Deathbed Visions: The Earliest Accounts (Part 1)

At the web site of the Daily Mail, we recently had a very sad-sounding story with the headline, "They All Suffer and Die Alone."  The story is an interview with an ICU doctor Daniela Lamas. Curently hospitalized victims of the coronavirus are not allowed visitors, to minimize the chance that such visitors become infected with the coronavirus.  "The devastating image of the lonely deaths of coronavirus patients in Italy hangs over us all," Dr. Lamas states.

But is it actually true that those dying of coronavirus in hospitals have almost all died lonely, isolated deaths? There is a strong reason for suspecting that such a thing may not be true.  The reason is related to the little-publicized phenomenon of deathbed visions, in which dying people see apparitions of deceased family members and deceased friends. 

Deathbed visions are a different phenomenon from near-death experiences. Near-death experiences are accounts of extraordinary experiences of those who had close brushes with death, but who recovered to tell the story of their remarkable experiences, often in writing. Deathbed visions are extraordinary accounts (purely oral) told by those who came very close to dying, and then actually did die.  The great interest in near-death experiences has caused the different phenomenon of deathbed visions to be overshadowed and overlooked. 

The first major reference to this phenomenon that I can find in the literature of parapsychology is the fascinating 1906 paper "Apparitions of Deceased Persons at Death-Beds" in pages 67-100 of the February 1906 Annals of Psychical Research, (Volume 3), which can be read here. I will now cite several cases from this paper by Ernesto Bozzano. 

The first case cited (pages 70-71) is an account told by a well-known figure of the death of his son:

"Suddenly he murmured: ' Earth recedes, heaven opens up before  me. I have been beyond the gates. God is calling. Don't call me back. It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death it is sweet.' Then his face lit up and he said in a voice of joyful rapture : 'Dwight! Irene! I see the children's faces' (referring to two little grandchildren, gone before). Turning to his wife he said: ' Mamma, you have been a good wife to me,' and with that he became unconscious."

We will see that this seeing of a deceased relative is the most common feature of a deathbed vision. On page 71 this feature occurs again in this account:

"For half an hour, he said, the dying man had been sinking. The breathing, growing more laboured, became slower and fainter. The watcher thought the man was dead, when suddenly his eyes opened with a glad look of wonder and joyful recognition; he threw up his arms as in an embrace, and his whole face was illuminated as he rapturously exclaimed: 'Why, mother!' The same instant he fell back dead. 'Nothing will ever convince me,' said the watcher, relating the occurrence years afterwards, 'that that man didn't actually see his mother then and there.' " 

On page 72 we have this account by an Alfred Smedley of the death of his wife: 

"A short time before her decease, her eyes being fixed on something that seemed to fill her with pleasant surprise, she exclaimed: 'Why ! there is sister Charlotte here ; and mother and father, and brother John, and sister Mary ! And now they have brought Bessie Heap !! They are all here. Oh! how beautiful! Cannot you see them ? ' she asked. 'No, my dear; I very much wish I could,' I answered. ' Cannot you see them ? ' she again asked in surprise : ' why they are all here, and they are come to bear me away with them. Part of our family have crossed the flood, and soon the other part will be gathered home, and then we shall be a family complete in heaven.' "

On page 72 we have this account by a Dr. Paul Edwards of the death of a patient, who said this:

"I see people moving-all in white. The music is strangely enchanting. Oh! here is Sadie; she is with me-and-she knows who I am." 

We are told that Sadie "was a little girl she had lost about ten years before," and that "the dying wife was in full view of the two worlds at the same time, for she described how the moving figures looked in the world beyond, as she directed her words to mortals in this world." On page 73 we read the account of a Dr. Wilson who observed the death of a singer named James Moore:

"Then something which I shall never forget to my dying day happened; something which is utterly indescribable. While he appeared perfectly rational and as sane as any man I have ever seen, the only way that I can express it is that be was transported into another world, and although I cannot satisfactorily explain the matter to myself, I am fully convinced that he had entered the Golden City - for he said in a stronger voice than he had used since I had attended him: 'There is mother! Why, mother, have you come here to see me? No, no, I'm coming to see you. Just wait, mother, I am almost over. I can jump it. Wait, mother.' On his face there was a look of inexpressible happiness, and the way in which he said the words impressed me as I have never been before, and I am as firmly convinced that be saw and talked with his mother as I am that I am sitting here."

On page 78 we have this account of the death of Lloyd Ellis:

"Lying in an apparent sleep one night (one Monday night, I believe) be woke up suddenly and asked his mother: ' Where is my father ? ' She answered him tearfully: ' Lloyd dear, you know your dear father is dead. He has been dead for more than a year now.'  'Is he ?'-he asked, incredulously -' why he was in the room just now, and I have an appointment with him, three o'clock next Wesnesday.' And Lloyd Ellis died at three o'clock on the following Wednesday morning." 

