Do the dead interact with the living?
Alexis Allen says they do.
Allen buried her mother, Lisa Kay Peterson, of Columbia, on March 26, 2017. A nurse and veteran of the U.S. Navy hospital corps, Peterson had died unexpectedly at age 50.
The day after her funeral, a Monday, Allen was driving around Washington Boro with a friend, talking and grieving, when she noticed a woman on her knees at the side of the road. The woman was sobbing into a cellphone, the body of her infant son blue and unresponsive on the ground beneath her.
Allen, a certified nursing assistant, slammed on the brakes and went to the child. Despite having no formal CPR training, she used what she knew of infant CPR to resuscitate the 17-month-old boy.
She would later tell a newspaper reporter that her mother was right there with her as she attempted to revive the child. She could feel her.
“I feel like I breathed my mom’s last breath into that boy. She saved his life.”
In a way that seemed real and tangible to her daughter, Peterson, though dead, was present in that moment.
Similar stories, while not as headline-grabbing as Allen’s, have been told the world over for generations. People believe they receive signs from loved ones, or feel their actual, physical presence: A woman smells smoke from her father’s brand of pipe tobacco around the back porch swing where he would sit in the evenings puffing away; a butterfly appears out of season, alighting on a child’s shoulder; a man hunched over his work, alone in an empty house, feels a former lover’s hand brush the back of his neck.
About three in 10 Americans say they feel as if they have been in contact with someone who has died, according to a 2015 Pew Research Group survey. But are these spirits, these familiar ghosts, real?
Every investigation of the supernatural ends with the investigator having to choose between sublunary fact and mystical experience: Was it natural or supernatural? Real or illusion? Truth or fiction?
The entirely unromantic perspective of science on this subject is simple and well-known. There is no evidence, let alone proof, of the existence of the supernatural — that which exists outside of nature.
All the things we sense are part of the natural world. If, for instance, you see something that looks like a ghost, what you see is part of the natural world, something measurable by your eye. That “ghost” is a natural occurrence because it is being observed in real time in nature. Everything we experience with our senses is part of nature, regardless of whether we can understand or explain it.
As far as science is concerned, there is as much evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons and the spirits of dead friends and relatives as there is evidence to support the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
They don’t exist. So says science.
Why, then, do spirits exist so definitively in the minds of so many?
In Latin American cultures, families celebrate the near-corporeal reality of their ancestral spirits. As Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, approaches in Mexico, families will lay trails of marigold petals to direct their ancestors to carefully prepared altars laden with their favorite foods, so that they might sup and enjoy another night on Earth in the presence of family. For the many who believe, their ancestors are as alive in the Land of the Dead as the living are in this world, and the Day of the Dead is more like a cross-dimensional family reunion.
In the United States, belief in the supernatural, while slowly eroding, remains strong. In 2013, according to a Harris Poll, 64% of Americans said they believe souls exist and survive death. (That number was down from 69% in 2005. At that rate of decline, the figure would be around 60% today.) Related results showed 42% believe in ghosts and 24% believe their souls were reincarnated from people who lived previously.
Many among those tens of millions of people have at least a rudimentary understanding of the laws of physics with which their beliefs conflict.
In his book “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” science writer Matthew Hutson suggests those strong leanings toward the supernatural might be hardwired into the human brain. He writes: “Far from a sign of stupidity or weakness, magical thinking exemplifies many of the habits of mind that made humans so evolutionarily successful. Once you’ve accepted that the brain constructs reality, and that the brain has evolved like any other organ to help its owner survive and reproduce, it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible for its owner. The word here is useful, which is not to say accurate. The brain doesn’t care so much what’s really out there; it just needs to stay alive.”
Researchers in the fields of psychology and anthropology suggest the ability to embrace irrational beliefs offers a competitive advantage to some, providing, among other things, motivation and a sense of well-being in times of distress.
So if Grandma decides to visit the kitchen while you’re resurrecting her chicken corn soup, or your late father hands you a wrench while you’re under the hood of the car, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Each of us in our own time decides how and when to cut the gossamer threads that connect us to supernatural beliefs, and with respect to the people we love, severing those ties does not mean forsaking their memory.
“If someone were to decide that souls, ghosts and spirits don’t exist, that doesn’t mean giving up the influence of loved ones,” Hutson said in a telephone interview. “You can still act as though they’re there with you and think about, ‘OK, what would this person do in this situation?’ and still feel their presence even if you don’t explicitly believe ‘This person’s spirit is next to me.’ ”
Or you can keep on believing. It’s OK. And it may even be good for you.
Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.