A conversation with Erlendur Haraldsson: Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Iceland, Reykjavik.
Sitting round a table at the back of a dining hall with several others, Professor Erlendur Haraldsson is explaining his research into reincarnation and the world of the dead and dying.
At the hour of death, people who are about to die have visions, usually about someone whom they have known earlier and have died.
Professor Haraldsson is a psychologist and his theories seem to segue into the field of parapsychology. The appearance of someone at the hour of death acting as a guide into the world of the dying is an experience that is reported in various circumstances when someone is at the point of death.
As evidence of the his phenomenon, he tells of a cross-cultural study and evidence from American doctors and nurses in hospitals as well as in India:
We gathered a lot of cases in the United States from American doctors and nurses. Then we also wanted to do it in others countries with a different religion and a different culture. So it was also conducted in India. There we visited many university hospitals talked to a great number of offices and nurses who have witnessed many patients having visions of people who have passed away.
We collected a great number of these cases, I think over four hundred in each country and then we [with Karlis Osis] wrote some papers on it and at the end we wrote a book on it At the Hour of Death. This has been translated into several languages including Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam.
Why have you examined mostly children?
Children haven’t seen much of the world; they haven’t met very many people. Whereas grownups have read and seen and talked and so on. So what they may have thought is memories of past lives…developed later in life. That might be mixed with different impressions they have heard about, read about, seen and so on. Whereas children, they have a much more limited scope of experiences. So with them you find that what they talk about is not mixed with impressions that grown up people have and that may come up after they are children. I made a study of children forgetting things as they grew older. Some of them forget completely; others may remember a bit vaguely. The general impression was that when they are grown up they may remember about 10% of what they talked about when they were children.
I have one paper about that. Not everyone has this ability when they are young. I think this is rather rare. I studied these cases in Sri Lanka. I started doing that because I was at the University of Virginia. There was a professor, Ian Stevenson, and he had become interested about children who talk about past lives. First he learned about some cases in India that were widely publicised. He found them very strange. They would remember something from a past life. So he started to study them.
When he was doing that he learned that there were more cases and he gradually learned about more and more. But of course, India has a large population. And then, I happened to come to the University of Virginia where I met Ian Stevenson and he asked me if I would like to study some cases because he was the only one who had done that. He asked me if I would like to study some cases. I would find the same characteristics he had found in his studies. He was willing to come up with the funds for it. We decided to do that. Then we talked about which country we should look at. In some countries you find more, and in some countries fewer cases.
We decided on Sri Lanka. I was a bit familiar with Sri Lanka. I had been there and liked the country.
In the newspapers in Sri Lanka there were some reports of cases. So that was one source and you could be sure of finding at least something. I started by investigating these cases that had been published recently in the newspapers.
While I was doing that, I learned of new cases. In the end, after a few years I got 64 cases. Then I stopped.
I have here the main characteristics of the cases. Equally between girls and boys. The mean age when the child began to talk about the previous life was about two and a half years. Around that time they can talk properly. They tend to be quite talkative about this and talk a lot about it. They talk mostly about the same things. It’s not that they remember everything from their past life, they remember some episodes and talk about them. We track down their account of the past life. It depends on statements. These statements were around 20 on average. I think for Sri Lanka it was 22.
The children speak frequently about how they died. Most of them have died violently. They have died in accidents, or they have been murdered. 71% spoke of violent death.
When people die violently, they are thrown out of life. Not on purpose. They do not die naturally. So maybe they are keen to return.
Quite a number of the children who had died violently had phobias. These phobias are related to how they had died. If they have drowned, they may have fear of water and so on.
They often reject their family. They say, “This is not my family. I had another family.” They speak about violent death. They have phobias related to that death. They have a specific psychological characteristic. They have post-traumatic stress disorders. They sometimes have birthmarks that are related to their memories
Some of them, they have some skills that are in line with their occupation in their previous life. There was one boy, and he said he had been searching for gems in Sri Lanka. They dig a pit, 2m by 2m and 3m deep and try to find gems. And then they put it on a bowl and sieve it to see…they do it in a particular way and he knew how to do that.
They said, “That’s exactly right.”
Some of the children are quite talkative about their past lives. They talk about their previous family, they reject their present family. Sometimes they have birthmarks that are related to their previous life and how they died. They had frequently died by accidents and there were scars that were related to that accident. In Sri Lanka, there were thirty-six accidents; nine had been killed in war; three had been murdered; one had committed suicide. In Lebanon, ten had died in war; three in accidents; seven were murdered; and one was suicide.
