Book Review -- Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion by Allan Kellehear

Oxford University Press, New York; 1996
230 pages; $25.00 hardbound

Late one night in 1974, my father suffered a massive heart attack while he slept. Then -- less than 12 hours later and after being hospitalized -- he experienced an even more profound cardiac event.

Three years later, when his life was coming to an end as a result of lung cancer, this rational, pragmatic man, who had no interest in "spirituality," took me aside. "If I tell you what I experienced, you'll think that I'm crazy," he said, then proceeded to describe what happened after his second heart attack in the hospital.

"I distinctly remember being aware that I had left my body," he told me, "so I could hover near the ceiling and watch doctors and nurses working feverishly to save me. Then, I realized that I was being enveloped in a gentle warmth as I was drawn toward an increasingly brighter white light. It was then that I had to make a choice -- either I could continue to move into the light or turn away and reenter my body. I opted to return, because I didn't think that your mother was ready to live out the rest of her life without me...I needed to spend more time with her because I had to prepare her to live for a time when we'd not be together." He concluded by asking, "Now, don't you think that I'm nuts?"

With this conversation in mind, I read Allan Kellehear's latest book with great interest. The author is a well-known Australian medical sociologist whose interests are transcultural psychiatry and theories pertaining to the subject of Near Death Experience (NDE).

Kellehear begins by sharing with his readers the popular images of NDE -- similar to the ones related by my father. He then tells us that it is his purpose to challenge certain notions and to lay aside stereotypical thinking vis-à-vis this phenomenon. It is his contention that NDE cannot be explained through the use of a single interpretation; multifaceted thinking -- a blend of medicine, philosophy, and religion -- is required.

Non-Western NDEs vary from Western NDE patterns, the author points out. Some Asian peoples do not report having out-of-body experiences, reviews of their lives, or the presence of a white light. Experiences common to most cultures, however, include seeing dead acquaintances and having an opportunity to peek at the world beyond. Kellehear concludes, "More cross-cultural studies are necessary if we are to achieve greater validity in our understanding of human experiences near death. Only when we are more confident about the culture-specific elements will we then fully appreciate the size and nature of the task in explaining the universal features that remain."

Kellehear examines the frequent negative reactions of loved ones and friends who are told about a NDE. He also explores the popularity of afterlife imagery, the evolution of neuroscience, the prejudice that, for some people, blocks out the possibility of NDE, and the social and environmental conditions that make NDE accounts plausible.

The author concentrates on the psychological and social implications of such encounters and how they affect those who have experienced them. A heightened sense of self and changed behavior are common. But, family and friends who hear of the experience may suggest that it was a "passing hallucination, a dream, the beginning of mental illness, a side effect of medical drugs/techniques, a product of a vivid imagination." Others might say it provides "possible evidence of life after death," while some simply shrug and say, "I don't know how to explain it."

Within the last 25 years, however, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who support the idea that NDE is a genuine phenomenon and not just some flight of fancy or externally induced incident. This popular acceptance has occurred at the same time that life spans are being extended, resuscitation techniques are being advanced, the whole matter of death and dying is being explored from all angles, certain social taboos are falling by the wayside, and greater credence is being given to personal experience and testimony.

In previous generations, Kellehear suggests, it was said that "Death is a dark country and that never far away one finds its major cities -- Loss, Grief, and Aloneness." However, in our time another idea has emerged; namely, that beyond that "shadowy country lies another less inhospitable land -- a land of fabulous light and landscape" -- in which one "finds the cities called Learning, Love, and Service."

So, NDE may really be a depiction of "a social world beyond this one," as the author suggests. It is an expression of our longing for the ideal society and finding the means to reach it -- or, at least, to briefly gaze upon it and to know that all of us will one day reside within it.

Before ending this sophisticated and thought-provoking work, Allan Kellehear asks: "How can the personal crises of ordinary people be linked to their cultural traditions and biological circumstances, and explained in terms of their intersections within psyche and organism? For the NDE, as personal experience and as scholarly study, this is the only question with a genuine future."

Rabbi Allen I. Freehling was the founding chair of the Los Angeles County Commission on AIDS. He is a member of the AIDS Project Los Angeles board and the Reform Movement's Committee on AIDS and is a trustee of IAPAC.