Why Near-Death Experiences Can No Longer Be Denied...

(A book review of The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences by Dr Penny Sartori. Published in 2014 by Watkins Publishing of Oxford, England. A 236 page paperback. ISBN: 978-1-78028-565-8)

The woman who apparently 'revived' from death said that she had been granted permission from God to return to earth for a short while but told she had to return to heaven on the 12th of the month. One might have been sceptical but when the 12th day of the month came she simply put her grave clothes back on and died!

T he author of this fascinating and absorbing book is a vastly experienced RGN nurse, much of that experience being within the ITU (intensive care unit) of two Welsh hospitals. Dr Penny Sartori PhD has, in the recent past, conducted a five-year clinical study of those who, when near the point of death, underwent NDEs; these are 'near-death experiences' in which the individual concerned apparently experienced incredible things, including seeing dead relatives, entering a beautiful and peaceful place (often described as 'heaven'), even meeting angels, or Jesus.

Attention was initially drawn to this phenomenon when, in 1975, Dr Raymond Moody published 'Life After Life,' which highlighted these somewhat hard to explain experiences. Other books have followed from Dr Moody and from many others and it has now reached the stage where to deny that such unexplainable transcendental experiences can and do occur is almost like denying that blue is a colour. By the way, I'm sorry about using "transcendental" but it really is the only word which seems to fit). Modern materialistic science is, however, displeased with the whole scenario. Why? Because materialism insists that no active consciousness is even possible where one - for a short period of time - is virtually 'brain dead' (and there are now many such examples on record). For many years therefore - finding it virtually impossible to deny the reality of all such claims - modern science has insisted that there existed physical and materialistically-explainable reasons for such phenomena. Dr Penny actually lists some of these 'scientific' explanations and, from her solid knowledge and vast experience in this area, she pretty much dismisses the lot! The problem, of course, is in the limits which materialistic science insists on imposing upon itself. As the author writes,

"Prospective studies, coupled with the multitude of previous NDE studies, indicate that the premise that consciousness is a by-product of the brain is an outdated concept. Unfortunately, the belief that consciousness is created by the brain is so thoroughly ingrained within the current belief system that anything that suggests otherwise is immediately discounted or dismissed because it poses such a threat." (p 179).

So modern science rejects any concept of a spiritual world, or of any dimension of the spirit, soul or psyche which could exist beyond - and independent of - the physical human brain. It insists that the physical brain is all there is (and therein lie all thoughts, dreams, imaginings and religious experiences). However, an increasing number of writers with vast knowledge and experience are now insisting that the modern materialistic outlook is simply wrong and cannot be maintained for much longer. Perhaps especially helpful in this regard was the huge and painstakingly researched and assembled 800-page 2010 book, Irreducible Mind, which we reviewed here. So Sartori is yet one more of an increasing number with vast experience in the various scientific and caring disciplines who insist that a slavish devotion to reductionism and materialism is pulling science down, preventing further progress. Our author here clearly states her opposition to the current 'scientific' view though she does not labour the point.

Of course, while much of this NDE information was never seriously collated until the 1970s, there is, perhaps, nothing really new here. About 50 years ago I recall a nurse who had spent many years caring for the dying telling my mother that the dying are 'visited' by their already deceased relatives. She also told my mother of the joy this brought to those about to expire, as well as the appearance of "strange lights" occasionally seen near the death-bed.

Dr Penny Sartori

Dr Penny Sartori

The Construction of the Book

Okay, so how is this little book constructed?

It is in ten sections (not named as 'chapters,' except in the notes at the end, which is somewhat confusing), including a conclusion and an epilogue. This book is not the result of Sartori's earlier five-year NDE research (which is called 'The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients: A Five-Year Clinical Study' and which may be purchased elsewhere). Rather, in this particular small volume the researcher looks at the subject in a lighter, more approachable and anecdotal manner. However, she frequently calls upon examples from her major study.

What is the Author's General Approach?

