Hereafter UK: Spiritual beliefs and near-death experiences in Britain


PHOTO: Telstar2000 @ Flickr

A recent survey of spiritual beliefs in the UK has led me to the fascinating research of Dr. Penny Sartori into near-death experiences (NDEs).

To mark the British launch of Clint Eastwood’s new movie Hereafter, a survey was commissioned into current spiritual beliefs in the UK.


The Hereafter Report (as yet unpublished) gives the results of a survey of 3,000 adult Britons who were interviewed online.

According to British newspapers (Express, Daily Mail, Sun), the report gives the following statistics:

    • 32% of the British interviewees describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ while only 25% describe themselves as ‘religious’.
  • 66% say they believe in some form of afterlife, though only 35% in heaven.
  • 40% say they believe in guardian angels and 52% believe out-of-body experiences are possible
  • 22% say they believe in reincarnation, 65% believe in karma.
  • 58% say they believe that their late loved-ones are with them in spirit (and 40% would like to speak with them).
  • 53% say they believe that psychics can communicate with the dead while 22% have actually visited a medium or psychic. 19% say that somebody in their own family possesses psychic powers.
  • 22% say they have either seen a ghost or felt the presence of a spirit, and 13% say they have been visited by the spirit of a recently deceased person.

I was intrigued to learn that this survey was carried out in consultation with a near-death experience (NDE) researcher, Dr Penny Sartori. She is quoted as saying:

“With an increase in reported incidents of this nature [NDEs] it isn’t surprising that we as a nation are becoming increasingly more open-minded in accepting that consciousness may exist independently of the body and is not created by the brain.”

Near death in intensive care

Dr. Sartori is a nurse based in Wales who has a special interest in near-death experiences. She undertook a five-year clinical research study into the phenomenon at Morrison Hospital in Swansea, for which she was awarded a doctorate.

Here is her story in her own words:

I have worked as a nurse in Intensive Care since 1993 hence became interested in death. I became very upset and depressed following the death of a patient who I made a connection with as I cared for him on the night before he died.

There were no nursing courses available at the time to help me care for dying patients in a critical care area.

Instead, I read all that I could find on the subject of death. Following much discussion with my colleagues about what happens when we die I was given a book called Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie.

It immediately grabbed my attention because it went against what my scientific training had taught me; how could such an experience be possible?

Was it real or just some kind of hallucination? Was it some kind of wishful thinking or maybe just a side effect of drugs given? I read all that I could about the phenomenon known as the near-death experience (NDE), then in 1997 I began my own research project at the Intensive Therapy Unit in Morriston Hospital, Swansea [in Wales] where I continue to work as a nurse.

Under the supervision of NDE experts Dr Peter Fenwick, one of the UK’s leading neuroscientists, and Professor Paul Badham, Director of the Religious Experience Research Centre, Penny undertook the UK’s first long-term clinical study of NDEs. The  first-hand reports she gathered were not anecdotal accounts recalled years after the event but experiences that could be pinpointed to a time of unconsciousness while in hospital.

Let’s look at one example.

The out-of-body experience

Many NDE-ers have described watching from above their physical bodies and surrounding events while they themselves lay unconscious and either clinically dead or close to death.

One such experience was reported by Dr. Sartori and her supervisors in the Journal of Near Death Studies (Winter 2006 issue). This out-of-body experience (OBE) occurred while the patient, a 60-year-old man, was unconscious in the intensive therapy unit (ITU).

The patient was recovering from emergency surgery for bowel cancer, following which he was very sick and developed sepsis and multi-organ failure. After five days in the ITU, although he was still dependent on the ventilator to assist his breathing, he appeared significantly better, so the staff encouraged him to get out of bed and sit in his chair.

Within minutes of doing so, however, his condition rapidly declined and he lost consciousness. There was a brief episode of tachycardia, at which point the staff immediately lifted him back into bed. But by now he was deeply unconscious and unresponsive.

The patient was looked at by a junior doctor and then a consultant anaesthetist, both of whom prescribed fluid.

The consultant also checked the man’s pupil response by shining a light into each eye. He remarked that they were both reacting, but that the right pupil was bigger than the left.

Meanwhile, a physiotherapist who had encouraged the patient to get out of bed was nervously waiting outside the screens, worrying that the episode was her fault, occasionally poking her head in to have a look.

Presently, the patient’s condition began to stabilise. A nurse dealt with some drool that was falling from his mouth, first using a suction catheter then a pink oral sponge.

The patient regained full consciousness about three hours after the event. Once fully conscious, he excitedly tried to communicate something to the numerous medical staff who had gathered around, but he was unable to speak being still connected to the ventilator. So the physiotherapist provided him with a letter board, on which he spelled out for all to see: ‘‘I died and I watched it all from above.’’

