Littell's Living Age/Volume 134/Issue 1730/The Peak in Darien: the Riddle of Death

From The New Quarterly Review.




It is somewhat singular that the natural longing to penetrate the great secret of mortality should not have suggested to some of the inquirers into so-called "Spiritual" manifestations, that, before attempting to obtain communication with the dead, through such poor methods as raps and alphabets, they might more properly, and with better hope of gaining a glimpse through the "gates ajar," watch closely the dying, and study the psychological phenomena which accompany the act of dissolution. Thus, it might be possible to ascertain by comparison of numerous instances, whether among those phenomena are any which seem to indicate that the Mind, Soul, or Self, of the expiring person is not undergoing a process of extinction, but exhibiting such tokens as might be anticipated were it entering upon a new phase of existence, and coming into possession of fresh faculties. It is at least conceivable that some such indications might be observed, were we to look for them with care and caution, under the rare conditions wherein they could at any time be afforded; and if this should prove to be the fact, it is needless to, dilate on the intense interest of even such semblance of confirmation of our hopes. Of course, to regard anything which could be so noticed as anything more, or as if it could constitute an argument for belief in a future life, would be foolish in the extreme, seeing the great obscurity and the evanescent nature of all such phenomena. Our faith in immortality must be built on altogether different ground, if it is to be of any value as a part of our religion, or of our philosophy. But, assuming that we are individually already convinced that the quasi-universal creed of the human race is not erroneous, and that "the soul of a man never dies," we may not unreasonably turn to the solemn scene of dissolution, and ask, Whether there does not sometimes occur, under one or two perhaps of its hundred forms, some incidents which point in the direction of the great Fact, which we believe to be actually in process of realization? According to our common conviction, there is a moment of time, when the Man whom we have known in his garb of flesh, casts it aside, actually, so to speak, before our eyes, and "this mortal puts on immortality." As in Blanco White's beautiful sonnet he is, like Adam, watching his first sunset, and trembling to lose sight of the world, and the question to be solved is, Whether darkness has enshrouded him, or whether

Hesperus with the hosts of Heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in his view?
and he may have asked himself, —
Who would have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun? or deemed,
While flower, and leaf, and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind?

and Life, like Light, had been only a deception and a veil.

We have walked in company with our brother, perchance for years, through the "wilderness of this world," over its arid plains of toil, and through its sweet valleys of love and pleasure; and then we have begun to climb the awful Andes which have always loomed before us at our journey's end, their summits against the sky, and beyond them — the Undiscovered Land. Onward, a little before us, as chance may decide, our companion perhaps mounts the last acclivity, and we see him slowly approach the mountain's crown, while our lagging steps yet linger on the slopes below. Sometimes, ere he reach the hilltop, he is enveloped in cloud, and then we see him no more; but again, sometimes, he remains in the full sunlight, and, though distant from us, and beyond the reach of our voice, it is yet possible for us to watch his attitude and motions. Now we see him nearing the summit. A few steps more, and there must break on his vision whatever there may be of the unknown World beyond — a howling wilderness, or a great Pacific of joy. Does he seem, as that view bursts on him — whatsoever it maybe — does he seem to be inspired with hope, or cast down with despair? Do his arms drop in consternation, or does he lift them aloft with one glad gesture of rapture, ere he descend the further slope, and is lost to our sight forever?

It appears to me that we may, though with much diffidence, answer this question as regards some of our comrades in life's journey, who have gone before us, and of whom the last glimpse has been one full of strange, mysterious, but most joyful promise. Let us inquire into the matter calmly, making due allowance both for natural exaggeration of mourning friends, who recall the most affecting scenes, and also for the probable presence of cerebral disturbance and spectral illusion at the moment of physical dissolution.

Of course, it is quite possible that the natural law of death may be that the departed always sink into a state of unconsciousness, and rather dip beneath a Lethe than leap a Rubicon. It is likewise possible that the faculties of a disembodied soul, whatever they may be, may need time and use, like those of an infant, before they can be practically employed. But there is also at least a possibility that consciousness is not always lost, but is continuous through the passage from one life to another, and that it expands, rather than closes, at the moment when the bonds of the flesh are broken, and the man enters into possession of his higher powers and vaster faculties symbolled by the beautiful old emblem of Psyche's emancipated butterfly quitting the shell of the chrysalis.[1] In this latter case there is a certain prima facie presumption that close observation ought to permit us occasionally to obtain some brief glimpse, some glance, through but of lightning swiftness and evanescence, revealing partially this transcendent change.

