Peter Fenwick on The Final Border at TEDxBerlin (Full Transcript)

Peter Fenwick is a neuropsychiatrist and neurophysiologist who is known for his studies of epilepsy and end-of-life phenomena.


Peter Fenwick – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Good afternoon.

This is the final border. All of you are going to die. Most of you are afraid.

Why are you afraid? Because you don’t know what is going to happen.

I expect, many of you think it’s going to be like this: that the Grim Reaper will come along and take you. No, it’s not.

It’s much more like what the man thinks, “I thought, it was going to be my mom.” Actually, our data shows that probably, it will be your mom, or a group of dead relatives, happy dead relatives, who come to collect you.


In the 1970s, Raymond Moody published a book. This was a fantastic book. Told wonderful stories about people in America, who, after a cardiac arrest, came back, with having gone down a tunnel, having met a beam of light, all that sort of thing. Oh, come on, had to be rubbish.

This was California, that would never cross over to the UK, no. So you can imagine my surprise, when into my consulting room, came a guy who had had a failed catheter, a cardiac catheter, and had a near-death experience. It was my moment of realization that, in fact, these things did happen, but it was much more important than that.

If what this guy was saying was true, then we could start thinking about what death might actually mean. And so, I had to start studying and looking into death.

First of all, this was the near-death experience. Now I found, it did occur in England. I went into various hospitals and spoke to people, and so I appeared on the BBC and two films in the 1980s, and I got over one thousand, no two thousand letters.

Do you remember letters? They are rather fun, you can read them.

Well, these letters were written by people who had never ever before told anyone about their experiences.

“Why?” I said, “Too frightened.”

They told it to their wives or their husbands, they weren’t interested. They told it to their friends, they said, “You’re mad.”

They were very relieved to be able to put them down on paper, and I was very pleased because I could then study these and understand what the near-death experience was about.

What we found is that it was, in fact, very similar to that suggested by Raymond Moody.

First of all, you lose your pain – if you’re in pain. Then you become very calm. And then some people leave their body, others will go down a tunnel, a fascinating tunnel, it varies, and at the end of the tunnel, there’s a speck of light.

If you can move towards the speck of light, it gets bigger and bigger, very, very bright. When you come into the speck of light, it envelops you as a full light experience. And it’s calming, compassionate, loving, supportive, amazing.

And in the light, there is the being of light. And the being of light may speak to you, may not. What you do then is that you may get a life review.

You come out of the light, you may get a life review. Very interesting because you can then see exactly what you’ve done before, and review all the things you’ve done and understand why you did them.

Then you will go into a space, and the space is usually, in our culture, in the UK, is an English country garden. Oh come on, it’s lovely. Beautiful flowers, birdsong.

I can tell you that no spiders, no snakes etc. have ever been seen there. So, it’s a wonderful experience.

And walking around the garden, are dead relatives. They will greet you. Some of them will send you back. And you will come to a point where you know it’s a border of some sort and if you cross it, then you won’t return.

This is important because at that point, you have to make a decision: you’re going to go on and never come back, or you are going to return.

Some people decide to return because they’ve got a family, kids, that sort of thing. Others are sent back by the being of light. And others, the relatives will say, “Go back. It’s not your time yet.”

So, the people then find themselves back in the hospital.


Well, illness, operations, accidents, all those sorts of things. But that is not terribly helpful to us, because you cannot study the brain function of these people, if you take them from accidents or childbirth. You see, it’s all different.

So, what you have to do is to try and get the brain in the same state. Now, heart attacks is the obvious one. In a heart attack, the heart is stopped, obviously, no respiration, and the brainstem reflexes have all gone. So, you are clinically dead.

So, we know what state the brain is in. And so, it makes a very, very good model for looking at near-death experiences. In our sample, we had about 9% of people who had their near-death experiences during their heart attack.

Now, was this really true? Could we see it in hospital? So we set up a study in Southampton Hospital, looked at 69 people who had had a cardiac arrest and found just under 9% of people who had had a near-death experience.


Now, we could actually look at it. Very similar to the ones we’d seen? Yes, it does occur in cardiac arrest.

Now, if that’s true, when does it occur? You see, the NDEers say, the experience occurs when you’re unconscious. Now, if that’s true, that you can get these experiences when you’re unconscious and the brain isn’t functioning, then it would make a very good model for the beginnings of death.

Science says, “This is impossible, it is ridiculous: Fenwick, go home!” Because the argument is that consciousness is created by the brain.

So if I’m saying to you the brain isn’t functioning and there’s consciousness there, it doesn’t fit easily into our modern scientific paradigm. So we had a little look further at this.