Veridical features

Once he was no longer dependent on the ventilator, and with his permission, Dr. Sartori was able to interview the patient in depth. His recall contained many elements that were corroborated by the medical team. Here is an excerpt:

They wanted me to get out of bed, with all my tubes in me and sit in the chair. They insisted, especially one sister. I didn’t want to because I felt so weak; then eventually I got out. All I can remember is looking up in the air and I was floating in a bright pink room. I couldn’t see anything; I was just going up and there was no pain at all.

I looked up the second time and I could see my father and my mother-in-law standing alongside a gentleman with long, black hair, which needed to be combed. I saw my father – definitely – and I saw this chap. I don’t know who he was, maybe Jesus, but this chap had long, black, scruffy hair that needed combing. The only thing nice about him was his eyes were drawing you to him; the eyes were piercing; it was his eyes.

When I went to look at my father, it was drawing with his eyes as well, as if I could see them both [at] the same time. And I had no pain at all. There was talking between me and my father; not words but communicating other ways – don’t ask me what, but we were actually talking. I was talking to my father … not through words through my mouth, but through my mind.

It seemed to be four to five seconds! It was unusual; I went up. … It was so painless; there was no pain. … I was so happy. … I was enjoying myself.

But looking back, I could see other patients as well below me.  That’s what I couldn’t figure out: I could see everybody. [He later describes his viewpoint as being about two or three storeys high.]

I was happy, no pain at all, until I felt somebody going to my eye. I looked back and I could see my bed, my body in the bed. I could see everything that was happening on the floor. I saw doctors when I was up there; I was looking down and could see the doctors and even the sister, what she was actually doing in the ward. It was marvelous; I could see nurses around me and the doctors. I was still going up in the air and I could feel somebody going like this to my eye. [He raised his finger up to his eye.] I eventually looked back and I could see one of the doctors pulling my eye, what for I didn’t know. One doctor was saying: ‘‘There’s life in the eye.’’

oral swabs

I could see everybody panicking around me. The blonde lady therapist boss, she was panicking; she looked nervous because she was the one who got me out in the chair. She hid behind the curtains, but kept poking her head around to check on me. I could also see Penny, who was a nurse. She was drawing something out of my mouth, which looked to me like a long, pink lollipop, like a long, pink thing on a stick – I didn’t even know what that was.

I was still going up, and eventually the gentleman said to my father and my mother-in-law, ‘‘He’s got to go back; he’s not ready yet.’’ I was peaceful, no pain, still looking up, and I felt this … could hear this chap telling my father, ‘‘Sorry, he isn’t ready yet; he’s got to go back.’’

Eventually, I felt myself coming slowly back into my body. I went in my body on the bed and I was in terrible pain; the pain was worse then than it had ever been before.

Dr. Sartori notes several veridical elements of this patient’s account:

  1. The doctor shining a light in his eyes.
  2. The nurse cleaning his mouth with a pink swab.
  3. The physiotherapist poking her head through the screens.

One of the puzzling features of his experience was the fact that he met his mother-in-law — in life, they had never actually met (she had died shortly before he met his wife). During the experience, in fact, he did not know who she was. Only later had he been able to identify her from photos.

There was also a mysterious healing following this NDE. The patient had suffered all his life from cerebral palsy. From birth, his right hand was in a contracted position but, following his experience, he was able to open up his hand. “There was no medical explanation for that at all,” says Dr. Sartori.

As for a non-medical explanation for the whole NDE phenomenon, Dr Sartori says:

“I don’t think it’s quite as simple as life after death. It’s what consciousness is and how we define it. We are entering an exciting time researching consciousness. Current science says it is a by-product of the brain. But it may be that consciousness is around us and the brain might be a mediator, an antenna, instead of controlling consciousness.”

Dr. Sartori is the author of The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients: A Five Year Clinical Study — an academic tome and a snip at only $133!

For more of my posts about near-death experiences, here’s an index:

6 thoughts on “Hereafter UK: Spiritual beliefs and near-death experiences in Britain

  1. It sounds impossible but I’ve looked at these cases in detail over thirty years and science is going to have shift it’s backside. ‘Something’ is leaving the body. Call it whatever you want to.

  2. I lost my 42 yr old husband in feb’13. My brother just a couple of mths before

    Ive felt my husband even our daughters toys have gone of without any stimulation.

    Ive decided to imagine someone is coming to kill me to evoke fight or flight emotion whilst simultaniously making myself faint and repeating it over and over in order to communicate in real time not just “knowing”.

    What do you think? I plan to start xmas eve.

    Yours Michelle Chance

    • Hi Michelle.
      Sorry to hear about your losses over the last year or so. I understand you wanting to experience direct contact and communication rather than just a sense of knowing, though I have never heard of either fight/flight reactions or fainting as means of communication. I can’t see how filling yourself with terror would put you in a conducive state. I would imagine that a self-induced trance, through meditation or self-hypnosis, or possibly controlled hyperventilation, with a single-minded intent, would be more likely to break through. A quiet, blank mind, I suspect, would be more receptive than one trying to imagine life-threatening scenarios.
      Hope this helps.

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