• Gregory Shushan

Encounters With Dead People Not Known to Have Died: "Peak in Darien" Near-Death Experiences

Some people report that during their near-death experience they encountered the disembodied soul of another person who has just died. After revival, the death of that person is confirmed, providing a form of evidence for the genuineness of the NDE.

In the language of psychical research, this is a form of anomalous information retrieval - the suggestion being that the knowledge the NDEr gained about the newly deceased person is only explicable in metaphysical terms: the NDEr really died and encountered the soul of that person as described. Such accounts often convince NDErs and those around them of the genuineness of the experience, validating not only the encounter with the previously deceased person but also the reality of the NDE itself.

In an example from 1669, an English teenage girl named Anne Atherton had an NDE during a serious illness. When her experience was doubted by her relatives, she recounted that ‘while she stood at heaven’s gate, she saw several people enter in, and named three or four she did know, which died during the time she lay in this trance’.

Peak in Darien experiences are also attested across cultures, including among the world’s indigenous populations. In a highly mythologized account from the Deg Hit’an people of Alaska recorded in 1912, a girl saw her recently deceased father in the spirit world without previously knowing that he had died. In a 1980s account from Papua New Guinea, a man named Andrew saw the spirit of a woman he knew who had not yet died. Her death soon after Andrew's return lends a precognitive dimension to the account. In the 5th century BCE, a Chinese ruler named Jianzi (Kien-tsze) had an NDE in which he met a man unknown to him. Later in life he encountered the man by chance, and the man not only explained their previous acquaintance in the spirit world, but also interpreted certain symbols in Kien-tsze’s NDE in a way that accurately prophesied coming political events.

The term "Peak in Darien" itself derives in a roundabout way from an 1816 poem by John Keats about reading George Chapman's 16th century translation of Homer. In the poem, he compares the exaltation of this reading experience to that of Spanish explorers in the the new world: after an arduous journey, the Spaniards are filled with exaltation upon finally viewing the Pacific ocean from a mountain top in Panama (formerly known as Darien).

Fast-forward 66 years to an 1882 essay by the Irish social activist Frances Power Cobbe, entitled "The Peak in Darien: The Riddle of Death." In the essay, Cobbe compared the feeling of Keats's Spaniards (and implicitly of Keats reading Chapman's Homer) with the feeling of a near-death experiencer when glimpsing the awesome, joyous, heavenly otherworld from its border. Though Cobbe provided nine accounts of NDEs, only one conformed to the modern notion of a Peak in Darien experience, and she did not single it out as such. None other than Fredric Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, seems to be the first to have misused the term in his famous 1903 book Human Personality and its Survival After Death.

It seems that given his reputation as a scholar of high merit and careful research, Myers's usage was never questioned until recently. In an article by Prof. Masayuki Ohkado, a comparative linguist and psychical researcher, he identified three types of this kind of experience:

(a) cases in which the deceased person seen was thought by the experiencer to be alive, (b) cases in which the person seen died immediately before the vision, and (c) cases in which the deceased person seen was unknown to the experiencer

Ohkado suggested a new terminology, replacing "Peak in Darien" with two related terms: "EKD" for an “Encounter with Known Decedent Not Known to Have Died” for types (a) and (b); and "EUD" for an “Encounter with Unknown Decedent” for type (c).

So far these alternatives do not seem to have caught on. But regardless of terminology, to my way of thinking this type of NDE provides some of the most fascinating anecdotal evidence to support a metaphysical interpretation of NDEs.

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