I’ve drawn you a cartoon as to what happens to consciousness when the heart stops. You see, the consciousness is high at the beginning. Heart stops, there’s a rapid fall in consciousness to unconsciousness. So the experience can’t happen then.

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When the heart restarts, it’s confusional. People don’t know where they are, what’s happening, that sort of thing. But the near-death experience is very, very lucid, very clear. And so this confusional arousal means it can’t happen then.

So when does it happen? They say – that’s the NDEers – it happens when they’re unconscious. So we argue that possibly they’re correct and that this is the time this happens.

You have to understand that that’s against our current understanding in science but nevertheless run with the data, don’t run with the current model, if it seems to be wrong.

Now if what I’ve told you is correct, then it means the near-death experience is a good model for the dying process. You’d all agree with that. So let’s look at dying and see what it’s like.

So what we did is we went into nursing homes, hospices. We talked to palliative care teams. We did this in the UK, we did it in Holland, and our questionnaire has been given to people in Ireland.

We’ve come up with a lot of ideas about what actually happens when you die. But much more than that, I went on radio, and television, and got stories. I got over 1,500 stories about what people say happens when you die.

So what I’m going to do now is tell you some of these stories about what happens when you die. And so we’re going to start with the first stage, and that is premonitions.

So here’s a story about somebody who had a premonition. A premonition means that you know you are going to die. “I was puzzled when my husband, who is a young man in good health, suddenly started to put all his affairs in order.”

So he’s young, he’s got a family.

“Wrote his will, and told me, he was going to die. I laughed it off. But three months later, he was making a routine flight and the plane crashed.”

So he did, in fact, die and it seems as if that was a warning for him. He also said that he completed everything he had come for to this world. Although I’m not sure that I understand exactly what that means. So let’s make a picture.

You see premonitions on the left-hand side of your screen. That is the first stage in coming to die.

Now, another very frequent occurrence is deathbed visions. They’re actually in all cultures, they are not specific to our culture. The content of them tends to go with culture to some extent but in our culture they’re totally fascinating.

What usually happens is that the dead relative comes into the room where you are and they will talk to you. They’re very supportive, very helpful. They say, they’re going to be with you when you die.

So here’s a story, just to remind you, do you all know that Giotto fresco? Don’t the men all wish that they were St. Francis, getting those lovely angels to come and look after them. Well, we’re not St. Francis.

Here’s the sort of things, the sort of stories we get: “She spent around four hours talking to two men,” – this is in a hospice – “shifting her gaze between two different spots in the room. One of them was her brother who had died the previous year, and the other was one somebody older, perhaps her grandfather. During this whole time, she was very animated, happy, and extremely lucid, unlike the rest of the time. The conversation ended with her waving goodbye to them.”

Now, who sees these? Well, the dying, obviously, sometimes the relatives, more often children, very occasionally the hospice staff. So they tend to be mainly seen by the dying. So we can put next deathbed visions.

But one thing you must know, and do remember this, is that some of them say that they’re going to come back on a particular day to help you with the dying process, to help you cross the border.

And if you know that, you can ask them if they’d probably come back a few days later. You can negotiate with them, not because you want to go to a party, or do something like that, but because a member of the family who isn’t there and is coming, and they will wait for that.

So the next thing, well, not the next thing but another thing which happens is, to me, one of the most interesting things of all.

Do you remember I was telling you about this area people go into with love, light, and compassion? Well, this is exactly what we find. Some people are in and out of what they call “another reality.”

What’s the reality like? Very like the one which I’ve been describing to you. Except this time, there are spiritual beings, there are dead relatives, they all say to you that they’re going to help you cross when you die.

And so here is the sort of thing, the sort of story we get: “My father was at his father’s bedside, deeply distressed, but my grandfather quietly said to my father, ‘Don’t worry, Leslie, I’m all right. I can see in here the most beautiful things, and you must not worry.’ And he quietly died lucid to the end.”

So that’s very helpful, isn’t it? It isn’t, in fact, this horrid blackness that you’re all thinking of. It’s really quite different from that.

So this is an example of the alternate reality. They describe it as very beautiful, flowers everywhere, light, and love. So let’s come on now to death itself.

And death is a totally fascinating time. The things that happen are quite amazing. One of the things is it shows our connectedness, or our interconnectedness.

And deathbed coincidences are one of the major features. In a deathbed coincidence, the dying person, in our samples, within half an hour of death, but mainly at the time of death, will go and contact somebody with whom they are emotionally connected, somebody who couldn’t be with them when they were dying, or somebody they know very well and want to say goodbye to.

