Surviving Death: An Overview of Evidence to Support an Afterlife
In her latest book, Surviving Death, journalist Leslie Kean offers a compelling overview of paranormal science. Through a surfeit of incredible evidence that ranges from three-year-old children who recount past life experiences that are later verified as accurate, to her own experiences with a trance medium who was able to conjure a physical hand while bound to a chair, Kean is able to skip right past the discussion of whether psi abilities are “real,” to a much meatier thesis: Do our souls survive death, with our personalities intact, or is consciousness merely a fabrication of the brain? It is a fascinating read, which includes Kean’s personal journey as a curious skeptic, discovering evidence highly suggestive of survival past death (i.e., feeling a hand brought forward from the afterlife), as she connects with her own brother who passed.
As a journalist, Kean—who also wrote UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, which we interviewed her about here—is not afraid to explore phenomena currently outside of mainstream science, bringing forward evidence, rigor, and insight. Below, she explains more about what she learned exploring the other side.
A Q&A with Leslie Kean
The accounts of the kids in the book who appear to have had past-life experiences are remarkable—what are the theories on why these memories are preserved or where they come from?
The psychiatrists and other investigators who have studied these remarkable, well-documented cases cannot explain why some children remember a past life and others don’t, or how the mechanism behind these memories works. Any theories are pure speculation. Perhaps there is some kind of unfinished trauma that needs to be resolved from the past life and is therefore carried over, but then many more children should have such memories—of course, the vast majority do not. If indeed these are actual past life recollections, it seems likely to me that they are not meant to be conscious, and maybe something in the brain or the psyche of those with memories is defective, allowing the memory to break through, like a damn with a leak. A child may be more in touch with some kind of greater consciousness for their first few years, which gradually diminishes as they mature, allowing them more access than adults. This is not something we can explain or understand, but these cases are evidence of the possibility that consciousness continues on after we die, and may even be born again.
At this point in time when we don’t necessarily have the technology to provide “actionable” proof, what is your standard of proof from a scientific perspective? And, why should non-experiencers/skeptics be receptive to this standard?
I am not trying to prove anything—and I suspect life after death will never be proved. I am not a scientist; I’m a journalist. I’m looking rationally at the most compelling and reliable data, and presenting it in an accessible form so that readers can make up their own minds. For me, this is an ongoing journey, an exploration, a journalistic and personal foray into unchartered waters. Proof of any kind of afterlife is not the goal—“proof” is a strong word leaving no room for doubt or ambiguity. However, the unusual phenomena described in the book actually do exist—their reality has been proved time and time again in published papers and through observation under controlled conditions. This is as far as our proof goes. We cannot explain what the causative forces are or what they mean—this is still up for debate, and needs further investigation.
Can you explain the difference between materialists and survivalists, and why that distinction is so important?
The concept of survival after death, as presented in the book, does not refer to an impersonal merging into pure awareness or becoming one with universal consciousness as envisioned by many who meditate or are influenced by Eastern religions. If this were all that happened, our individuality would disappear. My investigation concerns personal survival—a postmortem existence in which distinct traits, memories, and emotions are sustained at least by some of us after the death of the body, for an unknown period of time. It refers to a psychological continuity after death, which makes it possible for the disembodied personality to be recognizable by those left behind when communication is received.
The survival hypothesis is proposing this kind of personal survival as an unproven but rational theory explaining much compelling data. In other words, without meaning anything religious, this represents survival of the individual essence, spirit, or soul. Survivalists believe that the hypothesis of personal survival provides the best explanation for the kind of evidence provided in my book. (And there is much more that I couldn’t fit into one volume!)
“This approach dominates Western thinking at this time, but our reductionist scientific culture is almost alone in its unshakable belief in the finality of death.”