In a majority of deaths the accompanying physical conditions hide from the spectators whatever psychological phenomena may be taking place. The sun of our poor human life mostly sets behind an impenetrable cloud. Of all forms of death the commonest seems to be the awful "agony," with its unconscious groans and stertorous breath. The dying person seems to sink lower and lower, as if beneath the waters of an unfathomable sea; a word, a motion, a glance, rising up at longer and longer intervals, till the last slow and distant sighs terminate the woeful strife, and the victory of Death is complete. When this is the mode of dissolution it is of course hopeless to look for any indication of the fate of the soul at its exodus; and the same holds good as regards death in extreme old age, or after exhausting disease, when the sufferer very literally "falls asleep." Again, there are deaths which are accompanied by great pain, or delirium, or which are caused by sudden accidents, altogether hiding from our observation the mental condition of the patient. Only in a small residue of cases the bodily conditions are such as to cause neither interference with, nor yet concealment of, the process of calm and peaceful dissolution, in the full light of mental sanity; and it is to these only we can look with any hope of fruitful observation. We ask, Whether in such cases instances have ever been known of occurrences having any significance, taken in connection with the solemn event wherewith they are associated? Does our forerunner on the hilltop show by his looks and actions — since he is too far off to speak to us — that he beholds, from his "Peak in Darien," an Ocean yet hidden from our view?

I should hesitate altogether to affirm positively that such is the case; but, after many inquiries on the subject, I am still more disinclined to assert the contrary. The truth seems to be that in almost every family or circle, questions will elicit recollections of death-bed scenes, wherein, with singular recurrence, appears one very significant incident, namely, that the dying person, precisely at the moment of death, and when the power of speech was lost, or nearly lost, seemed to see something — or rather, to speak more exactly, to become conscious of something present (for actual sight is out of question) — of a very striking kind, which remained invisible to and unperceived by the assistants. Again and again this incident is repeated. It is described almost in the same words by persons who have never heard of similar occurrences, and who suppose their own experience to be unique, and have raised no theory upon it, but merely consider it to be "strange," "curious," "affecting," and nothing more. It is invariably explained — that the dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up — sometimes starts up in bed — and gazes on (what appears to be) vacancy, with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying man were to see some utterly-unexpected but instantly recognized vision, causing him a great surprise, or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight. If a breath or two still heave the chest, it is obvious that the soul has already departed.

A few narrations of such observations, chosen from a great number which have been communicated to the writer, will serve to show more exactly the point which it is desired should be established by a larger concurrence of testimony. The following are given in the words of a friend on whose accuracy every reliance may be placed: —

"I have heard numberless instances of dying persons showing unmistakably by their gestures, and sometimes by their words, that they saw in the moment of dissolution what could not be seen by those around them. On three occasions facts of this nature came distinctly within my own knowledge, and I will therefore limit myself to a detail of that which I can give on my own authority, although the circumstances were not so striking as many others known to me, which I believe to be equally true.

"I was watching one night beside a poor man dying of consumption; his case was hopeless, but there was no appearance of the end being very near; he was in full possession of his senses, able to talk with a strong voice and not in the least drowsy. He had slept through the day and was so wakeful that I had been conversing with him on ordinary subjects to while away the long hours. Suddenly, while we were thus talking quietly together, he became silent, and fixed his eyes on one particular spot in the room, which was entirely vacant, even of furniture; at the same time a look of the greatest delight changed the whole expression of his face, and after a moment of what seemed to be intense scrutiny of some object invisible to me, he said to me in a joyous tone, 'There is Jim.' Jim was a little son whom he had lost the year before, and whom I had known well, but the dying man had a son still living, named John, for whom we had sent, and I concluded it was of John he was speaking, and that he thought he heard him arriving; so I answered, —

"'No. John has not been able to come.'

"The man turned to me impatiently and said, 'I do not mean John, I know he is not here, it is Jim, my little lame Jim; surely you remember him?'

"'Yes,' I said, 'I remember dear little Jim who died last year, quite well.'

"'Don't you see him then? There he is,' said the man, pointing to the vacant space on which his eyes were fixed; and when I did not answer, he repeated almost fretfully, 'Don't you see him standing there?'

"I answered that I could not see him, though I felt perfectly convinced that something was visible to the sick man, which I could not perceive. When I gave him this answer he seemed quite amazed, and turned round to look at me with a glance almost of indignation. As his eyes met mine, I saw that a film seemed to pass over them, the light of intelligence died away, he gave a gentle sigh and expired. He did not live five minutes from the time he first said, 'There is Jim,' although there had been no sign of approaching death previous to that moment.

