Faith in the Departed

A recent Beliefnet survey reveals that there are people of many religious traditions who believe they 'see dead people.'

BY: Lisa Schneider

This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2005.

Jamie Foxx talks to his late grandmother. The most poignant (and reportedly the most TIVO'd) moment of this year's Academy Awards ceremony was when the Oscar winner expressed gratitude for his grandmother’s formative teachings and explained that even though she’s passed on, "she still talks to me now—only now she talks to me in my dreams." Before walking off the stage he told the audience of 42.1 million viewers that he couldn't wait to get to sleep that night because "we got a lot to talk about."


Many Beliefnet readers also seem to have a lot to say to their deceased loved ones. In a recent online Beliefnet survey, 10,000 people answered detailed questions about how they communicate, or do not communicate, with the dead. A striking 69% of respondents indicated that they have attempted to talk to the dead, and many believe they've succeeded in making contact.

Our survey asked our readers if they had ever consulted a medium or psychic (21% said yes), used a Ouija board (28%), or participated in a séance (14%). But the vast majority said they attempted to communicate with loved ones directly without resorting to outside help—through prayer and meditation (63%) and speaking to them aloud or in their minds (69%). A final question, "Have you ever felt as if a dead person was trying to communicate with you?" elicited more than 3,800 essay responses. The testimonials detail everything from the spirit of a dead cat appearing in a woman's lap to a deceased son giving his mother one last hug in a dream. Others used the essay space to submit a simple, emphatic "No"—often in all capital letters, with multiple exclamation points.

But the skeptics were greatly outnumbered. Clearly, most people in this survey audience indicated that they reach across a divide to dead loved ones as a matter of course. Their stories and experiences, whether you credit them or not, reveal a vast and varied landscape of beliefs that warrants a closer look.

What It Feels Like

What's it like to contact the dead? Here's how some of our users describe their experiences:

"It's like chills going up your spine. It's like someone's in the room with you and they're watching you, but you can't really see them."

"I feel a rush of cold air, something will brush against my neck."

"It's more like a voice in my head—when I ask for guidance from angels, guardians, and guides, I sometimes hear the answer in my head. Or I simply feel their presence and know they are working on my behalf."

"They appear before me like a hologram in my mind, meaning they aren't in the air space in front of me. Then we converse, like the living. No big deal."

"After losing my best friend to a sudden, accidental death, I dreamed of him. I saw him as clear as I did in life... that visit from him came to give me great peace and comfort."

"My brother who was killed in a car accident often visited me by sitting in the passenger seat of my truck for several years after. Sometimes he would just be there, other times he would send comforting 'hugs' in my head."

What the Dead Have to Say

Jamie Foxx notwithstanding, Hollywood tends to depict close encounters with the dead as very scary or at least somewhat creepy: witness the ghostly twin girls in "The Shining," visions of corpses in "Sixth Sense," and the girl in the well in "The Ring." But most of those responding to the Beliefnet survey seemed to consider contact with the dead a comforting part of their lives, and only 2.4% classified their experiences "negative."

Although presumably most people do not confer about how these things happen—receiving messages from the dead is rarely cocktail or water-cooler conversation—we found a surprising number of common themes. Many respondents believe passed loved ones were watching over or protecting them, assuring the living that they're O.K., or delivering a final message. One respondent writes of her son, who died when he was just three weeks old, "Suddenly I had this feeling that my baby son had entered the room and that he had come to say goodbye. It was a very real experience, leaving me tearful and shaky."

Although several people write about being visited by spirits they don't recognize, the overwhelming majority of people see visions of loved ones whom they are mourning. Carol Staudacher, a grief counselor and the author of "A Time To Grieve," believes these experiences can be very therapeutic. "The most important qualities of these visitations are that they most often offer sustenance to the survivor and provide a unique peace that cannot be achieved in any other context or with any other person.

The heartfelt essays of our readers offer compelling evidence that connecting with the dead can have a powerful impact on those dealing with a significant loss. For example, a mother coping with the suicide of her son writes about how the paramedics would not allow her to hug him before they took his body away: "About three or four months after he died, I met him in my dreams and told him I didn't think I was going to make it. That regret of not just doing it, instead of listening to someone else, was killing me. He replied 'I'm here now, Mom. Hug me now.' So I did and kissed him on the top of the head. I truly believe that experience helped me to continue on my healing journey."

John Edward, the psychic medium famous for his "Crossing Over" television show, told us that his clients, who go to him with the express purpose of contacting the dead, are seeking "answers about consciousness after death," and want to believe that "their loved ones are still a part of their lives." Indeed, many of our survey-takers cited messages along the lines of "I never left you, I'll always be with you."

Other deceased loved ones have advice for those they've left behind: "My mother came to me in a dream. All she did was point her finger at me and say, 'Quit smoking!'" Some respondents received messages particularly when they were going through a rough time in their lives, like one who wrote, "When I am troubled or stressed they communicate through dreams to point me in the right direction." One person said he hears voices in his head saying "Stop" or "Watch it" that have helped him avoid car accidents. And the ghost of one woman's mother-in-law continues to give her recipes from the afterlife.

However, not all messages from beyond the grave are helpful or comforting. One woman writes of recurring visits from people who died in a nightclub fire in her town. For weeks she would awaken to the smell of smoke and hear voices. "I am scared to let them talk or show themselves to me so I usually tell them to go away," she says. "They try to have me feel what it was like to burn to death alive. I have seen visions of this and it is terrifying."

Still other visitations offer glimpses of an afterlife. A deceased aunt has told her niece she is "with Jesus and he is handsome." Another voice from the spirit world describes death as "a freeing and amazing experience." A departed father has a more ambivalent message for his son: "Being dead takes some getting used to, but you'll like it."

Signs From Beyond the Grave

People who believe they communicate with the dead recount many different ways of contact, but we found many common experiences—ranging from feeling soft breezes in a windowless room to hearing clanging pots and pans coming out of nowhere. Among the most frequently cited phenomena involves a variety of smells: Dad's cigarette smoke, Mom's rose-scented perfume, even Grandma's Ben Gay wafting through a room long after any traces should have faded. Most people found these smells reassuring. As one respondent wrote, " I have been in my house and have been suddenly surrounded by the smell of my late mother's perfume as if to let me know she was near me and watching over me."


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