Near-Death Experiences: A Historical Exploration from the Ancient World to the Present Day, by Marisa St Clair

Reviewed by Robert A. Charman

Marisa St Clair is the pseudonym of a London based writer and lecturer on spiritual, paranormal and related subjects. Published in 1997 as Beyond the Light: Files of Near-Death Experiences, this is a lavishly illustrated 2019 reprint. The author knows her subject well and includes dozens of near-death experiences (NDEs) and related out-of-body experience (OBE) accounts drawn from the literature, particularly from Raymond Moody, Melvin Morse, Kenneth Ring, Margot Grey and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, together with many that have been related to her personally. The chapter headings indicate the wide scope of the book.  The heading of the opening chapter ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ is a quote from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan who said that ‘Dying must be an awfully big adventure’. The main features of an NDE are described and there is an interesting section on how death and the afterlife has been portrayed in the cinema, quoting A Matter of Life and Death (1942), Ghosts (1990) and Flatliners (1991) as particularly good examples. The following chapters are headed A History of Heaven; First Steps into the Light: The Living Ghost; Seeing the Light; Life After (Near) Death; To Hell and Back?; The Evidence; Working with the NDE; The Last Enemy. There is a good index but no separate reference list as books are referenced in the text.

The Egyptian Pyramid Texts (circa 3000 BCE) hint at what sounds like NDEs, but the first recognizable case is the story of the badly injured Greek soldier Er as told by Plato (427-347 BCE) in the Republic who, while lying on his funeral pyre, recovered consciousness and described his descent into another world with the souls of his slain companions. While they were choosing their next reincarnation and wiping out their memory of this life by drinking from the River of Forgetfulness (Lethe), he was commanded not to drink but to return and tell the living of his experience.

Heaven has been visualised very differently by different societies. The classical Greeks referred to the Elysian Fields as the wished for alternative to being pale ghosts in Hades. Native Americans called it the Happy Hunting Ground, and Norse warriors entered Valhalla where they enthusiastically slayed the enemy by day and feasted as heroes by night. Early Christians joined Christ in Heaven, but by medieval times heaven had become a less certain destination as there was the possibility of temporary or permanent sojourn in purgatory, hell or limbo. Romans and Greeks believed that Paradise lay to the West in the ‘Isles of the Blessed’. With a nice touch of humour St Clair adds that ‘Some early adventurers mistook the British Isles for this Heaven on Earth, although they soon realised their mistake’.

The arguments as to whether NDEs, especially when occurring in near brain death circumstances, imply that we survive bodily death and heaven awaits, or whether they are hallucinatory creations of the brain and can be explained by neurophysiology, will be familiar to many readers. The author provides a balanced presentation of the arguments despite her personal belief that NDEs and OBEs clearly indicate that the mind as a conscious self can separate from the brain. How else can one account for the many cases where the person, who has had an OBE during their accident or resuscitation scene in which they are watching events from above their unconscious physical body, can provide a verifiable account on recovering consciousness? As St Clair points out, when OBE accounts of the particular scene during an operation or cardiac resuscitation are compared to non OBE accounts the former invariably provide some verifiable details while the latter offer vague generalities of what they think may have happened.

Whereas in popular literature NDEs are presented as heavenly experiences that remove any fear of death, in her chapter To Hell and Back? St Clair, in balanced fairness, quotes Dr Maurice Rawlings, a specialist in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, who in his 1981 book Beyond Death’s Door reported many hellish NDEs which left the experiencer terrified of death. Dr Margot Grey includes similar hellish accounts in her book Return from Death: An Exploration of the Near-death Experience (1985). More recently, Nancy Evans Bush has written Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences (2012) and The Buddha in Hell and Other Alarms: Distressing Near-Death Experiences in Perspective (2016).

NDE type experiences across cultures and religions are explored including inducement of NDE-like visions through shamanic and witchcraft rituals. St Clair makes the interesting point that the major difference between non drug induced NDEs and drug induced NDE-like experiences is that the latter never experience the all encompassing white light.

To pick out a few comments from her wide ranging discussion that I found intriguing, St Clair says that contrary to what one would expect if the heavenly NDE is a true description of our experience during ‘crossing over’ mediumistic communication from those on ‘the other side’ concerning what it was like when they ‘crossed over’ never mention it. In her discussion of deathbed visions in which the dying person sees dead relatives and friends coming to welcome her she points out that they never include anyone who is alive but often see someone who, unknown to them, has just died. The same applies to children who, whether during an NDE or in a deathbed vision when their parents are not present, never see their still alive parents, but see a parent who has died, or see dead relatives during an NDE who they have never met but later recognise from photographs. Sometimes, much to their parent’s discomfiture, they see to their surprise a dead brother or sister they never knew they had as their parents never told them. Not only that, they see the dead sibling at the age they would be after their death.

Bronte literature enthusiasts will be interested to know that St Clair is convinced that Emily Bronte’s emotionally intense poetry indicates that she was a mystic who often had heavenly NDE-like experiences that ‘swept her away to rapture’. She quotes visionary verses from a section in the Gondal poems called The Prison:A Fragment in Julian M. and A.G.Rochelle (9th November, 1845) that end:

Oh dreadful is the check-intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear and the eye begins to see
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again
The soul to feel the flesh and the flesh to feel the chain.

She thinks that in this quatrain Emily Bronte encapsulates what so many near-death experiencers feel on being told that they must return and find themselves re-entering their sick, pain ridden bodies because this is what she felt herself. She suffered from general ill health throughout most of her short life and had tuberculosis. Aged 30 and painfully thin she died from a combination of TB and pneumonia.

Although some twenty two years have passed since 1997 and many more articles and books have been published concerning NDEs, I realised that that the arguments concerning whether NDEs have a neurological explanation or a conscious, self-aware mind-separating-from-the-brain explanation have not changed. Either you believe in life after death and consider that NDEs support your belief that you can leave your brain at brain death or you do not. This book could have been published for the first time this year. I recommend it as an interesting and informative read.

Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: