Death, Society, and Human Experience by Robert J. Kastenbaum

(Eighth edition, Allyn & Bacon: S.F., 2004).


Kastenbaum provides a fine overview of the topic and touches upon many different dimensions.  For me one of the most important issues comes down to the after life.  Is their one?  Humans have for thousands of years formed religions and faith systems proclaiming that an after life does exist. 


Proof in one form or another has been very scarce down through the millenniums.  However, proof always existed in one form or another.  Magical events were seen as proof of God’s existence.  Ghosts were viewed as proof of an after life.


But as science evolved, we found less and less reliable evidence of an after life.


In more recent times, however, this has begun to change as we are now seeing ever more reliable evidence of an after life.  Near death experiences (NDEs), Past Life Regressions (PLRs) are two of my favorite areas worthy of exploration as to the existence of the after life.  Kastenbaum goes into these two areas.  However, he also mentions some other very interesting things related to this topic.


One is “deathbed escorts” which is an ancient concept but what is of particular interest is that we now have some modern research into this phenomenon.  “Karlis Osis and colleagues collected observations form more than 2,000 physicians and nurses in India and the United States.  What did they find?


  1. Patients at times were observed to be interacting with a visitor or apparition that others could not see.  These patients were clear of mind and in possession of their mental faculties, not drugged, confused, or delusional.
  2. The visitations usually come to people who were known to be dying, but there were also instances in which the deathbed escort appeared to a person who was not thought to be gravely ill---and that person did pass away soon afterward.
  3. The visitations were not always welcome.  It sometimes appeared as though the escort had to convince the patient that the time was near.
  4. The escorts were varied.  Some people saw the apparition of one of their parents; others believed they were interacting with an angel or messenger of God.
  5. Occasionally, something happened that the physicians or nurses could witness.


“In the room where he was lying, there was a staircase leading to the second floor.  Suddenly he exclaimed ‘See, the angels are coming down the stairs.  The glass has fallen and broken.’  All of us in the room looked toward the staircase where a drinking glass had been placed on one of the steps.  As we looked, we saw the glass break into a thousand pieces without any apparent cause.  It did not fall; it simply exploded.  The angels, of course, we did not see.  A happy and peaceful expression came over the patient’s face and the next moment he expired.  Even after his death the serene, peaceful expression remained on his face.


“The deathbed visions had similar features in the United States and India, despite the substantial cultural differences.  The visions could be distinguished easily from ordinary hallucinations, and many had received no sedation” (Kastenbaum, pp. 446-447, reporting on the findings of Osis, K. (1961). Deathbed observations by physicians and nurses. New York: Parapsychology Foundation and Osis, K. & Haraldsson, E. (1977). At the hour of death.  New York: Avon.).


Kastenbaum also goes into the phenomenon of ghosts and the work of Green and McCreery (Green, C., & McCreery, C. (1989). Apparitions. Oxford, UK: Institute of Psychophysical Research).  Although the idea of ghosts has been with us for ages and they appear in most cultures, modern science has discounted the idea.  Now, however, we are beginning to question whether this is something that really does exist.


Finally, one of the more obvious and usually ignored factors in this field is the idea that we may need to give up our penchant for dichotomous thinking that is so prevalent in our approach to problems or questions.  As Kastenbaum states: “Death may not be the same for everybody.  Of all the possibilities considered…the prospect of pluralistic death might well be the most extreme.  This possibility may most challenge our basic assumptions about the nature of life and the universe. There is survival of death, or there is not survival---or so it is generally believed.  The rational mind may find either of these alternatives more acceptable than the possibility that death might be different at different times to different people in different situations.  Nevertheless…this seemingly bizarre idea appears consistent with some basic precepts of the philosophy of science.  The idea that death might be relative to life and context opens the possibility that there might be both survival and nonsurvival!” (p. 453).


The point of all of this is that we need to be open to this extremely important question.  What happens after death is not only important at that point, it tends to profoundly influence what people decide to do during life. 


What are your beliefs?


How do those beliefs influence how you behave?