said that he would take care of animals in his next life. His grandson, William, says that he will be an animal doctor and will take care of large animals at a zoo.
William reminds Doreen of her father in several ways. He loves books, as his grandfather did. When they visit William's grandmother, he can spend hours looking at books in John's study, duplicating his grandfather's behavior from years before. William, like his grandfather, is good at putting things together and can be a "nonstop talker."
William especially reminds Doreen of her father when he tells her, "Don't worry, Mom. I'll take care of you."
The idea that research could actually support the concept of reincarnation is surprising to many people in the West, since reincarnation may seem foreign or even absurd. People sometimes joke about their past lives or about their next one. The media document people dramatically describing lives from ancient times after being hypnotized. Reincarnation conflicts with the view of the majority of scientists that the material world is all that exists, and with many people's religious beliefs.
Although some people find the idea of reincarnation to be ridiculous or offensive, others accept it on faith. The idea of reincarnation has appealed to many throughout history and into the present day, including Plato and the ancient Greeks, Hindus and Buddhists in Asia, various West Africans, many Native Americans in northwest North America, and even some groups of early Christians. Today, people in the world who believe in reincarnation may outnumber those who do not.
Such beliefs are not restricted to distant places. A surprising number of Americans believe in reincarnation — between 20 and 27 percent, depending on the poll — and a similar percentage of Europeans do as well. They cannot base this belief on the evidence for reincarnation since most people do not know about this research done at the University of Virginia. They often do not base it on formal religious doctrine since many believers attend churches that do not hold such a view. In fact, a Harris poll in 2003 found that 21 percent of Christians in the United States believe in reincarnation. The work described here may give such individuals support for their beliefs, but the researchers have not operated from the perspective of any particular religious doctrine or bias. Our goals have been to determine the best explanation for the statements by the children and to see if science should consider reincarnation as a possibility.
Most people probably hope that the answer is yes. After all, the idea that we cease to exist when we die is unsettling for many of us. Though many in the United States may not be comfortable with the concept of reincarnation, the idea that part of us continues after we die is certainly appealing. If a deceased individual can survive death in some form and be reborn, then this means that we can continue on. Perhaps we can stay close to loved ones as they continue their lives or perhaps go to heaven or to other dimensions or who knows what. If these children are correct when they report that they lived before, then a part of us can survive the death of our bodies.
More specifically, the concept of reincarnation is compelling because the idea of being able to come back to try again may appeal to a lot of people. We cannot change the mistakes we have made in the past, but being able to try to do better the next time would certainly be a comfort. If we get to live repeated lives, then perhaps we can make progress across lifetimes and become better people.
As much as we might wish to come back ourselves, we also wish that the people we love could do so. Surely, William's mother must have been thrilled and comforted by her impression that her adoring father survived death and was reborn as her son. She had to deal with the horror of knowing that her father was murdered, and the idea that he was reborn as her son undoubtedly helped her change her grief into acceptance. We will meet others in this book who have dealt with similar losses: for example, a mother who watched her toddler die from cancer and a man whose father was closed off from his children before he died. In such situations, people would love the possibility of a second chance, of another opportunity to love and to share moments with the person who died. When any of us grieve for loved ones we have lost, we would certainly be comforted to know that those people have continued in some form and that they may come back into our lives.
Believing in that possibility may seem like wishful thinking and nothing more. But could life after death be more than wishful thinking?
Even though it may seem hard to believe, evidence might exist that life after death is actually a reality. Life Before Life will describe the cases researchers have collected that suggest that some people can survive death and be reborn into another life. This is not work that we have undertaken lightly. Researchers have addressed this issue with the same open-minded analytical approach that we would use with any question. We have approached the work rationally instead of emotionally, so it is analytical rather than emotional. In addition, we have done this work with clearheaded care, not with religious zeal. Of course, many people believe in life after death based purely on their religious faith. Though I mean to take nothing away from faith, religious belief need not keep us from looking for evidence that supports the idea. Faith should not prevent us from trying to gain a better understanding of the nature of life, and we have made this a scientific endeavor rather than a religious one.
Life Before Life is therefore analytical rather than emotional or religious. I will not try to convince you that these cases prove that reincarnation occurs, to promote a theory. Instead, I will present the cases so that you can assess them and reach your own conclusions about what they mean. I will give my analysis of where I think the evidence leads us, but you should also be forming your own opinions along the way. In doing so, you should not be too quick to make a judgment, either that the cases are nonsense or that they are definitive proof of reincarnation. Instead, I would encourage you to take the same analytical approach that we have used in doing the research.
