Visions of Death: The “Deathbed Phenomenon” Explained

July 22, 2015


Stories of visions of the dying are prolific across cultures around the world for a very long time. You might have even heard about some of them: being visited by dead relatives, hearing music, being enveloped in a bright light, comforting visions of what waits for them on the other side once they’ve kicked the bucket.

What is this “deathbed phenomenon”? What conjures these visions? It’s unsure whether a senso-memory mattress or a hypoallergenic pillow will stop it from happening, but understanding it might help us understand why only the dying can see them.


What is the Deathbed Phenomenon?

The Deathbed Phenomenon is the paranormal experience people who are dying claimed to have experienced. These are said to carry a profound meaning to the one experiencing it, noting that these are personal or spiritual in nature.

The characteristics of a deathbed vision are said to have brought peace comfort to the patients. Because the visions usually involve relatives who seem happy where they are or a spiritual element like heavenly music or a bright white light, patients felt soothed and ready to embrace death.

Deathbed vision stories have been around for centuries; some were even documented in the Bible. The themes are all the same across cultures for so many years, which might mean that these visions can be connected to strong emotions. For instance, a religious person may have visions that have religious figures or symbols.

Common Visions Seen by the Dying

Studies on the deathbed phenomenon show that there themes that seem to re-occur regardless of culture.

  • Relatives or Friends that are already deceased
  • Spiritual figures or symbols like heavenly music and the bright white light
  • Unknown lurking shapes or visions of mists
  • Visions of a different realm, or a place that is not of this world

People who experience this not only see the vision, but can also fully respond to it, usually in a positive way. One other primary characteristic is that they appear to be personal or having a profound meaning to the dying person’s life. A vision of an old friend looking happy and extending their hand to you to accompany you to the next life can be interpreted as a comforting vision, one that was said to help the patient accept death and die peacefully. Some of these visions have helped patients understand and reconcile certain things that have happened in their lives, ridding themselves of worry, hesitation, and several “what if’s”.


scared woman


Research Made on the Deathbed Phenomenon

There are not a lot of studies that focus on the deathbed phenomenon, in fact, as much as it is an experience that is the same across cultures, it is not exactly heavily researched.

The first study made was in 1926 by Sir William Barett who collected anecdotes of people who said they saw visions of dead loved ones, and have heard music. But because Barrett has a strong bias towards religion and spirituality, he believes that this is an evidence of communication with a spirit.

Parapsychologists Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson said that these deathbed visions happen to patients with clear consciousness. They have also revealed that out of the tens of thousands of people they have studied in India and the United States, at least half of them experienced deathbed visions. Their conclusion is that these visions are evidence of an afterlife.

Terence Hines, a neurologist, criticized the methodology of Osis and Haraldsson saying that questionnaires sent to doctors and nurses are secondhand reports. Or those that have come from patients themselves months or years after their near death vision are not so much reliable as compared to getting experiences from the patients presently experiencing it. Hines said that those accounts that were collected by Osis are not enough to argue afterlife.

In a study made by Barbato in 1999, he said that patients and relatives usually tend to relay their visions to doctors or nurses. In 2006, a study in a Camden office showed that the deathbed phenomenon is happening frequently.

In 2008, a study done at the British LTC facility showed there are staff who had difficulty telling if it’s a deathbed vision or an hallucination. But the residents figured out that it’s a deathbed vision if the patient is calm and reassured and a hallucination if they’re anxious.


Nothing about the deathbed phenomenon is conclusive, and this is shown by how little we know about it. But one thing is for sure, it happens to people all over the world. It is the one constant that connects us as a species.