Heaven or ... ?

Molly Cox-Chapman. Glimpses of Heaven: The Near-Death Experience. Robert Hale, 1996.
Another collection of NDE narratives aiming to show "what heaven is like", and like so many of these studies one in which critical analysis is not only absent, but frankly discouraged. What struck me in reading not only this book, but many of its predecessors, is that like many other visionary narratives NDE stories are becoming progressively more complex and desecularised, Glimpses of other worlds are growing, as is more overt religious imagery,

What researchers in this field seem not always to grasp is that we are dealing not so much with near-death experiences, but with near-death memories. I suspect we should view these narratives as works of art, assembled from fragments of experience, memory, things seen or read, and crafted into a culturally formatted story, a form of modern folklore.

The folkloric nature of at least some NDE stories is borne out by at least one account presented in this book. We are told (p.8) that one Madeline Lawrence, Director of Nursing Research in Hartford Hospital (presumably Hartford, Connecticut) whilst undertaking a survey of coma patients encountered one who described floating over her body and viewing the medical efforts being made to revive her. She then felt herself being pulled up through several floors of the hospital building until she found herself outside above the roof, She was enjoying the view of the city's skyline at night when out of the corner of her eye she saw a red shoe. On waking she told the story to medical staff who instructed the janitor to investigate. Lo and behold he found the shoe on the roof.

The only problem with this tale is that it is clearly a somewhat mutilated version of a tale told by Kimberley Clark, a social worker at Harborough Medical Center, Seattle, (see Susan Blackmore, Dying To Live, pp,121-8) In the Clark version of the story the percipient was 'Maria', a migrant worker, After a heart attack 'Maria' sees her resurrection procedure and floats out of the room to a third floor ledge, there she encounters a tennis shoe, Afterwards she tells her story to Ms Clark who sets out to recover the shoe herself. Peering through the window she notices that, as 'Maria' said the little toe had worn through part of the shoe and the lace was stuck behind the heel.

Sue Blackmore tried to track down the Seattle story, but concluded: "This is one of those cases for which I have been unable to get any further information". One must suspect that now, whatever its origins, it is a free-floating folk story which will be, in various versions, attached to yet more hospitals.

Though NDE narrators claims to experience social pressures not to reveal their experiences, it seems to me that now the pressure may be going the other way. There seems to be a strong belief that people who have undergone a cardiac arrest ought to produce some sort of revelatory experience, and if they do not there must be something wrong with them, or that their memories are somehow inadequate.

In describing the often moving stories that make up this book as 'works of art' I am not trying to denigrate them. Confronting issues of deep profundity is one of the principle functions of art. I hope rather this description steers between the naive literalism of believers and the often emphatic dismissals of sceptics. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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