Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I
By Michael Tymn
From the publisher’s website: As science flourished in the years leading up to World War I, religion floundered. Thus, the warring countries were little prepared to deal with the grief and despair that arose from millions of deaths. Apparently, the spirit world took notice, and, while greatly limited in its ability to communicate with us, the spirits managed to get through to more open-minded mourners, providing comfort and solace. Messages, many of them very evidential, came from fallen warriors, through various mediums, telling their loved ones that they were still “alive” and still with them. This book is an anthology of their communication from the afterlife.
(The July 2014 issue of the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review carries an interview with Michael Tymn by editor Leo Ruickbie, with an extract from the book.)
Dead Men Talking. White Crow Books, July 2014. ISBN 978-1-910121-13-9
Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles
Much has been said about the First World War in this the centenary year of its start, but little, at least yet, about the role of Spiritualism in the conflict. Michael Tymn has an established reputation in examining aspects of survival of bodily death and his latest book anthologises five volumes (plus two sequels) which claim to consist of communications from those who passed over in the service of their country during the Great War. To the extracts he has contributed an introduction in which he outlines the nature of mediumship, difficulties posed by transmissions between planes, and the possible role of the medium’s subconscious in colouring the style of what they transmitted. There is commentary on each selection in which he describes the circumstances of the book’s production, and he draws out commonalities between the spirit messages. Gladys Osborne Leonard, one of the most successful mediums of the period, played a role in three of the books under consideration and Tymn discusses her mediumship, and her control ‘Feda’.
The chosen texts which have been excerpted are: Raymond or Life and Death and Raymond Revised (1916), by Sir Oliver Lodge; Thy Son Liveth: Messages from a Soldier to his Mother (1918), by Grace Duffie Boylan; Claude’s Book I (1918) and Claude’s Book II (1920), by L. Kelway-Bamber; Private Dowding (1917), by Wellesley Tudor Pole; and Rolf ’s Life in the Spirit World (c.1920), by ‘His Mother’. The five communicating spirits were, respectively, ‘Raymond’, ‘Bob’, ‘Claude’, ‘Thomas’, and ‘Rolf’. The first four had been killed during battle, while Rolf had died of pneumonia in a training camp. Method of communication was either trance mediumship or automatic writing.
The best known of these titles is Lodge’s Raymond, which was enormously popular both on first publication and in later years. Lodge was a President of the SPR, prominent in psychical research, and author of a number of books on the subject. The fame of this particular book has overshadowed others of a similar nature which appeared during and after the war. The crucial element of each is the survival of the personality after death. Fundamental to these accounts is the consolation provided to bereaved relatives that their loved ones did not face extinction upon death; in fact there is no death, merely a transition, and those left behind need not grieve because in due course all will be reunited.
In general, the deceased makes a seamless transition, feeling so little discomfort on passing that he cannot at first believe that he is dead. There follows a process in which the strangeness wears off as the individual adjusts to the new situation, which is nothing like the stereotypical images of heaven and hell. It is rather for most a kind of idealised facsimile of earth, Summerland, in which they can be active in pursuit of their interests, in particular helping those who have come over after them. They can also sometimes help those on earth, though in a selective way – ‘Bob’ says that he ‘nudged’ a soldier to keep him from harm, and when he asked why, he was told that the man he had helped was an inventor whose work would be of importance – which makes one wonder what criteria were used for such assistance when so much talent was wasted in the grinder of war. Even those whose unsatisfactory lives have consigned them to a lower plane have the wherewithal to leave it as they grow in spiritual understanding. The Afterlife is couched in Christian terms, and all have the expectation of progressing, as a result of spiritual growth, to higher planes of existence, difficult to describe in terms understandable to those left behind, as they move ever-closer to God.
If one takes these books at face value they appear to support the contention that the five individuals made the transition to the Afterlife with their personalities intact, and were reporting, under difficult circumstances, what their present situation was like. However, it cannot be assumed that, because the accounts supplied by the discarnate communicators have elements that cohere, this is cumulative evidence their personalities have survived and their descriptions are veridical. Spiritualists and mediums talked and wrote to each other, read the same literature. As a consequence they could develop a common conception of what life after death might be like which they then used as the framework for their own mediumistic productions. A common theme is the difficulty in conveying accurate, specific information (and the difficulties mean that it is futile to attempt a point-by-point comparison to try to show that the messages cannot be genuine, because there is no pretence that they are accurate in every detail). When attempting to interpret what they were producing, which might have been couched in symbolic terms, it is plausible that the mediums would have utilised a repertoire of existing knowledge, rather than say something contradicting the image of the Afterlife which already existed. Similarly, part of the assessment is the plausibility of the complex descriptions of the Afterlife that suggest a degree of familiarity unlikely from newcomers to that sphere, and the possibility exists that the medium is drawing on an existing set of assumptions that have been built up over the years, while Tymn considers the possibility that the ostensible communicator was sometimes a conduit for ‘higher’ spirits acting in harmony.
For the general reader this is a useful compilation, showing how such texts were popular at a difficult time when so many young men had been lost, their futures snatched away from them. Tymn is convinced of the reality of these messages and by inference that of the life beyond which they describe: ‘unless one simply does not want to believe in a spirit world, it is difficult to accept Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas, and Rolf, the chief communicators in this anthology, as anything other than spirits’ (p.xxx). Critics, on the contrary, may consider what they have to say as banal, stereotyped and more likely to originate in a collective exercise of wishful thinking by medium and sitters than from a discarnate entity.
It could be argued that if these accounts were genuine, there would be more interaction with enemy combatants, all superficial differences such as nationalism having been rendered irrelevant. Stories of fraternisation with Germans, Austro-Hungarians or Turks are notable by their absence; Claude is unusual in reporting a meeting between English and German soldiers who had killed each other: ‘The Englishman held out his hand. His erstwhile enemy, taking it, said, “What d— fools we have been!”’ On the other hand, the conflict was so raw that perhaps it would be too much to expect foes to embrace each other completely so soon afterwards, that was work for higher planes. Who can say?
As these differing interpretations suggest, it is unlikely that anybody will alter their views on the basis of the evidence presented here. What is important though is the lesson that how we progress in the Afterlife is determined partly by how we behaved in life. Our beliefs are less important than our actions, and while we are never damned, we will make slower progress if while alive we act in a way that does not abide by clear ethical values and respect for others. If we have led good lives, our spiritual evolution will be the more rapid. It is an assumption that can do no harm, whether or not the five sets of communications gathered here are veridical, and it is a welcome alternative to belief systems, built on ideological subservience, that at their extremes are permeated with violence. Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas and Rolf all show us violence’s ultimate pointlessness.