"The second case was that of a boy about fourteen years of age, dying also of decline. He was a refined, highly educated child, who throughout his long illness had looked forward with much hope and longing to the unknown life to which he believed he was hastening. On a bright summer morning it became evident that he had reached his last hour. He lost the power of speech, chiefly from weakness, but he was perfectly sensible, and made his wishes known to us by his intelligent looks. He was sitting propped up in bed, and had been looking rather sadly at the bright sunshine playing on the trees outside his open window for some time. He had turned away from this scene, however, and was facing the end of the room, where there was nothing whatever but a closed door, when all in a moment the whole expression of his face changed to one of the most wondering rapture, which made his half-closed eyes open to their utmost extent, while his lips parted with a smile of perfect ecstasy; it was impossible to doubt that some glorious sight was visible to him, and from the movement of his eyes it was plain that it was not one but many objects on which he gazed, for his look passed slowly from end to end of what seemed to be the vacant wall before him, going back and forward with ever-increasing delight manifested in his whole aspect. His mother then asked him if what he saw was some wonderful sight beyond the confines of this world, to give her a token that it was so, by pressing her hand. He at once took her hand, and pressed it meaningly, giving thereby an intelligent affirmative to her question, though unable to speak. As he did so a change passed over his face, his eyes closed, and in a few minutes he was gone.

"The third case, which was that of my own brother, was very similar to this last. He was an elderly man, dying of a painful disease, but one which never for a moment obscured his faculties. Although it was known to be incurable, he had been told that he might live some months, when somewhat suddenly the summons came on a dark January morning. It had been seen in the course of the night that he was sinking, but for some time he had been perfectly silent and motionless, apparently in a state of stupor; his eyes closed and his breathing scarcely perceptible. As the tardy dawn of the winter morning revealed the rigid features of the countenance from which life and intelligence seemed to have quite departed, those who watched him felt uncertain whether he still lived; but suddenly, while they bent over him to ascertain the truth, he opened his eyes wide, and gazed eagerly upward with such an unmistakable expression of wonder and joy, that a thrill of awe passed through all who witnessed it. His whole face grew bright with a strange gladness, while the eloquent eyes seemed literally to shine as if reflecting some light on which they gazed; he remained in this attitude of delighted surprise for some minutes, then in a moment the eyelids fell, the head drooped forward, and with one long breath the spirit departed."

A different kind of case to those above narrated by my friend was that of a young girl known to me, who had passed through the miserable experiences of a sinful life at Aldershot, and then had tried to drown herself in the river Avon, near Clifton. She was in some way saved from suicide, and placed for a time in a penitentiary; but her health was found to be hopelessly ruined, and she was sent to die in the quaint old workhouse of St. Peter's at Bristol. For many months she lay in the infirmary literally perishing piecemeal of disease, but exhibiting patience and sweetness of disposition quite wonderful to witness. She was only eighteen, poor young creature! when all her little round of error and pain had been run; and her innocent, pretty face might have been that of a child. She never used any sort of cant (so common among women who have been in refuges), but had apparently somehow got hold of a very living and real religion, which gave her comfort and courage, and inspired her with the beautiful spirit with which she bore her frightful sufferings. On the wall opposite her bed there hung by chance a print of the Lost Sheep, and Mary S———, looking at it one day, said to me, "That is just what I was, and what happened to me; but I am being brought safe home now." For a long time before her death, her weakness was such that she was quite incapable of lifting herself up in bed, or of supporting herself when lifted, and she, of course, continued to lie with her head on the pillow while life gradually and painfully ebbed away, and she seemingly became nearly unconscious. In this state she had been left one Saturday night by the nurse in attendance. Early at dawn next morning — an Easter morning, as it chanced — the poor old women who occupied the other beds in the ward were startled from their sleep by seeing Mary S——— suddenly spring up to a sitting posture in her bed, with her arms outstretched and her face raised, as if in a perfect rapture of joy and welcome. The next instant the body of the poor girl fell back a corpse. Her death had taken place in that moment of mysterious ecstasy.

A totally different case again was that of a man of high intellectual distinction, well-known in the world of letters. When dying peacefully, as became the close of a profoundly religious life, and having already lost the power of speech, he was observed suddenly to look up as if at some spectacle invisible to those around, with an expression of solemn surprise and awe, very characteristic, it is said, of his habitual frame of mind. At that instant, and before the look had time to falter or change, the shadow of death passed over his face, and the end had come.

In yet another case I am told that at the last moment so bright a light seemed suddenly to shine from the face of a dying man, that the clergyman and another friend who were attending him actually turned simultaneously to the window to seek for the cause.

Another incident of a very striking character occurred in a well-known family, one of whose members narrated it to me. A dying lady, exhibiting the aspect of joyful surprise to which we have so often referred, spoke of seeing, one after another, three of her brothers who had long been dead, and then apparently recognized last of all a fourth brother, who was believed by the bystanders to be still living in India. The coupling of his name with that of his dead brothers excited such awe and horror in the mind of one of the persons present, that she rushed half-senseless from the room. In due course of time letters were received announcing the death of the brother in India, which had occurred some time before his dying sister seemed to recognize him.