The dogma of materialism states that matter is all that exists and that all phenomena, including consciousness, are reducible to physical processes. It states that consciousness is generated entirely by the brain, and therefore can’t possibly survive the death of the body. This approach dominates Western thinking at this time, but our reductionist scientific culture is almost alone in its unshakable belief in the finality of death. The materialist view has led us to abandon the concept of the transcendent, and to ignore phenomena that do not conform to this worldview.
You tested several mediums by signing up for readings blind, and also worked with mediums who are certified by the The Windbridge Institute and Forever Family Foundation. Were these experiences convincing for you? Did it feel psychic, or did it feel like you were, in fact, communicating with your friend and brother?
Two readings which I describe in detail in the book were absolutely amazing—life changing for me. The mediums brought forward much accurate, private information that they could not possibly have known. The personalities of the two people close to me, who seemed to have been speaking through the medium, also were strikingly evident. It did indeed feel like it was my friend and brother present, but the argument that all of it was generated from the highly developed telepathy and clairvoyance of the medium is a legitimate one, and ultimately there is no way to know.
“I cannot describe adequately how uncanny and exhilarating it is to sit with a total stranger who knows absolutely nothing about you but who delivers a stream of obscure information, personality traits, and meaningful messages that appear to be coming from someone once living.”
For example, I received a reading from an Irish medium over Skype who didn’t know my name, location, or anything whatsoever about me. I gave her my first name and a fake last name, a new email address never used before, and provided absolutely no information she could use to identify me. We never spoke before the reading. Yet she delivered stunningly accurate, personal information that seemed to come directly from my friend and brother. (I list the statements in my book.) These communicators demonstrated character traits that fit their very different personalities. How does one explain this? The approach of denying the very existence of psychic ability cannot be applied here.
I cannot describe adequately how uncanny and exhilarating it is to sit with a total stranger who knows absolutely nothing about you but who delivers a stream of obscure information, personality traits, and meaningful messages that appear to be coming from someone once living. I now understand how helpful this process could be for grieving people. The familiar individuality of these two opposite personalities whom I knew so well was easy for me to recognize. A list of accurate points can’t do justice to the way it feels in the moment; it seems to border on something miraculous. The readings suggest the possibility of survival past death with an in-your-face, joyful immediacy. However, upon reflection, other valid interpretations must be considered, but in these two cases, fraud or cold reading were not options.
The section on séances and physical mediums was fascinating, particularly your own first-hand accounts. Can you explain what you saw and felt?
While sitting with British physical medium Stewart Alexander, I witnessed or heard the levitation and movement around the room of material objects; a human voice speaking out of a megaphone-shaped “trumpet” suspended in the air; matter being moved through matter; and the presentation of accurate information provided to sitters from their loved ones on the other side. These are some examples of a range of physical manifestations. Most amazing of all was the materialization of a “living” hand from a substance generated by the medium called “ectoplasm.” I witnessed its formation, heard it bang on the table in front of me, and held it in mine, on multiple occasions. It felt warm with soft skin and had all the features of a large, “normal” hand. Many others have had the same experience. (No, it could not have been hoaxed, as I address in Surviving Death.) I know this is very hard to comprehend or accept out of context, so I encourage those who want to know more to read my book and also Stewart Alexander’s memoir An Extraordinary Journey.
“While sitting with British physical medium Stewart Alexander, I witnessed or heard the levitation and movement around the room of material objects; a human voice speaking out of a megaphone-shaped “trumpet” suspended in the air; matter being moved through matter; and the presentation of accurate information provided to sitters from their loved ones on the other side.”
The love and harmony in that séance room, which was small and included only a few other sitters whom I have come to know well, were like nothing I have known before; and this seemed to help create the magnificent meeting of two worlds. This group has been sitting together for decades and these phenomena took Stewart and his supportive group a long time to develop. By the end of the sitting, I felt as if the room were filled with a palpable energy, almost like a substance filling the space. It is truly like entering another world—and one so wonderful it is beyond imagination.
Physical medium Stewart Alexander
Copyright Leslie Kean
Can you explain what the Kluski hand molds are, and why they are so incredible?
