Researchers are studying cases of children who describe memories of previous lives – and gathering some remarkable reports.
John McConnell, a retired New York City policeman working as a security guard, stopped at an electronics store after work one night in 1992. He saw two men robbing the store and pulled out his pistol. Another thief behind a counter began shooting at him. John tried to shoot back, and even after he fell, he got up and shot again. He was hit six times. One of the bullets entered his back and sliced through his left lung, his heart, and the main pulmonary artery, the blood vessel that takes blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs to receive oxygen. He was rushed to the hospital but did not survive.
John had been close to his family and had frequently told his daughter, Doreen, “No matter what, I’m always going to take care of you.” Five years after John died, Doreen gave birth to a son named William. William began passing out soon after he was born. Doctors diagnosed him with a condition called pulmonary valve atresia, in which the valve of the pulmonary artery has not adequately formed, preventing blood from traveling through it to the lungs. In addition, one of the chambers of his heart – the right ventricle – had not formed properly as a result of the problem with the valve. He underwent several surgical procedures. Although he will need to take medication indefinitely, he has done quite well.
William had birth defects that were very similar to the fatal wounds suffered by his grandfather. In addition, when he became old enough to speak, he began talking about his grandfather’s life. One day when he was three years old, his mother was at home trying to work in her study when William kept acting up. Finally, she told him, “Sit down, or I’m going to spank you.” William replied, “Mum, when you were a little girl and I was your daddy, you were bad a lot of times, and I never hit you!”
His mother was initially taken aback by this. As William talked more about the life of his grandfather, she began to feel comforted by the idea that her father had returned. William talked about being his grandfather a number of times and discussed his death. He demonstrated knowledge that amazed his mother, such as the nickname for a family cat that only his grandfather used, and the day of the week when his grandfather died.
He also talked about the period between lives. He told his mother, “When you die, you don’t go right to heaven. You go to different levels – here, then here, then here” as he moved his hand up each time. He said that animals are reborn as well as humans and that animals he saw in heaven did not bite or scratch. John had been a practising Roman Catholic, but he believed in reincarnation and said that he would take care of animals in his next life. William says that he will be an animal doctor and will take care of large animals at a zoo.
William reminds Doreen of her father in several ways. He loves books, as his grandfather did. When they visit William’s grandmother, he can spend hours looking at books in John’s study, duplicating his grandfather’s behaviour from years before. William, like his grandfather, is good at putting things together and can be a ‘non-stop talker’.
William especially reminds Doreen of her father when he tells her, “Don’t worry, Mum. I’ll take care of you.” William is not alone in his claims. Children all over the world have described memories of previous lives. For more than 40 years, researchers have investigated their reports to see how accurate they are for a previous person who has died. More than 2500 cases are now registered in the files of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, and doctors are working to determine the best explanation for them. Some of the children have said they were deceased family members, and others described previous lives as strangers. In a typical case, a very young child begins to describe memories of another life. The child is persistent about this and often demands to be taken to his other family in another location. When the child has given names or enough details about the other location, the family often goes there and finds that the child’s statements fit the life of a person who has died in the recent past.
The children make these statements at a very early age. Most who talk about a past life begin doing so between the ages of two and four. The children almost always stop talking about it around the age of six or seven, and they seem to go on to lead normal lives after that. The previous lives they describe tend to be very recent ones, and in fact, the median time between the death of the previous person and the birth of the child is only 15 to 16months. Few report having been famous personalities, as almost all describe ordinary lives, often ending in very unpleasant ways. An example is Suzanne Ghanem of Lebanon. When she was less than a year old, her first word was “Leila”, and she would pick up the telephone and say, “Hello, Leila.” She began telling her family about a previous life that ended when she went to the United States for heart surgery. She talked about this life a great deal, but her family was not able to track down the previous person until Suzanne was five years old. At that point, Suzanne met the family of the woman she thought she had been, and she convinced them that she was the woman reborn when she knew numerous details about that life. In all, she made 40 statements about the previous life that were verified as accurate, including the names of 25 people. It turned out that the previous woman, who died at a medical centre in the United States after heart surgery, had a daughter who was not able to join her there because of passport problems. Before the woman died, her brother tried to telephone the daughter for her but was unsuccessful. The daughter’s name was Leila.
Like William, many of the children are born with birthmarks or birth defects that match wounds, usually fatal ones that the previous person experienced. An example is Süleyman Çaper in Turkey. His mother dreamed during her pregnancy that a man she did not recognise told her, “I was killed with a blow from a shovel. I want to stay with you and not anyone else.” When Süleyman was born, the back of his skull was partially depressed, and he also had a birthmark there. When he became able to talk, he said that he had been a miller who died when an angry customer hit him on the head. Along with other details, he gave the first name of the miller and the village where he had lived. In fact, an angry customer had killed a miller by that name in that village by hitting him on the back of the head with a shovel.
Many of the birthmarks are not small discolorations. Instead, they are often unusual in shape or size and are often puckered or raised rather than simply being flat. Some can be quite dramatic and unusual in appearance. There are several cases that include both a small, round birthmark matching a typical bullet entrance wound and a larger, more irregularly shaped birthmark matching a typical exit wound. Other cases involve birthmarks in such unusual places as one wrapping around an ankle, and deformities like missing or malformed limbs or digits. In these situations, the birthmarks and birth defects can provide a concrete indication of a connection between the child and the previous person. When an autopsy report or a medical record of the previous person is available, as it was for Süleyman, researchers can compare the birthmarks to the previous wounds to see how well they correspond. In addition, many children show behaviours that seem connected to the past-life memories they are reporting. Some have strong emotions related to their memories and beg their parents to take them to their previous family until the parents finally relent. Many also show intense fear related to the method of the previous person’s death. Often, these fears will appear before the child has begun to report past-life memories. For instance, as a baby in Sri Lanka, Shamlinie Prema always had to be held down by three adults in order to be bathed, and she later told of having drowned in a previous life. Some children demonstrate unusual play. Most often, the child mimics the occupation of the previous person, and the drive that some of these children demonstrate in wanting to engage repeatedly in the play can be quite striking. Other children have repeatedly acted out the death scene from the previous life.
Were William and the other 2500 children remembering what they thought they were remembering—events from lives they had previously experienced? That question has occupied researchers for years. Previously, we have only written for a scientific audience, but now that we have 40 years worth of data, the general public deserves the opportunity to evaluate the evidence as well. You can learn about these cases and then decide whether you think that children like William really have come back after having previous lives—and whether the rest of us may be able to come back, too.
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