Reincarnation

Stephen Braude. Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life After Death. Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
 
Emma Heathcote-James. After-Death Communication. Metro, 2003.
 
Justine Picardie. If the Spirit Moves You. Picador, 2002.
 
Ian Stevenson. European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. McFarland, 2003.
 
These books argue that case for life after death from very different viewpoints, Braude uses the material in the official canon of psychical research, whereas Heathcote-James is concerned with the collection of folk memorates, Stevenson continues with his compilation of 'cases of the reincarnation type', while Picardie writes as a bereaved relative searching for some sign of her beloved sister's continued presence.

Three of the writers are clearly writing within the believers' tradition. For Braude the argument is between survival and a near omniscient super-psi. His arguments on the latter will remind some Magonia readers of the arguments once advanced by the late Scott Rogo, or by Jerry Clark and Loren Coleman in one of their former incarnations. Braude examines material from mediumship, alleged reincarnation memories, hauntings, out of body experiences, and a new category of Fortean and paranormal claims, those of transplant recipients who claim to have inherited aspects of the memories and personalities of the former owners of their transplanted organs. Braude is clearly aware of the many complications in these cases, but in this reviewer’s perception at least, there seem to be several times when Braude allows his survivalist beliefs to override the actual balance of his arguments

Of course the sceptic will come up with other explanations and a useful intellectual exercise will be to assume that neither survival nor super-psi exist and look at the pattern of the evidence to see what sort of explanations they suggest, and never assume that there are any human beings who don’t lie, or that there is anyone on the face of the planet who can’t be fooled. The perceptive reader will note those cases where the life experiences, reading habits and biases of white middle aged male college professors prevent a proper appreciation of the probable sources of evidence.

The real problem with Braude’s collection is his total rejection of the evidence of modern neuroscience on the role of specific brain damage on causing specific cognitive losses and personality changes the role of chemical changes in the brain in leading to major personalty changes etc. The dependence of memory on the brain is instead dismissed on the basis of some 80-year-old experiments with rats. I’m afraid I am very biased here, for having seen the effects of progressive Alzheimer's on my grandmother I find the notion of the survival of memory and personality after death quite impossible to believe.

Stevenson’s earlier case studies looking at cultures where reincarnation is part of the official culture have often be hailed as providing highly persuasive evidence, but the same could not be said for this present collection, which even Stevenson has to concede is disappointing. Essentially the cases divide into two broad categories. One is of adults claiming that a child in their family has anomalous memories, etc. of some deceased family member. Looking at these cases one notes that often there is no actual evidence, just one persons assertion, sometimes partially backed up by the child in later life; but significant others in the family have the tendency not to be available for interview, not interested, cannot remember etc. Is there any reason to believe that these cases are anything other than either childish utterances misperceived through grief and wishful thinking, or some form of (relatively) benign Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy? I cannot find any here. The second cluster consists of alleged memories of past lives in the sort of historical eras beloved of historical novelists (the Crusades, the battles of Sedgemore and Culloden, and the Second World War feature). Furthermore these past lives tend to be dramatic - where are all the reincarnations of the generations of illiterate farm workers who lead dull but worthy lives all over the world?

What is significant in this book is the extent to which Stevenson tries to retrieve a crumb of the paranormal from even the most unpromising cases. What we are seeing is not an open-minded enquiry but a determination to believe, which it takes quite a mountain of evidence to overcome.

The collection of memorates in Emma Heathcote-James’s book shows both stability and change in folk tradition. On the one hand the tales of dreams, strange sounds, smells and sights, broken clocks and other omens could have been collected at any period over at least the last 300 years. On the other hand there are clear changes. Once the dead were believed to return to make demands on the living, to avenge their deaths, do justice, bury their bones in consecrated grounds, say masses for the repose of their souls, settle debts, and repent their sinful ways. In these stories the dead come back to offer unconditional love and acceptance, and make no demands on the living. Likewise to the Victorian Spiritualists the afterlife had something of the celestial Mechanics Institute about it, today there is more of a whiff of a theme park, or one of those mock rural holiday villages

The reader will also note that though the book has been compiled by an author “raised in the Anglo-Catholic tradition” with a doctorate in theology, that specifically Christian references are almost entirely missing from these accounts and the author herself says she believes that God is “more of a force”, so we are dealing with a specifically post-Christian folklore. As one reads through this book one can see that EHJ herself is typical of those attracted to psychical research, having lost her childhood religious faith at university but profoundly alienated from the world view of modern science.

The stories gathered here will be of interest to historians and sociologists for what they say about modern family life and gender relations and changes in the notion of the sort of demands family members can make on one another. They will be fascinated by the survival of pre-industrial folk beliefs into post-industrial society. They may be well be frustrated by the extraction of specific episodes from narratives of whole life histories, which deprive them of much of the context.

What these stories are not are evidence in some quasi scientific fashion of human survival. The only thing they are evidence of, and it is no small thing, is that people will always tell stories to make sense of their lives, and that these stories can tell us something about the times we live in, social attitudes and the like.

Justice Picardie’s book is perhaps one of the most searing exposes of 'the psychic realm' ever written, precisely because she writes not as a 'skeptic' out to do a hatchet job but as a bereaved person looking for consolation and wanting to believe. The contrast between her raging grief and the anodyne responses of mediums and psychics is total. At best many of these characters seem to be self regarding narcissists who have found a new way of saying “look how special I am”, at worst some are the lowest common denominator of loathsome scum. There are a couple of these characters for whom the most appropriate response would be to vomit over them, chiefly on the grounds that hitting them over the head with a crow bar would be rather frowned upon by the legal authorities.  |PR|

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