Near-Death Experiences: Glimpses of the Afterlife

First-Hand Accounts of Coming Back from the Great Beyond

The belief that there's another life awaiting us after our mortal existence ends is widely held and predates recorded history. While cultures such as the ancient Egyptians believed existence continued in "the Land of the Dead," modern Christian beliefs offer an afterlife in Heaven as a reward—or in Hell as a punishment. More recent afterlife theories suggest that life might continue in another dimension or plane of existence—perhaps even on another planet.

Stories of Near-Death Experiences

There is no definitive proof, of course, that life after death exists. There are some compelling anecdotes, however, to suggest there might be an afterlife, including remarkable tales of reincarnation or past-life recall, for example. There are also countless reports in which the recently departed have appeared briefly to family members and friends to tell them that they are well and happy in another world.

The stories related by people who have gone through a "near-death experience" (or NDE) are intriguing. It's estimated between 9 and 18 percent of people who come close to dying claim to have had a near-death experience. Although mainstream science suggests that these experiences are the result of certain brain activity under extreme stress or hallucinations brought on by drugs or medication, many believe these experiences are real and should not be dismissed. If they are real, they may hold the only clues we have as to what the hereafter might be like.

The Tunnel and the Light

One of the most common experiences at the beginning of an NDE is rising or floating out of one's body, and then floating or flying down a long tunnel toward a bright, white light that many describe as "loving."

A man named Tom Sawyer had a near-death experience in 1978 after an accident left him pinned under a truck. His story is detailed in the book, "What Tom Sawyer Learned from Dying." His description is very similar, involving a tunnel and light:

"...this darkness took the shape of a tunnel...It was very vast, as opposed to small and confining, and was anywhere from a thousand feet to a thousand miles wide. I was very comfortable and inquisitive. It was cylindrical. If you took a tornado and stretched it out straight, it would be similar to that..."

A Place of Beauty and Love

Descriptions of the afterlife are often of an unimaginably beautiful land of color, light, and music. The place is described by those who have experienced it as one where they felt "totally known, totally accepted and loved," and that it made them feel safe and happy.

The dimensions of this place are perceived as "timeless and spaceless." Distance is recounted usually as expansive, being "unimaginable" or "endless" and beyond what normal sight can perceive.

Arthur E. Yensen described his distance vision during his NDE in P. M. H. Atwater's book, "Beyond the Light: What Isn't Being Said About Near-Death Experience" in this way:

"The mountains appeared to be about 15 miles away, yet I could see individual flowers growing on their slopes. I estimated my vision to be about one hundred times better than on earth."

The landscape observed during an NDE is usually described as garden-like. Jennine Wolff of Troy, New York, recounted her near-death experience from 1987:

"Suddenly I was aware of being in the most beautiful garden I've ever seen...I heard celestial music clearly and saw vivid colored flowers, like nothing seen on earth, gorgeous greenery and trees."

Yensen went on to detail the landscape he witnessed as follows:

"In the background were two beautiful, round-topped mountains, similar to Fujiyama in Japan. The tops were snowcapped, and the slopes were adorned with foliage of indescribable beauty...To the left was a shimmering lake containing a different kind of water—clear, golden, radiant and alluring. It seemed to be alive. The whole landscape was carpeted with grass so vivid, clear and green, that it defies description. To the right was a grove of large, luxuriant trees, composed of the same clear material that seemed to make up everything."

Throughout these recounted experiences, the elements of color and sound are prevalent. Sound is described as "beautiful," "invigorating" and "harmonic." Color is seen as extraordinarily vivid in the grass, the sky, and in flowers.

Meeting Loved Ones

For those who have near-death experiences, many meet up with departed friends, family members, and even pets who are waiting eagerly for them and convey a sense of familiarity and comfort.

The account of Bryce Bond also found in "Beyond the Light," describes hearing a barking dog:

"Racing toward me is a dog I once had, a black poodle named Pepe...He jumps into my arms, licking my face...I can smell him, feel him, hear his breathing and sense his great joy at being with me again."

Pam Reynolds, who had an enormous aneurysm at the base of her brain and underwent surgery during which she was clinically dead for an hour, described seeing figures in a light, including her grandmother:

"I don't know if it was reality or projection but I would know my grandmother, the sound of her, anytime, anywhere. Everyone I saw, looking back on it, fit perfectly into my understanding of what that person looked like at their best during their lives."

Working, Learning and Growing

Apparently, some folks don't just lie around on clouds all day in the afterlife. Their experiences are more of post-life learning school in which they receive a higher education in personal growth and awareness. Accounts of this version of the afterlife often focus on answering questions such as, "Why are we here?" and "What is our purpose?"

Dr. George Ritchie, who's NDE occurred in an army hospital when he was 20, described the place he visited as appearing like "a well-planned university." 

"Through open doors I glimpsed at enormous rooms filled with complex equipment. In several of the rooms, hooded figures bent over intricate charts and diagrams, or sat at the controls of elaborate consoles flickering with lights...I gazed into rooms lined floor to ceiling with documents on parchment, clay, leather, metal and paper. 'Here,' the thought occurred to me, 'are assembled the important books of the universe.'"

The Send-Back

Obviously, those who experience NDE get sent back to the land of the living, or they wouldn't be around to tell us their stories. The idea that "it is not your time" is a very common explanation for why a near-death experience was not of the permanent variety. 

Robin Michelle Halberdier's NDE occurred when she was less than 2 months old. Halberdier was born prematurely with Hyaline Membrane disease, a form of respiratory distress syndrome. Amazingly, she was able to recall her experience and began relating it when she learned to talk. She described encountering an indistinct figure surrounded by and emanating light:

"The figure in the light told me through what I now know to be mental telepathy that I must go back, that it was not time for me to come here. I wanted to stay because I felt so full of joy and so peaceful. The voice repeated that it wasn't my time. I had a purpose to fulfill and I could come back after I completed it."

Negative Experiences

Not all NDEs are beautiful and joyful. Sometimes, they can be a nightmare. Don Brubaker suffered a heart attack and was clinically dead for 45 minutes. He recounted his experience in his book, "Absent from the Body: One Man's Clinical Death, a Journey Through Heaven and Hell."

"I was in hell. There was a low murmuring all around me, as if I were in the midst of a huge group of grumbling people. Before me, suddenly, stood a huge black door. The air began to glow and shimmer with oppressive heat. I watched as the door opened upon a vast, flaming oven. I felt myself drawn like a magnet into the center of the flames—although I was terrified to go in. There were hundreds of others already there, roasting to death, but not dead. Once I was inside, the door slammed shut behind me."

Illusion or reality? Is there a life beyond this one? Unfortunately, there's really only one way to know for certain. Whether it's heaven, hell, reincarnation or another destination altogether, it's clear that humans want to believe—and perhaps even need to believe—in life after death.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Farr, Sydney Saylor; Sawyer, Tom. "What Tom Sawyer Learned from Dying." Hampton Roads Publishing, April 1993, Newburyport, Mass.
  • Atwater, P.M.H. "Beyond the Light: What Isn't Being Said About Near Death Experience." Revised Edition, Transpersonal Publishing, November 2009, Goshen, New York
  • Brubaker, Don. "Absent from the Body: One Man's Clinical Death, a Journey Through Heaven and Hell." Pennisular Publishing, March 1996