Polish medium Franek Kluski (1873–1943) was also a Warsaw banker, author, playwright, and poet—intelligent and well-educated. In the interest of science, he willingly subjected himself to study by French physiologist Charles Richet (1850–1935), a Nobel Prize winner who spent decades as the editor of leading journals and published many research papers, and physician Gustav Geley (1860–1924), another outstanding investigator from the French Institut Métapsychique International who is well known for his studies of physical mediumship. They brought Kluski to a windowless laboratory at the Institut in Paris, where they conducted eleven successful séances. The strictest controls were in place—the simple room was inaccessible, except during experimentation, with no possibility of confederacy; a red light was on in the room; and the medium’s hands were held by an investigator on either side at all times. Kluski remained completely still and was in a trance throughout the sittings, as if sound asleep. Under these conditions, fraud was physically impossible. In this context, as well as during many other séances with Kluski, materialized forms with “human” faces were observed.
“The strictest controls were in place—the simple room was inaccessible, except during experimentation, with no possibility of confederacy; a red light was on in the room; and the medium’s hands were held by an investigator on either side at all times.”
Through ingenious experiments that may provide the most convincing evidence ever for the reality of materialized forms, Geley and Richet created a permanent record of their existence. The researchers placed a circular tank containing a layer of hot liquid paraffin wax floating above electrically heated water in the center of the séance circle. They then asked the forms to dip their materialized hands into the hot wax, making thin wax gloves around them. The sitters could hear the sound of something splashing in the wax, and wax would splatter on the floor and onto people nearby. Sometimes a wax-covered hand would touch them after dipping into the hot pot. The forms would then dissolve their hands from the dried wax, dropping the empty gloves in the sitters’ laps or onto the table. They were fragile—thinner than a sheet of paper.
A plaster cast of a single hand which materialized in Kluski’s séance room.
Copyright Yves Bosson/Agence Martienne/Institut Métapsychique International (IMI), Paris
It was not possible for Kluski or anyone else in the room to have produced these seamless gloves. A human hand could not slide out of the narrow wrists because the necessary movement would damage the very thin layer of wax. Gloves were produced with interlocking fingers, with two hands clasping one another, and with the five fingers spread wide apart. Dematerialization was the only method that would leave the molds intact. The investigators also made sure that no wax gloves could have been smuggled into the room ahead of time. Unknown to anyone else, Geley and Richet added a bluish coloring agent to the paraffin just prior to the séance, or they secretly added cholesterin. These additions assured the identity of the specific wax as being from the séance room only.
“It was not possible for Kluski or anyone else in the room to have produced these seamless gloves. A human hand could not slide out of the narrow wrists because the necessary movement would damage the very thin layer of wax.”
After the gloves dried, the investigators poured plaster into them, and once this hardened, they submerged them in boiling water and stripped away the thin wax layer. The Paris experiments yielded nine molds—seven of hands, one of a foot, and one of a mouth and chin. The hands and foot were the size of a five- to seven-year-old child and had no resemblance to those of the medium. “We were able to obtain objective and formal proofs, absolutely incontrovertible, of the reality of the materializations,” Geley states, and “to secure absolute certainty of the supernormal origin of the moulds.”
A plaster cast of two hands which materialized in Kluski’s séance room.
Courtesy of the Institut Métapsychique International (IMI), Paris/Agence Martienne
It seems like your journey was that of a curious skeptic who was ultimately convinced—is that fair? What is your theory of consciousness?
I was an open-minded skeptic, with a lot of curiosity! By the end I was certainly convinced that consciousness is a mystery and that there is so much in Nature we still can’t explain. The disconnect between these unexplained phenomena and physical reality reinforces the hypothesis proposed by some scientists that consciousness stands apart from the physical body and therefore apart from the physical world. There is much data from a range of fields suggesting that mind is not a derivative of matter, and some investigators propose that consciousness may in fact be more fundamental than matter. Another possibility is that there are still undiscovered aspects of matter that are not yet incorporated into our current understanding of the physical world and the laws that govern it. How is the mind able to affect the force of gravity? If it’s not the mind, then something else is causing the levitations that I and so many others have witnessed.