They had these phobias. They would fear certain places, certain situations, and animals. Then they had some psychological characteristics. I administered some tests to them. We used a questionnaire to interview the children about their behaviour. In Sri Lanka, these children are quite argumentative, they were a bit obsessed with some things – memories of their past lives. Also, they are bragging, boasting. They feel they have to be perfect. They are perfectionists. They dream frequently. They have outbursts of anger more than other children and they often refer to themselves in the third person. That’s because they know about that previous person.
Many of the children are born near the place they died. The cases I studied in Sri Lanka and Lebanon, the previous person was always in that same country, usually in the same vicinity. One person was born in Lebanon and went to study in America. There he had some financial difficulties…maybe he was just depressed and he committed suicide. There was a child who claimed to remember something of his life in Lebanon.
They have vivid memories of the events that lead to their death. They have phobias, they have fears and outbursts of anger and have more nightmares than other children. But the children in the present life have not been exposed to life-threatening situations so they shouldn’t have these phobias or fears and so on.
I was open-minded concerning reincarnation and thought it was possible. I had read Stevenson’s work and I was familiar with that. He published a number of papers in psychiatric journals and he wrote the books. So I was familiar with his work and I knew him myself.
There have been some fraud cases. There have been some cultural influence between the child and parents. There is also the possibility that these children are fantasy prone. Can it be that these children are very psychic? For example could these children be able to somehow get an expression from someone who has died and incorporate that in their memories or do they remember what happened to them in the past? Then there is the possibility of over-shadowing. Could there be the possibility of some deceased person that they remember? Mixing the memories of the child and the memories of that deceased person.
Stevenson wrote about xenoglossy. One case came through an Icelandic medium who I knew and worked with a long time ago. He had a man in one of his séances who lived in America. But he was a Dane and he had been brought up in Greenland and later became a professor of Eskimo languages at Boston University. During this séance there came a man through the medium and he spoke a language that nobody knew except that man from America. So they asked him what language he was speaking in. [laughs] He was speaking in Greenlandic. That was the best case I know of Xenoglossy.
There were some people present after the séance. Some of them I knew quite well. “Oh yes,” they said. “That man spoke a language they couldn’t understand. None of them understood it. A very interesting case. I gave a short review of it in a magazine.
I also found one case in Iceland. This man came from Reykjavik and he started to talk about life up in the country around the time when children started to talk about past lives. And he was always talking about life in the country. He was talking about a tractor accident. He didn’t say that he had died but someone had died in a tractor accident. A half-brother had died in a tractor accident up in the country.
With my research, I was surprised at how many people felt they had been in contact with someone who had died.
I decided to do a survey in Iceland about this and not just asked them about whether or not they have had this experience but what was the nature of the experience? So we made this large survey about this and then we interviewed these people and asked them about the nature of their experience. They could be seeing someone; they could be finding a smell… an emanation; or hearing something. So it could be of different kinds.
The following are quotes from individuals:
I had the experience of the overshadowing of some great being which gave me intense joy. I felt like their came something over me. It was such a delight. It lasted a few minutes and then it went away. It was like it was another being … like a divine being or something. There was something also…
At a young age I started to read the works of Buddhist … Milarepa and so on. I felt there was something familiar for me in this.
I interviewed children that Stevenson had studied quite a time ago and some of them remembered something. Some remembered a little bit. But my impression was that they remembered as grownups. Those who remembered at all, they remembered about 10% memories as children.
I became interested in this subject very early in my career as a psychologist and maybe there’s a kind of over-shadowing that I experienced. Maybe I had been opened up a bit for it…I’m not sure. This experience I had was written about in William James’ book…
The cases I investigated: 9 were Buddhist; 6 were Christian; 3 were Muslim; and 1 was Hindu.
There was one Muslim case that almost split the family. The father was so much against this because it didn’t fit the religion that he almost lost his wife because the wife was closer to the child.
In Lebanon, all the cases were in the Druze community. They believe in reincarnation. But in Sri Lanka 90% were Buddhist but the bulk of the Sri Lankan population are Buddhist.
Transcribed and edited by Albert Harris (Ed)
Erlendur Haraldsson (born 1931) is a professor emeritus of psychology on the faculty of social science at the University of Iceland. He has published in various psychology and psychiatry journals. In addition, he has published parapsychology books and authored a number of papers for parapsychology journals.