People have always wanted to communicate with the dead. We miss the company and the relationships we had with them when they were alive. There are always things that remain to be said, and we long to reach out to them at least one more time. We want to know that they're okay wherever they are; that they are happy and no longer burdened by the trials of earthly life.
Also, if we can communicate with the dead, it affirms to us that there really is an existence "somewhere" after this life.
So, yes, we can reach out to those who have passed, but can they talk back? We have developed various methods and rituals in hopes of making two-way contact - most recently, using several technology-based methods. But are they effective? We seem to be getting responses... but can they be trusted? Are they truly responses from the dead?
Let's review the most common methods that many assume are channels through which the dead communicate.
SÉANCES - TRANCE MEDIUMS
Séances in which a small group of people gather in a darkened room around a table have been practiced at least since the 18th century. They were most popular from the mid-19th century into the early 20th century. They were usually led by trance mediums who claimed to be able to channel the spirits of the dead and impart messages to the living participants.
These séances were rife with fraud and gimmickry, although a few, such as Leonora Piper, were closely investigated by psychic research organizations and thought by many to be "genuine."
Today's version of the medium can be seen in such celebrities as John Edward and James Van Praagh, except that they forego the darkened room and table, claiming to be able to "hear" the voices of the dead who provide usually trite messages to living family members in the audience.
The problem with all of these mediums is that there is no way to prove that the messages they are relaying really are from the deceased. They can pretty much say whatever they want, claim it is from a dead person, and... well, who can prove that it's not?
Yes, Edward and Van Praagh occasionally seem to get some remarkable "hits," but we've seen talented mentalists - who claim no psychic powers - do equally astonishing tricks. And the messages they give are not very convincing that they come from a person who has died and now exists on some otherworldly plane. We get usual "he is watching over you" or "she's happier now and out of pain," etc., but no real details on what the afterlife is like - no information that would convince us absolutely.
Ouija boards were developed as a kind of home board game version of the séance. It simplifies the practice, requiring only two people and a planchette pointer and lettered board that substitutes for the medium.
While there is a lot of fundamentalist paranoia surrounding the Ouija board, with claims that they are portals to evil and controlled by demons, most users' experiences are completely harmless, even dull. The "spirits" that come through the board often claim to be dead people, and the shock of that claim is enough to scare the bejeebers out of every teenage girl, but again there is no way to verify that claim.
On occasion, information comes through the board, according to some stories, that seems to be outside the knowledge of the participants. First of all, these are stories of people's experiences - sometimes second- or even third-hand accounts - which themselves need to be verified. And if verified, must we then assume that the information is coming from "the other side"? Once again, we cannot prove that it isn't, but another possibility is that the information is coming through psychic means, in the same way that remote viewing obtains information. Communication from the dead is not the only possibility.
AUTOMATIC WRITING, CHANNELING
There are several cases - some of them remarkable - of people who have written books, music, and messages that they believe are channeled from the dead: Jane Roberts and her series of Seth books; J.Z. Knight who channels the 30,000-year-old Ramtha; Pearl Curran who channeled Patience Worth to write notable books; Rosemary Brown who wrote music she said came from Franz Liszt; Helen Schucman who claimed Jesus Christ wrote A Course in Miracles through her.
Are these artistic works proof of the afterlife? Or are they the products of talented people who are able to tap the deep well of creativity in their own subconscious?
EVP AND GHOST BOXES
Electronic voice phenomena (EVP) through sound recording devices and so-called ghost boxes are the latest technological devices with which investigators claim to contact the dead.
With EVP, voices of unknown origin are recorded on tape or digital recorders; the voices are not heard at the time, but are heard on playback. The quality and clarity of these voices vary widely. The worst ones are open to broad interpretation (some can hardly be called voices at all), while the best ones are clear and unmistakable. I have heard many excellent EVP and their origin certainly is mysterious.
Ghost boxes (also known as Frank's box or "telephones to the dead") are modified radios that sweep across the AM or FM bands, picking up bits and pieces of music and dialogue. The dialogue sometimes seems to answer a question, say a name, or something else relevant in one- or two-word bites.
The assumption by many paranormal researchers is that the messages from these machines are spoken by the dead. In my view, that is a very hasty assumption. Just because we do not understand how these voices and messages are generated, we should not leap to the conclusion that they come from dead people. In the case of EVP, this could very well be a psychic phenomenon in which the voices are somehow created by the subconscious minds of the investigators. I am less convinced of any paranormal element with the ghost box; I think it is a case of auditory pareidolia: the researchers hear or interpret what they want or expect to hear.
With some near-death experiences (NDE) there is a most extraordinary claim: NDErs having an out-of-body experience say they meet deceased friends and relatives face to face. The message from these dead folks is always the same: "It's not your time yet. You must go back." The person is then slammed back into his or her body. We must suppose that if the message was "It's your time! Glad to have you! Welcome!" that the person would not have recovered and would have died.
In rare NDE cases, the NDEr is shown around the afterlife, which is always amazingly beautiful, and is sometimes given special or vast knowledge about life and the universe... but the person can never quite remember what this information was upon waking.
Do near-death experience encounters with the dead represent our best evidence for communication with the dead? Possibly, but as compelling as many of these cases are, the debate over the "reality" of these experiences will likely continue for some time. There is no way to prove or disprove their reality with any finality.
Finally, with spirit apparitions we have face-to-face encounters with the dead without going through all the trauma of a near-death experience - the spirits come to us.
There are many thousands of cases of people who say that they have been visited by dead relatives and friends (usually recently dead), who appear to bring words of comfort to the grieving. In the most interesting cases, the people who witness these apparitions are unaware that the person has even died, discovering this fact only later.
In these cases, too, the dead are not very forthcoming with any juicy details about the afterlife. Their messages are often "Don't worry about me. I'm fine. I'm watching over the family. Take care of each other," and similar platitudes. Comforting, yes, but no information that would convince the skeptic.
There are unusual cases, however, in which spirits do provide information (such as the location of a missing item, etc.) of which the living person has no knowledge. As rare as those instances are (they are also hard to document), are they our best evidence for life after death?
If any of the methods for communicating with the dead really work, why do we not get better, more convincing information from them? Perhaps we're not allowed to get better information. For whatever reason, perhaps the possibility of life after death is supposed to remain a mystery.
The scientific materialist would argue that there is no afterlife, and that all of these methods result in nothing more that self-delusion and wishful thinking.
Yet the sheer number of apparition sightings and contacts, and the most compelling near-death experiences cases hold out the real possibility - some would say hope - that our existence continues after bodily death.