Here’s just such a story, and see if you like it: “Father told me that he awoke during the night to see a column of light at the end of his bed. As he watches, the column of light opens and his son appears to say he is dead but all right. He says, ‘Goodbye,’ re-enters the light which then slowly fades.”

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Quite often, you get a message. The one I’ve given you is in a dream. They’re lucid, they’re narrative. But if you were awake, you feel it as something very important has happened. You have to go and telephone.

Sometimes the person will give you a message themselves when you’re awake, but that’s not quite so common. It’s usually a very strong emotional feeling.

So then let’s consider what actually happens at the time of death, and why I say it’s so interesting. Clocks stop. I don’t know if in Germany you have the song “My grandfather’s clock”. I don’t think you do, which stopped dead never to go again when the old man died.

Well, mechanical clocks do stop, watches stop, showing the time of death. Do electronic ones stop? Yes, they do. We have stories of all of these.

So there is some relationship between the clock and the person. Animals. If you have a close relationship with your animal, and they’re at a distance, say at home, then quite often, at the time of your death, they will respond. We had a lovely story.

Here you can see Fluke, a black Labrador, and here you can see Derek; they had a very close relationship. Fluke died five years before Derek died, and in the last few days, Fluke was seen by Derek in the hospice room where he was dying. His wife wrote in her letter that she very much hoped that Fluke would be there to help Derek with his crossing.

Now, one of the most fascinating things to me is light, light at the time of death. Now, you get radiant light which shines from the person all around and may be seen shining outside the hospice room. At the time of death, the person may get transformed by light, and you can see light in the room.

If you happen to be caught in the light, or go into it again, it has this spiritual quality of love and compassion to it.

Here’s a nice story which was told to me by a hospice chaplain. “Sometimes I’ve seen a light which is in a corner, like candle light. It’s a golden light, it’s not electric light. It’s not one of the hospice lights. It’s like candlelight, and it just appears sometimes. It goes when they die. They take their last breath, as everything settles down, the light goes out.”

So these things do happen.

Now what do we mean by having a “good death?” Having a good death means that you actually know what you want. This is why it’s so important that you all have listened to what I said.

Do you really want this? Do you? Tied up in pipes, and tubes, and wires. It’s not a spiritual setting. It’s not somewhere where you can relax into the death process. They don’t have time for you. They’re keeping the living alive, so what are you doing there?

So make certain that doesn’t happen to you. But death at home or hospice is, I think, a good death. It’s like this:

When you get spiritual care and where the relatives can visit, but much more important, where the grandchildren can visit. They can even play about on your bed if you’re not too ill. So it’s really important that you see that death is part of life. It is.

To lead a good life is to have a good death.

So then, what have I been saying? In a nutshell, prepare for a good death. Teach people, including children, not to be afraid of dying. Many of you will have kids, many of the kids have hamsters, many of the hamsters die.

Use this as an opportunity to tell them about death. Learn what may happen to you when you die. Prepare for death, and don’t just clean out your attic but clear up your relationships.

And do remember this, and that is, one of the most difficult things of death are relationships within the family which are stressful. It makes for a very stressful death.

So don’t do it, sort it out beforehand. Discuss death, and don’t sweep it under the carpet.

The final border may not be as frightening as you think. So don’t be afraid.

Now, the important thing about that is, all you guys, or some of you guys will say, “Well, I’m not sure I really believe this man.”

Ask your friends. I’m going to do an experiment now with you all. I want to know how many of you have encountered, or had near-death experiences? I want to know how many of you have, in fact, had an experience with a relative who has had the sort of things that I’m talking about, do you understand?

So anybody who has heard a story, of any of those dimensions, I want you to put your hand up. I’m told that German audiences sometimes don’t. OK, put your hands up. Wow, look at that! And they say these things don’t happen. Thank you all for doing that.

So now, let me just talk a little bit about the final border for you. I have chosen two stories.

The great inventor Edison, just hours before his death, emerged from a coma, opened his eyes, looked upwards and said, “It is very beautiful over there.” OK? Just before he died.

And this one, you all know, but I want you to take part in it just to show that you understand.

Steve Jobs, according to his sister, as he died, Steve Jobs looked into the middle distance and said in wonder, “Wow, wow!”

Now, to show me that you understand what I’ve been saying, you’ve got this message of hope, I want you all to join with me on the third “Wow.”

I’m going to count up to three.

One, two, three, wow. OK, ready?

One, two, three:

(Audience: “Wow!”)



For Further Reading:

Let’s Talk About Death: Stephen Cave at TEDxBratislava (Full Transcript)

From Life to Death, Beyond and Back: Thomas Fleischmann at TEDxTUHHSalon (Transcript)

Death Like You’ve Never Seen It Before: Joanna Ebenstein at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

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