20 June 2013


Erlendur Haraldsson. The Departed Among the Living: An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters. White Crow Books, 2012.

A place where the dead are seen as very much among the living is Iceland, judging by Haraldsson’s study, based on surveys and follow up interviews in 1974 and 1980. Selected from this material were 449 accounts, presented in brief memorates, broken down into over thirty categories, covering themes such as the nature of the experience, the relationship between the percipient and the deceased, how the deceased died, circumstances surrounding the experience, etc.
In many ways these stories resemble those collected by the SPR in the census of hallucinations at the end of the nineteenth century, or those published by Camille Flammarion in the 1920s. They also contain echoes of the stories collected by Father Allan MacDonald of Eriskay as published in Campbell and Hall’s Strange Things. There are apparitions, noises, feelings of being touched, smells, sensations and feelings of presence.

These memorates reflect in many ways the harsh conditions in which many Icelanders lived until relatively recent times either in isolated farms or facing the perils of the sea as fishermen. Stories of crisis apparitions reflect the separation of those at sea and those on land; just as in the days of Phantasms of the Living they reflected the separations between those at home and those in far flung colonies. Crisis apparitions make up nearly 30% of the sample, I wonder if a survey conducted in the age of the mobile phone would produce the same result. Apparitions were associated with sudden deaths in 28% of the cases, compared with just 8% of the total deaths recorded in Iceland.

Though there are broad similarities between the stories, there are some differences; hauntings, though not absent are less prevalent than in the English-speaking world; only a small minority of people reported that the experiences gave them great fear, and there are a few motifs that do seem distinctive. One is what we might call co-walkers (not a term used by Haraldsson), in which people see the figure of deceased person accompanying a living one. Another involves stories that might be interpreted as alien abductions, these are stories of people being healed by ‘spirit doctors’ who perform operations in the night, and sometimes appear as doctors in white coats. The stories are similar to those collected by the SPR in that they lack the dramatic quality and long narratives associated with many “told as true” ghost stories.

Haraldsson presents in one of his appendices tables of belief in the afterlife across a number of European and other countries, which shows the surprising level of belief in reincarnation, though that is not part of traditional Christian teaching (Iceland is second with 33% just behind Latvia with 34%, the 25% figure for traditional Catholic Ireland and the 27% for Portugal hint at the decline in the power of the Catholic church).

One does not have to share the author’s survivalist views to find this book of great interest; folklorists will find the individual memorates a mine of information, as will the psychical researcher, who will also find the author’s statistical studies of great interest.
  • Peter Rogerson.

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