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Mary Penington’s “Shared Death” Experience

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Raymond Moody is a philosopher, psychiatrist, and physician, but he is best known for creating the term “near-death experience” (NDE) and for first bringing NDEs into widespread public awareness with his bestseller book Life after Life in 1975. Moody has continued to write and lecture on the subject of NDEs and other “paranormal” subjects ever since. In 2010, with Paul Perry he wrote and published Glimpses of Eternity, which considers a seemingly related set of phenomena that he names “shared death experiences.” In these reports, loved ones or caregivers attending to a dying person describe anomalous perceptions and sensations. Some of the phenomena are distinctive: the feeling that the geometry of the room or space has “shifted” or witnessing strange mists or ethereal forms. Sometimes they correspond to classical features of NDE accounts, such as floating through a tunnel, sharing in the dying person’s life review, witnessing a brilliant light that doesn’t hurt the eyes, or even traveling into a “heavenly” realm.

The earliest recorded incidents of shared death experiences that Moody notes in Glimpses of Eternity were documented by founding members of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research in the late 19th century. But I found it quite fascinating the other day to stumble across a brief account from two centuries earlier. This one comes to us from Mary Penington, wife of the early Quaker leader Isaac Penington. Several months after Isaac had died, Mary wrote a “testimony” concerning her husband’s virtue and her love for him. It ends with this description of what she experienced upon his passing:

Ah me! He is gone! He that none exceeded in kindness, in tenderness, in love inexpressible to the relation as a wife. Next to the love of God in Christ Jesus to my soul, was his love precious and delightful to me. My bosom-one! that was as my guide and counsellor! my pleasant companion! my tender sympathizing friend! as near to the sense of my pain, sorrow, grief and trouble as it was possible. Yet this great help and benefit is gone; and I, a poor worm, a very little one to him, compassed about with many infirmities, through mercy let him go without an unadvised word of discontent, or inordinate grief. Nay, further; such was the great kindness the Lord showed to me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him in that very moment that his spirit left his body; and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him, and was at that instant gladder of it, than ever I was of enjoying him in the body. And from this sight my spirit returned again to perform my duty to his outward tabernacle, to the answer of a good conscience.

Mary Penington’s account exemplifies the motif of the visit to an otherworldly realm, and possibly an out-of-body experience as well, although her recounting is too short and vague to tell if an OBE is intended by the reference to her spirit “ascending.” Nevertheless, this is a significant confirmation concerning shared death experiences. Not, perhaps, to their metaphysical import, which is a much more difficult debate, but to their phenomenological reality. Mary Penington lived well before the emergence of spiritualism and psychical research; well before terms like “seance” and “paranormal” and “NDE” entered the lexicon. Whatever we make of them, the principle of uniformity suggests people have gone through experiences such as these well before even Mary Penington lived, and surely across the globe.

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