Apparitions Occurring Soon After Death

Thoughts about the Society for Psychical Research 1889 report entitled, "On Apparitions Occurring Soon After Death."

An argument is first made by Edmund Gurney in this report that the sightings of apparitions are not just hallucinations but may possibly be proven to be real by several ways, and also that the frequency of which deathbed specters are reportedly seen shows a pattern that is not found within hallucinations.

"There remain three, and I think three, conditions which might establish a presumption that an apparition or other immediate manifestation of a dead person is something more than a mere subjective hallucination of the percipient's senses. Either (1) more persons than one might be independently affected by the phenomenon; or (2) the phantasm might convey information, afterwards discovered to be true, of something which the percipient had never known; or (3) the appearance might be that of a person whom the percipient himself had never seen, and of whose aspect he was ignorant, and yet his description of it might be sufficiently definite for identification."

1889 Society for Psychical Research Report"(There is a) disproportionate number of cases which occur shortly after the death of the person represented. Such a time-relation, if frequently encountered, might enable us to argue for the objective origin of the phenomenon in a manner analogous to that which leads us to conclude that many phantasms of the living have an objective (a telepathic) origin. For according to the doctrines of probabilities, a hallucination representing a known person would not by chance present a definite time-relation to a special cognate event - viz., the death of that person - in more than a certain percentage of the whole number of similar hallucinations that occur; and if that percentage is decidedly exceeded, there is reason to surmise that some other cause than chance - in other words, some objective origin for the phantasm - is present."

Theories About Ghosts Seen Around the Time of Death
During the time of this 1889 report on apparitions, there were several theories as to why such ghosts might be appearing post-mortem. Those ideas were very much in line with trying to understand why so many apparitions are seen soon after the person's death if not a hallucination:

  • Those who have recently died may make their presence known so that they may say 'goodbye' to the living
  • Some who recently died may want to bring cheer to family members or friends who are grieving their passing
  • Some people who have died may become bound to the earth plane, only able to free themselves over time
  • The idea of "shells" whereby the essence (still some form of physical presence) of a person takes time to slowly fade away

It is true that 'ghosts of grief,' meaning apparitions created by a hallucinating brain, possibly explain many ghost sightings by family and friends who are still grieving their departure. But, another great point is made in the 1889 report that bears consideration by skeptics of ghosts and haunting: Where are the accounts, considered to be 'hallucinations', of people believed to be dead that are actually alive?

"I should myself feel more completely satisfied with it (the appearance of dead persons being, in fact, hallucinations) if we had any record of the phantasmal appearance of a person whom the friend who saw the appearance believed to be dead, but who was really safe and sound."

Apparitions Sighted Prior to Learning of Their Death
But the most compelling argument made in "On Apparitions Occurring Soon After Death" are the cases where the percipient, meaning the witness of the ghost, saw the apparition before becoming aware of the deceased person's passing. This, in fact, would not allow for hallucination due to grief as the reason for the sighting.

It is related in the report the timeframe of sightings in some of the cases they studied where witnesses of deceased people had no idea of their passing. Surprisingly, some apparitions are actually seen pre-mortem (before the death of the person):

  • 134 cases - the apparition sighting took place at the time of death or within the hour of the person's earthly departure.
  • 104 cases - the investigators were not certain if the ghost sighting was before or after the death.
  • 78 cases - the sighting was more than an hour away from the time of death with 38 preceding the death and 40 following the death;¬†of the 38 cases that preceded the death, 19 of them were within 24 hours of the death.

Sightings of Apparitions Prior to Death

Some Interesting Findings from the Report
After Ed Gurney's own passing, F.W.H. Myers completed the chapter for presentation in the June proceedings volume. He cited additional cases and thoughts that further made this research more invaluable to ghost researchers. Here are but a few notes of ours from this chapter of the SPR book.

It's good to note that some of the apparitions appeared to the percipients in dream form or what some believed to be a vision. And in many of the cases, the various accounts tell of the ghosts first appearing quite real but, then, vanishing before witnesses' eyes.

Some ghosts even spoke of their death or traumatic injuries, providing details for the witnesses. Other apparitions were simply glimpsed in a vapory form and did not communicate to the persons who saw their visage. In many of the accounts, the percipient knew the person; but in some cases, witnesses learned the identity of the apparitions after seeing a photograph, later.

Most of the apparitions that were seen prior to the person's death were connected with deaths by disease and not by accident. In such cases of crises, the trauma itself was found to produce apparitions seen by witnesses (unaware of their trauma or fate at the time) whether or not the person died in the tragedy. And in those cases where tragedy occurred, the phantasm was often also witnessed in crises.

In some reports of apparitions, multiple sightings or indicators of the deceased person's presence were detected by percipients. Also, there may be multiple witnesses to the phantasm, further proving these sightings are definitely not hallucinations.