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HOW IT FEELS TO DIE. BY ONE WHO HAS TRIED IT. (1892)

  • The July number of the _Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research_ contains some remarkable experiences by contributors who claim to have been at least temporarily dead. In both cases they allege that they passed into a new and conscious after-death existence. A well-known correspondent who also claims to have been practically dead sends us his experience, which, it will be seen, differs very considerably from those which are related in the _Journal of the Psychical Society_.
  • All my life long I have been singularly destitute, I believe, of that physical shrinking from death which so many human beings feel so acutely. I do not mean that I am in any hurry to die; as long as things go on tolerably well with me in the world, I have no insuperable objection to continue living; but whenever I stand face to face with death, as has happened to me several times in the course of my career, I regard the prospect of annihilation with perfect equanimity. I can honestly declare that all such occasions my only doubts and fears have been for the safety and the pecuniary position of the survivors, especially of those more immediately dependent upon me. For myself, I have never felt one moment's disquietude. And I attribute this entire absence of fear of death to the unusual fact that I have once already tried dying, and found it by no means a painful or terrifying experience. I mean what I say quite literally. I have not the slightest hesitation in asserting that once in my life I really and truly died — died as dead as it is possible for a human being to die: that that I was afterwards resurrected. I have felt and know the whole feeling of death — not part of it only, but the actual end of dying. I did not stop halfway; I died and was done with it; and when I came back to life again it was no mere case of awaking from which is foolishly called
  • 'suspended animation', but a genuine revival, a restoration of vitality to a man as dead as he ever can be or will be.
  • It happened in this wise; and, though it was a good many years since, I have still a most vivid recollection of every moment of it. I had been skating on a lake in a very cold country. I am intentionally vague because I do not desire to disclose my personality. The surface was smooth as glass, and perfectly free from snow or ridges. But, not far from where I was skating, some men had been cutting out great blocks of ice the day before, for summer use, and had neglected to mark the spot by a danger signal, as compelled by law, so as to prevent accidents. During the night this open space of blue water had frozen over slightly —perhaps an inch thick — forming a continuous sheet with the other and much thicker ice about it, so that from a little distance it was quite impossible to detect the difference. I skated incautiously from the solid ice on to this thinner piece; and, moving with considerable impetus, went through it at once, and was carried on under the thicker and firmer ice beyond it. The first thing I knew was that I found myself plunged suddenly into ice-cold water, and struggling for my life, in skates and winter clothes, against chill and drowning.
  • I went down like lead. When I came up again, it was with my head against the solid ice. If I had had full possession of my faculties, I would have looked about for the hole by which I broke through and endeavoured to swim under water for it. But I was numbed with the cold, and stunned with the suddenness of the unexpected ducking; so, instead of looking for the soft place by which I had got in, I tried ineffectually to break the thick ice over my head by bumping and butting against it. In so doing, I do not doubt, I must have made matters worse by partially stunning myself. At any rate, I could not break it, and was soon completely numbed by the cold. I gasped and swallowed a great deal of water. I felt my lungs filling. A moment of suspense, during which I knew perfectly well I was drowning, intervened; and then — I died. I was drowned and dead. I knew it then, and I have never since for a moment doubted it.
  • Just before I died, however, I noticed — deliberately noticed — for I am psychological by nature — that my whole past life did not come up, as I had been given to understand it would, in a single flash before me. On the contrary, I felt only a sense of cold and damp and breathlessness, a fierce wild struggle, a horrible choking sensation, and then all was over.
  • I was taken out stone-dead. Unless extreme remedies had been applied, I would have remained stone-dead till the present moment. If nothing more had been done, my body would have undergone no further change till decomposition set in. Heart and lungs had ceased to act: I was truly dead; there was nothing more that could happen to me to make me any deader. However, a friend who was skating with me raised the alarm, and I was shortly after pulled out again, still dead, with a boathook. They tried artificial respiration, brandy, heat — all the recognised means of reviving a corpse after drowning. After a while, they brought me back; I began to breathe again. But I call it absurd to speak of my condition meanwhile as one of 'suspended animation'. The phrase is unscientific. I was dead and nothing else: I did not doubt it at the time; I have never since doubted it. Mere theological theorists may talk about something they call the soul not having yet left the body. I know nothing of all that, though I don't see how they can tell so confidently whether in such a case as mine the soul, if any, does not leave the body at once and then come back again. For all I know to the contrary, it may have gone meanwhile to the hypothetical place of departed spirits — always unconscious. But, to omit any such curious and unprofitable inquiries, what I do know is this: that if there had been no artificial respiration I would never have revived again, and my body would have undergone dissolution in due course, without any return of consciousness whatever. So far as consciousness goes, therefore, I was then and there dead, and I never expect to be any deader. And the knowledge that I have thus once experienced in my own person exactly what death is, and tried it fully, has had a great deal to do, I think, with my utter physical indifference to it. I know how it feels; and though it is momentarily uncomfortable, it isn't half as bad as breaking your arm or having a tooth drawn. In fact, the actual dying itself, as dying, is quite painless — as painless as falling asleep. It is only the previous struggle, the sense of its approach, that is at all uncomfortable. Even this is much less unpleasant than I should have expected beforehand; and I noted at the time that there was a total absence of any craven shrinking — the sensation was a mere physical one of gasping and choking. Whenever I have stood within a measurable distance of death ever since, my feeling has been always the same — I have been there already, and see no cause to dread it. Of course one might strongly object to a painful end, on account of its painfulness; and one might shrink, and ought to shrink, from leaving one's family — especially if young or insufficiently provided for; but death itself, as death, it seems to me, need have absolutely no terrors for a sensible person.
  • Anon. _Pall Mall Gazette_ , 3 September 1892, 1-2.