On page 79 we have this account of the death of a brother, who had not been told that his brother had recently died (the account is quoted from page 459 of Volume 5 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research):

"Harry died at Abbot's Langley on November 2nd, fourteen miles from my vicarage at Aspley; David the following day at Aspley. About an hour before the death of this latter child, he sat up in bed, and pointing to the bottom of the bed, said distinctly : ' There is little Harry calling to me.' .. Mr. Taylor adds the following details: ' Mr. Z. tells me that care was taken to keep David from knowing that Harry was dead, and that he feels sure that David did not know it.' "

On page 79 we have this account quoted from page 460 of Volume 5 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:

"My brother, John Aikin Ogle, died at Leeds, July 17th, 1879. About an hour before he expired he saw his brother, who had died about sixteen years before, and looking up with fixed interest, said: ' Joe! Joe !' and immediately after exclaimed with ardent surprise : ' George Hanley ! ' My mother, who had come from Melbourne, a distance of about forty miles, where George Hanley resided, was astonished at this, and turning to my sister-in-law, asked if anybody had told John of George Hanley's death. She said, 'No one,' and my mother was the only person present who was aware of the fact."

On pages 79-80 we have the following account:

"ln a city not far from Boston, a little girl 9 years of age was dying....Then, as she began to sink, she called out that she saw the faces of friends one after another; grandpa and grandma appeared ; and then, starting with sudden surprise, she turned to her father and said : 'Why, papa, why did you not tell me that Jenny had gone? Here is Jenny, come to meet me.' She had had no idea that there was anything the matter with Jenny; but as a matter of fact she had died only a little while before. They had scrupulously kept this fact from the little girl for fear that the knowledge of it might bave a depressing effect upon her." 

A deathbed vision might be like this

On page 81 we have an account that is taken from page 92   of Volume 3 of the Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research: 

"Six or seven years passed away, and Mrs.--, who had been long ill, was dying, in fact she did die the following day....She changed the subject and said : "Do you hear those voices singing? ' I replied that I did not; and she said : ' I have beard them several times to-day, and I am sure they are the angels welcoming me to Heaven; but '-she added-' it is strange, there is one voice amongst them I am sure I know, and cannot remember whose voice is is.' Suddenly she stopped, and said, pointing straight over my bead : 'Why there she is; in the corner of the room; it is Julia X.; she is coming on ; she is leaning over you'.... I turned but could see nothing....Two days afterwards, taking up the Times newspaper, I saw recorded the death of Julia Z., wife of Mr. Z. I was so astounded that a day or so after the funeral I went up to ---- and asked Mr. X. if Mrs. Z, his daughter, was dead. He said: ' Yes, poor thing, she died of puerperal fever. On the day she died she began singing in the morning, and sang and sang until she died. ' " 

Another source of early accounts of deathbed visions is the 1926 book Death-bed Visions by Sir William Barrett.  On page 11 of the book we have an account of a Mrs. B. who became gravely ill after chidbirth. When near death she complained that the room was getting darker and darker. She then suddenly stated that she saw "lovely brightness -- wonderful beings,"  and her father. Her newborn child was brought in to her, but she seemed to have more interest in the visions than in seeing her newborn child. She then died an hour later.  On page 13 we are told this about something said by this Mrs. B:

"Mrs. B. said, ‘ Oh, why there’s Vida,’ referring to a sister of whose death three weeks previously she had not been told. Afterwards the mother, who was present at the time, told me, as I have said, that Vida was the name of a dead sister of Mrs. B.’s, of whose illness and death she was quite ignorant, as they had carefully kept this news from Mrs. B. owing to her serious illness."

On pages 22-23 of the book, we read the following about an M. Paul Durocq who died of yellow fever in 1894:

"Just before his death, and while surrounded by all his family, he had a prolonged delirium, during which he called out the names of certain friends left in France, and whom he seemed to see. 'Well, well, you too—, and you- , you as well!'  Although struck by this incident, nobody attached any extraordinary importance to these words at the time they were uttered, but they acquired later on exceptional importance when the family found, on their return to Paris, the funeral invitation cards of the persons named by my uncle before his death, and who had died before him." 

On pages 24-25 of the book we read this account by an H. Wedgewood: 

"A young girl, a near connexion of mine, was dying of consumption. She had lain for some days in a prostrate 
condition taking no notice of anything, when she opened her eyes, and looking upwards, said slowly, 'Susan—and Jane—and Ellen' as if recognizing the presence of her three sisters, who had previously died of the same disease. Then after a short pause she continued, ‘and Edward too !'— naming a brother then supposed to be alive and well in India—as if surprised at seeing him in the company. She said no more, and sank shortly afterwards. In the course of the post, letters came from India announcing the death of Edward, from an accident a week or two previous to the death of his sister." 