“There is much data from a range of fields suggesting that mind is not a derivative of matter, and some investigators propose that consciousness may in fact be more fundamental than matter.”
I’m not a scientist, but I would think that if consciousness is non-local, as so many expert researchers have postulated, this would be a viable way to explain these occurrences. Non-physical realms, or other dimensions, would naturally exist outside the confines of the physical world, and perhaps consciousness operates by its own laws and provides a bridge between the material and the non-material. In any case, it is these sorts of questions that compel me to continue investigating research relating to the nature of consciousness.
Of everything that you experienced, what was the most impactful?
The research was very convincing and powerful, and that alone is enough to convince any rational person of the reality of the phenomena. But nothing has the impact of personal experiences. The possible direct communications from my younger brother who died suddenly in 2013, which did not involve a medium, were among the most impactful for me. I was shocked by them at first, as they were unexpected. They included the movement of objects in broad daylight, manipulation of electrical appliances, a voice transmission, and the appearance of an apparition. The information provided by the mediums was also very meaningful. Later, I witnessed profound events facilitated by the genuine physical medium discussed earlier. It sounds too strange to believe, but these things happened. They were either caused by me and others with abilities we do not know we have, or by some external force that could be linked to a non-material realm and maybe even to specific deceased people.
The after-death communications that I perceived to be from my brother are more alive in me than anything I have read. These feel so clearly external to me, that I am compelled to allow them that reality.
My two mental mediumship readings, described previously, gave me the gift of the perception that the two people who came through had continuity. I felt a sense that my brother had not fully disappeared and was present in a different way. The readings filled the painful void of his premature death, upending that finality. Whether this is an objective truth or not, I will never know. But I can certainly vouch for the power of a highly evidential reading (which is a rarity) in helping to heal the pain of losing a loved one.
“Since I witnessed the materialization of a human hand, touched it, and felt its life and warmth, a door was opened in me. I encountered something utterly incomprehensible yet physically real.”
And the séances with Stewart Alexander have changed my life. Since I witnessed the materialization of a human hand, touched it, and felt its life and warmth, a door was opened in me. I encountered something utterly incomprehensible yet physically real. I have come to know Stewart’s spirit guides quite well, who facilitate the phenomena by speaking through him when he is in trance and completely unconscious. I am moved by their purity of intention and distinct personalities. I can’t deny that this seemed like entry into an extraordinary space where two worlds come together, challenging my previously held concept of reality. However, I also can’t explain these things and they will always generate questions in me that will likely never be answered.
Can you imagine a point in time when there will be enough evidence to prove the existence of consciousness after death, or will this be something that we collectively struggle with forever?
I doubt that we will ever be able to prove survival of consciousness in the strictest sense. But some investigators and experiencers believe it has already been proved—it depends on what your criteria for proof are, and whether you mean this in a rigorous scientific sense or a more personal one. In my book, I offer a multilayered, interconnected journey—from past-life memories to actual-death experiences, from mental mediumship to after-death communications to physical mediumship. I think this material provides evidence highly supportive of the survival hypothesis…but that’s as far as we can go. Maybe something else will develop through advanced technology that will reveal more—you never know.
Although as an investigative journalist I yearn for rational, factual answers that are universally true, unfortunately they cannot always be definitive when dealing with issues like this, even if the evidence is highly suggestive. Clearly, for many of us who do end up accepting survival, this determination may ultimately come not only from evidence we can study, but also from our own personal experiences, which offer proof only to the experiencer and not anyone else.
Leslie Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife and UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. An independent investigative journalist, she has been published widely in dozens of newspapers and magazines here and abroad, such as the Boston Globe, The Nation, the Globe and Mail, and the International Herald Tribune.