Dr Penny Sartori simply writes as a vastly experienced ITU nurse. She clearly accepts a world of "spirituality" without ever defining precisely how she sees that world; presumably she accepts the belief in an after-life though - again - is never precisely drawn on that point. She (surely correctly) bitterly rejects the materialism of modern science, also lamenting the lack of understanding among too many medics of the comfort and reassurance needed by the dying and wants this to change with more openess to spirituality. She rejects the 'preservation of life at all costs' scenario and believes that there are times when one should simply be allowed to die with dignity (without being connected to various intrusive and distressing machines) once a point of no return is reached. Interestingly, the author rejects any idea that NDEs are simply hallucinations and, from her vast experience, is able to describe marked differences between the two. The doctor is an 'easy-read' writer who immediately connects with the reader and, to be frank, it is very hard to put this little book down once one gets started.

Amazing Chinese Occurrence

Obviously some of the stories contained within this book are fascinating, these include many from Sartori's own research among those whom she tends to call NDEers, but the writer is also prepared to mention other examples from outside her own personal investigation and experience. These include quite an old 'near-death occurrence' coming from China. This is the case of the wife of a Confucian scholar in China who converted to Christianity around a hundred years ago. The lady later became very ill and eventually died. After her body had been prepared for burial, however, she revived. She removed her funeral clothes and put her everyday attire back on, completely unaided. She then told of a beautiful vision during her "death" in which she had walked through heaven with Jesus and had seen wonderful and beautiful sights and thousands of angels, even seeing the Father's throne. But she was granted permission from God to return to earth for a short while but had to return to heaven on the 12th of the month. When the 12th day of the month came she put her grave clothes back on and died! One of several puzzling things in this case was the fact that this lady described heavenly things which perfectly fitted in with several Scriptures within the Bible. Apparently, although this lady had indeed converted to Christianity it was considered surprising that she had developed such strong Bible knowledge after less than ten Bible studies.

Christian Rejection of NDEs

Dr Raymond Moody

Dr Raymond Moody who first popularized the concept of 'near-death experiences' with his 1975 book, 'Life After Life.'

It is an undeniable fact that many Christians, especially fundamentalists, tend to reject the whole concept of NDEs. This is despite the fact that many such experiences tend to corroborate biblical teachings. Dr Penny herself makes an indirect reference to this when she describes a woman who underwent persecution simply for communicating her amazing experience:

"First she tried to talk with her husband who didn't understand it...then the pastor of her local church [who] told her it was the work of the devil. She then went to her doctor who'd never heard of NDEs and referred her to a psychiatrist...it was suggested that she had unresolved emotional conflict that had caused delusions..." (p 151).

This poor woman had (apparently) undergone an amazing experience and now just wanted to talk about it but nobody actually wanted to listen, just to persecute and censure.

Does This Book Succeed?

The book succeeds because the author is so well-placed - after so many years working in intensive care nursing - to discuss this matter. She writes with compassion and concern for the elderly and the dying. She has become convinced that NDE experiences are generally very helpful and reassuring for the dying, but does not hide the fact that some NDEs are frightening, even including hellish visions! Apparently the closer one gets to death the greater the likelihood is of experiencing an NDE, and cardiac arrest patients are especially liable (I personally knew a man who went into cardiac arrest who had a vivid NDE). Despite this it still seems that it is the minority rather than the majority who experience them but this experienced nurse is surely right to wonder if many still do not communicate their experiences because they do not want to be ridiculed or thought to be flirting with mental illness or delusion. Indeed, there is now much evidence that some who came close to death but recovered did not discuss their NDE for many years.

The author is admirably clear, fair and open, yet she is undoubtedly vague on her understanding of 'spirituality' and exactly what that means to her, but that is probably acceptable because her expertise is in other areas. This is far better than to stray into areas of religion and philosophy which one is not comfortable with, and how often does one witness that? Too often!

Many will enjoy this book and be stimulated by the questions it raises about the processes of 'near death' and of dying and about the genuinely amazing experiences which occur to some perilously sick people, yet, apparently, not to all of them. Others may find it somewhat disturbing in parts. I am a Christian writer and I don't recommend it as a good 'Christian book,' it is not quite that, but I do recommend it as adding to the increasing evidence that brain and consciousness are separate, this corroborating biblical teaching and underlining the errors of modern materialist and reductionist scientism. It is also encouraging from a Christian viewpoint that so many have near-death experiences which - on the whole - certainly do seem to corroborate biblical teaching.

An absorbing read.

Robin A. Brace. February 21st, 2014.