On page 26 of the same book we read this account by Dr. E. H. Plumptre: 

"The mother of one of the foremost thinkers and theologians of our time was lying on her death-bed in the April of 1854. She had been for some days in a state of almost complete unconsciousness. A short time before her death, the words came from her lips, ‘There they are, all of them—William and Elizabeth, and Emma and Anne';  then, after a pause,‘ and Priscilla too.' William was a son who had died in infancy, and whose name had never for years passed the mother’s lips. Priscilla had died two days before, but her death, though known to the family, had not been reported to her.”

On page 29 we have this account by a Mrs. Snell:

"I recall the death of a woman (Mrs. Brown, aged 36) who was the victim of that most dreadful disease, malignant cancer. Her sufferings were excruciating, and she prayed earnestly that death might speedily come to her and end her agony. Suddenly her sufferings appeared to cease ; the expression of her face, which a moment before had been distorted by pain, changed to one of radiant joy. Gazing upwards, with a glad light in her eyes, she raised her hands and exclaimed, ‘ Oh, mother dear, you have come to take me home. I am so glad ! ' And in another moment her physical life had ceased."

An A. R. Besacon tells this account on page 31, which is a paranormal "twofer" involving both a deathbed vision of a deceased Marie and also apparently an apparition sighting of the very person who had this deathbed vision:

"My mother was attended by my grandmother during her illness. One night the latter was surprised at hearing my mother, who was sleeping in the next room, pronounce certain sentences, among others this :—“ Marie, I can see you at last, I am glad you have come. Help me.' (Marie was my sister who died a few years before this.) Grandmother thought it was a dream ; she rose and approached my mother’s bed, and to her great surprise she found her in a perfectly normal state. My mother even told her the satisfaction she had had in seeing her daughter. Later on in 
the night the 'conversation' was resumed, but we paid no further attention. But on the next morning, Mother was no more. Moreover, during the same night, one of my aunts who lived in the neighbouring village of V----, had the clear impression of seeing mother. 'She passed,' she said to me the following day, 'beside my bed without speaking, then went to embrace my two daughters and disappeared.' "

On page 32 we read this account of the death of a four-year-old boy after the death of his siblings Fred and Annie several weeks earlier:

"On the night when he died the father came to his bedside with the customary medicine, when the little boy, sitting upright in bed, cried out : ' There’s Fred and Annie.’ ‘ Where, my boy ?’ asked the father. ‘ Don’t you see them there—there ? ’ said the lad, pointing to the wall, ‘ they’re waiting for me to go to them,’ and the next minute the little sufferer fell back on the pillow dead." 

Typically, as in the previous case, a deathbed vision is seen only by the dying person. But on page 34 we have an account of a daughter who saw in her last days a vision of her father. She asked her mother whether she saw the same thing, and the mother also saw a mysterious white formOn page 37 we have an account of a child who in her dying days kept seeing visions of an aunt of hers who had previously died. She kept saying, "My aunt has come to fetch me; she is holding out her arms to me." 

On page 38 we have this story told by a mother who lost two sons within two months, with the second one seeing visions of the first son who had previously died: 

"In 1883 I was the mother of two strong, healthy boys. The eldest was a bright boy of two years and seven months. The other a darling baby boy of eight months. August 6th, 1883, my baby died. Ray, my little son, was then in perfect health. Every day after baby’s death (and I may safely say every hour in the day) he would say to me, ' Mamma, baby calls Ray.’ He would often leave his play and come running to me, saying, ' Mamma, baby calls Ray all the time.' Every night he would waken me out of my sleep and say, ‘ Mamma, baby calls Ray all the time. He wants Ray to come where he is ; you must not cry when Ray goes, Mamma ; you must not cry, for baby wants Ray.’ ...Ray soon became very sick. Nursing and medicine were of no avail. He died Oct. 13th, 1883, two months and seven days after baby’s death."

Contrary to the impression sometimes given in movies, the overwhelming majority of hallucinations of psychotic people are auditory, not visual. But the visions discussed here were all visual.  And they were generally from people with no history of psychosis or hallucinations. Several of the accounts I have given include details suggesting that something is going on far more than hallucinations, such as the several cases I have quoted where someone sees an apparition of a person he did not know was dead. 

There are many other fascinating accounts in the Barrett book that I discuss in Part 2 of this post, which will be as long as this one. I will also discuss how the phenomenon of deathbed visions has been well-confirmed by large-scale research done decades after these early twentieth century accounts, research suggesting such visions occur to very many dying people (as many as 45%, according to one source I will cite).