These cases are not about "proof," they are about evidence. Since this work has taken place in the messy real world rather than a tightly controlled laboratory, proof is not possible. This is often the case in science and medicine. For example, many medications are judged to be helpful, because evidence indicates that they work even though they have not been absolutely proven to do so. Our work also involves an area, the possibility of life after death, that does not easily lend itself to being researched. Some people even say that researchers should not try to study the subject of life after death scientifically since it is so far removed from usual empirical areas of investigation. Nevertheless, there is no bigger question in the world than whether we can survive death, and researchers have attempted to collect the best evidence possible to answer it, evidence that I will share with you.
Each case of course has its unique aspects, but we can discuss typical features found in many of the cases. In later chapters, we will then examine in depth a number of cases that include each of these features.
Predictions, Experimental Birthmarks, and Dreams Before Birth
Sometimes, the case begins before the child, the subject of the case, is even born. One situation involves an elderly or dying individual, the previous personality, making a prediction about his or her next life. Such cases are rare, but they do occur with some frequency among two groups. One is the lamas of Tibet. Though their predictions can be vague or unclear, others use these predictions to identify young children as the lamas reborn. In the case of the current Dalai Lama, his predecessor apparently did not make any predictions, so other clues such as meditation visions after his death were used to find the boy identified as his rebirth.
The Tlingits, a tribe in Alaska, frequently make predictions about rebirth. Of forty-six cases there, the previous personality made a prediction about his or her subsequent rebirth in ten of them. In eight of the ten, the person gave the names of the parents to which he or she wanted to be reborn. For example, a man named Victor Vincent told his niece that he was going to come back as her son. He showed her two scars he had from minor surgeries and predicted that he would carry those marks to his next life. Eighteen months after he died, she gave birth to a boy who had birthmarks in the same spots. One of them even had small round marks lined up beside the main linear mark, giving the appearance of stitch wounds from a surgical scar. The boy later said that he was the previous personality, and he seemed to recognize several people from Victor's life.
Some cases involve another feature that occurs before the child is born. In several Asian countries, a family member or friend may mark the body of a dying or deceased individual in hopes that when that person is reborn, the baby will have a birthmark that matches the marking. This practice is known as experimental birthmarks, and we will look at it in detail in Chapter 4.
An announcing dream can occur before the birth of the child. With this feature, a family member, usually the subject's mother, has a dream before or during the pregnancy in which the previous personality either announces that he or she is coming to the expecting mother or asks to come to her. Such dreams usually occur in same-family cases, ones in which the previous personality is a deceased member of the subject's family, or in cases in which the subject's mother at least knew the previous personality. Exceptions do occur as we will soon see. Cases from all the various cultures have included announcing dreams, which have occurred in approximately 22 percent of the first 1,100 cases in our computer database. They are much more common in some places than others, and they also tend to occur at different times in different places. In Myanmar, families generally report that the dreams occur before the child is conceived, whereas among the tribes in northwest North America, they tend to occur at the very end of the pregnancy.
Birthmarks and Birth Defects
Many of the subjects in our cases are born with birthmarks or birth defects that match wounds on the body of the previous personality, usually fatal wounds. One case that includes both an announcing dream and a birth defect is that of Süleyman Çaper in Turkey. His mother dreamed during her pregnancy that a man she did not recognize told her, "I was killed with a blow from a shovel. I want to stay with you and not anyone else." When Süleyman was born, the back of his skull was partially depressed, and he also had a birthmark there. When he became able to talk, he said that he had been a miller who died when an angry customer hit him on the head. Along with other details, he gave the first name of the miller and the village where he had lived. In fact, an angry customer had killed a miller with that name in that village by hitting him on the back of the head with a shovel.
Many of the birthmarks are not small discolorations. Instead, they are often unusual in shape or size and are often puckered or raised rather than simply being flat. Some can be quite dramatic and unusual in appearance. In Chapter 4, I will discuss the case of Patrick, a boy in Michigan, who had three distinct lesions that matched those of the previous personality. There are several cases in which a small, round birthmark matching a typical bullet entrance wound and a larger, more irregularly shaped birthmark matching a typical exit wound were both present. Other examples include cases with birthmarks in such unusual places as wrapping around an ankle and cases with deformities like missing or malformed limbs or digits.
In these cases, the birthmarks and birth defects can provide a concrete indication of a connection between the subject and the previous personality. Since they remain on the body, birthmarks and defects are not dependent on witnesses' memories to be part of the case. When an autopsy report or a medical record of the previous personality is available, as it was in Süleyman's case, researchers can objectively compare it to the birthmarks to see how well they correspond.
Such birthmarks and birth defects are not rare among our cases. A third of the cases from India include birthmarks or birth defects that are thought to correspond to wounds on the previous personalities, with 18 percent of those including medical records that confirm the match. I should note that the actual percentage of all children reporting past-life memories who have birthmarks might be much lower. We often have to make decisions about which cases to investigate, and since we are particularly interested in the birthmark cases, we are more likely to pursue them than other types of cases. Thus, we end up registering more of them. (Continues...)
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