Death as a Dream Experience
DEATH is an event which sooner or later must come to all mankind. While the physical phenomenon has been abundantly observed, for reasons which are obvious the subjective experiences of those who die can only be surmised. The whole organism, physical and mental, naturally shrinks from this experience. The nearest approach to it appears to be in the loss of consciousness which occurs in sleep, syncope, or similar states.
In sleep the subconscious mind is at times highly active, and its experiences, surviving in conscious memory, are called dreams. Yet the natural repugnance to death is so great that even in dreams there is an inhibition which, in the vast majority of individuals, seems to halt the imagination short of the great event. In dreams one may fall over a high precipice; but just before striking the rocks below, one awakes. One may be pursued by armed savages; yet just before the fatal blow is given, one awakes. In fact, there is a widely prevalent idea that if one should dream of actually experiencing death, such an experience would prove a reality and the shock would be so great that one would never awake. This idea is erroneous, at least in the case reported in this paper.
Dreams are popularly supposed to be based upon the experiences or imaginations of the subject during conscious life. The groundwork of the writer’s dream is so based, but he knows of nothing in his conscious imaginings which would have stimulated a dream of actual death. In fact, sharing the universal abhorrence of the experience, he avoids as far as possible all thought of death as related to himself, and has never before consciously imagined what the actual experience would be like.
The dream was evidently based upon the experience of being overtaken by night in the midst of a tiger-infested jungle. A huge tiger was at that time terrorizing the inhabitants of that district. It had killed three small elephants, and great numbers of cattle and caribou. A large reward was being offered for its destruction. The writer was forced by circumstances to pitch his small camp within about 200 yards of where this tiger had killed a horse a day or so previously. The tiger was known to be in the vicinity of this kill, and this knowledge, coupled with the unusual nervousness of his pony, made restful sleep an impossibility. The long hours of the night passed away without incident, however, and the experience soon faded from active memory. About four years later, during a conversation about tigers, the incident was recalled and related. Shortly thereafter, the writer had the following dream, which will be given in narrative form.
I dreamed that my wife and I were traveling with a small group of carriers through a similar tiger-infested jungle. The carriers happened to stop for rest at a spot where the jungle was particularly beautiful. We alighted and looked with delight upon the wonderful scene about us — the stately trees, the long and graceful vines, the giant ferns, the luxuriant growth which Nature so lavishly displays in those regions. When the carriers were ready to start, we sent our horses with them and followed on foot.
The path was a circuitous one, with numerous clumps of tall bushes on either side. We walked leisurely along, noting the various growths of particular beauty, until I happened to hear a noise like the cracking of a dead limb. On looking around, I noticed a large tiger crouching behind a clump of bushes in the jungle about fifty yards behind us. Fearing that, if we started to run, the tiger would rush us, my wife and I hurriedly walked after the carriers, whom we expected to find just ahead of us. Each turn in the path, however, brought fresh disappointment, as the carriers were farther ahead than we had realized. We kept a careful watch upon the tiger, which stealthily stalked us and gradually drew nearer. Soon we saw along the path ahead a small rest-house, where we thought the carriers would surely have stopped, so we made a run for it. As soon as the tiger noticed our flight, he made instant and rapid pursuit.
As we reached the rest-house I noticed that the carriers had gone on, and there was nothing to do but take refuge in the house. It was of the tumble-down type common in those regions, and consisted of two small rooms opening upon a small verandah, and provided with a communicating doorway. The partition wall was of woven bamboo and extended only about six feet from the floor, leaving an open space between that height and the thatched roof. The communicating door and one of the exterior doors were partially off of their hinges, while one exterior door was entirely missing. We entered the house through this open doorway, dashed through the communicating doorway into the second room, and tried to close the communicating door. On entering the house, I instantly realized that we were lost, as the dilapidated door would prove insufficient; and anyway the tiger would go over the partition in one leap.
My wife could perhaps be saved if I could hold the tiger’s attention so that he would not observe her flight. As he bounded into the first room, I pushed my wife out of the exit door of the second room, shouted to her to run to the carriers, pushed the door shut, seized a heavy club which happened to be lying on the floor, and, as the tiger an instant later dashed through the communicating doorway, I tried to drive my club down his throat. I saw his wide-open mouth, heard his terrifying roar, was conscious that he struck me a terrific blow with his left paw — and then was overwhelmed with a sensation of great DARKNESS, and knew nothing more.
How long I remained unconscious, I do not know; but it must have been a number of hours at least, because the tiger had in that interval of time devoured the greater part of my body. I next became aware of being still existent in a most peculiar state. I seemed to be situated in the air about the level of the tops of the lower trees. I had no bodily form whatsoever, but was simply a state of awareness existing in the atmosphere. Occasionally my position in the air changed instantaneously without reference to any volition of my own. My movements seemed to me to be like those of the flitting lights which one occasionally sees over swamps. I was immediately interested in this peculiar experience, and wondered what had happened. Then I became aware of a portion of a skull, a piece of a human thigh-bone, and scattered remnants of parts of a human body lying on the ground below me.
The attack of the tiger came back to memory and these thoughts rose in my consciousness: ‘Why, that must be ME lying down there!! The tiger has eaten ME! That means that I have passed through death. That is very interesting; I must try to remember all about this. Death is nothing like what I had imagined it would be. It is not hard at all to die. I wish everyone could know this. I wonder what becomes of me now. I wonder where Heaven is, where the Lord is, and how I shall go about it to find Him.’
I was so interested in this new situation in which I found myself that I had not yet realized what my tragic demise would mean to others. At this point my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a group of frightened carriers cautiously approaching along the path, anxiously searching. Among them I saw my wife, forcibly held back by the carriers from too rapid approach, as they evidently feared that the tiger might be lurking near. I saw upon her face the anguish of hopeless despair.
They came to the place where the ghastly remains gave indubitable evidence of the tragic event. My wife did not swoon, but sank to the ground overcome with grief and horror. I was filled with unutterable anguish as I looked upon her. I tried to call to her, but could not, as, being disembodied, I had no means of speaking. I tried to go to her, but could not move. As I witnessed her grief and realized her desperate plight (a week’s journey through those dangerous regions separated her from the nearest European settlement), and knew my own utter helplessness to come to her assistance, I groaned and groaned in spirit. Of course she could not hear me. She raised her grief-marked countenance and, looking in my direction, stretched out her arms toward me in appeal, and cried out in tones of anguish that pierced my very soul, ‘O—! O—!’
Suddenly I found that I was able to move. I turned. As I did so, I realized that I was in bed, that I must have had a nightmare, and that my wife was calling me from her room. Although only partially awake, a flood of thankfulness came over me with the realization that this had been but a dream. I replied sleepily, but gratefully, ‘Thank you,—, thank you,’ and sank again into dreamless sleep.
The next morning my wife twitted me over my extreme politeness in my sleep, since I thanked her so profusely. She had been awakened by my groans and, thinking that I must be having a particularly bad dream, had called to awaken me.
Perhaps she called me back to life — who knows?