Again, in another case a gentleman who had lost his only son some years previously, and who had never recovered the afflicting event, exclaimed suddenly when dying, with the air of a man making a most rapturous discovery, "I see him! I see him!"

Not to multiply such anecdotes too far — anecdotes which certainly possess a uniformity pointing to some similar cause, whether that cause be physiological or psychical — I will now conclude with one authenticated by a near relative of the persons concerned. A late well-known bishop was commonly called by his sisters "Charlie," and his eldest sister bore the pet name of "Liz." They had both been dead for some years when their younger sister, Mrs. W———, also died, but before her death appeared to behold them both. While lying still and apparently unconscious she suddenly opened her eyes and looked earnestly across the room, as if she saw some one entering. Presently, as if overjoyed, she exclaimed, "O Charlie!" and then, after a moment's pause, with a new start of delight, as if he had been joined by some one else, she went on, "And Liz!" and then added, "How beautiful you are!" After seeming to gaze at the two beloved forms for a few minutes, she fell back on her pillow and died.

Instances like these, might, I believe, be almost indefinitely multiplied were attention directed to them, and the experience of survivors more generally communicated and recorded. Reviewing them, the question seems to press upon us, Why should we not thus catch a glimpse of the spiritual world through that half-open portal wherein our dying brother is passing? If the soul of man exists at all after the extinction of the life of the body, what is more probable than that it should begin, at the very instant when the veil of the flesh is dropping off, to exercise those spiritual powers of perception, which we must suppose it to possess (else were its whole after life a blank), and to become conscious of other things than those of which our dim senses can take cognizance? If it be not destined to an eternity of solitude (an absurd hypothesis), its future companions may well be recognized at once, even as it goes forth to meet them. It seems indeed almost a thing to be expected, that some of them should be ready waiting to welcome it on the threshold. Is there not, then, a little margin for hope — if not for any confident belief — that our fondest anticipations will be verified, nay, that the actual experience of not a few has verified them? May it not be that when that hour comes for each of us which we have been wont to dread as one of parting and sorrow —

The last long farewell on the shore
Of this rude world,

ere we "put off into the unknown dark," we may find that we only leave, for a little time, the friends of earth, to go straight to the embrace of those who have long been waiting for us to make perfect for them the nobler life beyond the grave? May it not be that our very first dawning sense of that enfranchised existence will be the rapture of reunion with the beloved ones, whom we have mourned as lost, but who have been standing near, waiting longingly for our recognition, as a mother may watch beside the bed of a fever-stricken child till reason reillumines its eyes and with outstretched arms it cries, "Mother"?

There are some, alas! to whom it must be very dreadful to think of thus meeting on the threshold of eternity, the wronged, the deceived, the forsaken. But for most of us, God be thanked, no dream of celestial glory has half the ecstasy of the thought that in dying we may meet, — and meet at once, before we have had a moment to feel the awful loneliness of death, — the parent, wife, husband, child, friend of our life, soul of our soul, whom we consigned long ago with breaking hearts to the grave. Their "beautiful" forms (as that dying lady beheld her brother and sister) entering our chamber, standing beside our bed of death, and come to rejoin us forever — what words can tell the happiness of such a vision? It may be awaiting us all. There is even, perhaps, a certain probability that it is actually the natural destiny of the human soul, and that the affections, which alone of earthly things can survive dissolution will, like magnets, draw the beloved and loving spirits of the dead around the dying. I can see no reason why we should not indulge so ineffably blessed a hope. But, even if it be a dream, the faith remains, built on no such evanescent and shadowy foundation, that there is One Friend, — and he the best — in whose arms we shall surely fall asleep, and to whose love we may trust for the re-union sooner or later, of the severed links of sacred human affection.

  1. There is an insect, the Lunar Sphinx Moth, which exhibits, in its first stage, not only the usual prevision for its security while in the helpless chrysalis state, but a singular foresight of its own requirements when it shall have become a winged moth. Having made, by eating its way upward through the pith of a willow, an appropriate hiding-place, it finds itself with its head in a position in which, were it to become a moth, it could never push itself down, and escape at the aperture below. The little creature accordingly, before it goes to sleep, laboriously turns round, and places its head near the entrance, where, as a moth, it will make its happy exit into the fields of air. There seems something curiously akin in the unaccountable foresight of this insect, of a state of existence it has never experienced, and the vague and dim sentiment of immortality, common to mankind since the days of the cave-dwellers of the Stone Age.