Sir William Barrett

Death-Bed Visions - The Psychical Experiences of the Dying
Publisher: Rider & Co.
Published: 1926
Pages: 123

Chapter 5: Music Heard at the Time of Death by the Dying or by Persons Present at a Death Bed

 - William Barrett -

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          AMONG the numerous cases in which music is heard at the time of death, the following incident, well attested by different observers, is quoted from Phantasms of the Living, Vol. II, p. 639:

A master of Eton College, Mr. L., wrote to Mr. Gurney in February, 1884, enclosing a memorandum which was made shortly after the death of his mother, which occurred in 1881.

It appears that at the time of her death there were several persons present in the room, namely, the Matron of Mr. L.'s house (Miss H.), a middle-aged, experienced woman; the doctor in attendance (Dr. G.); a friend of the dying lady (Miss I.); and two other persons (Eliza W. and Charlotte C).

Immediately after Mrs. L.'s death, Miss H. and Charlotte C. left the room to procure something, and shortly after they had left Miss I. heard a sound of "low, soft music, exceedingly sweet, as of three girls' voices." It seemed to come from the street and passed away. Dr. G. also heard it and went to the window to look out. No one could be seen outside in the street. Eliza W. who was in the room also heard a sound as of "very low, sweet singing." Mr. L. himself, who sends the memorandum, heard nothing. The two others who had left the room, Miss H. and Charlotte C., distinctly heard the sound of singing as they were coming upstairs.

Later on, when those present were talking over the matter, they found that each one of them had heard the sound of singing and music - except Mr. L.

It was specially noticeable that the staircase, up which Miss H. and Charlotte C. were coming, was at the back of the house and away from the street. The time of Mrs. L.'s death was about 2 a.m. on July 28, 1881.

In reply to inquiries Miss I. sent the following memorandum which she made immediately after the death of her friend, Mrs. L.; it is as follows:

"July 28th, 1881

Just after dear Mrs. L.'s death between 2 and 3 a.m., I heard a most sweet and singular strain of singing outside the windows; it died away after passing the house. All in the room [except Mr. L.] heard it, and the medical attendant, who was still with us, went to the window, as I did, and looked out, but there was nobody. It was a bright and beautiful night. It was as if several voices were singing in perfect unison a most sweet melody which died away in the distance. Two persons had gone from the room to fetch something and were coming upstairs at the back of the house and heard the singing and stopped, saying, 'What is that singing?' They could not, naturally, have heard any sound from outside the windows in the front of the house from where they were at the back.

"E. I."

Dr. G., who was in attendance upon Mrs. L, writes to Mr. Gurney in 1884, as follows:


I remember the circumstance perfectly. I was sent for about midnight, and remained with Mrs. L until her death about 2.30 a.m. Shortly after we heard a few bars of lovely music, not unlike that from an aeolian harp - and it filled the air for a few seconds. I went to the window and looked out, thinking there must be someone outside, but could see no one though it was quite light and clear. Strangely enough, those outside the room heard the same sounds, as they were coming upstairs quite at the other side of the door [house]."

Mr. Gurney adds a note that as Mr. L., although present at the time of his mother's death, did not share the experience of the others, this is strong evidence that the sounds did not come from any persons singing outside the house, and the other evidence quoted confirms this.

There are, however, many cases in which the dying persons or those near the bedside have heard musical sounds which could not be attributed to any earthly source. These sounds may have their origin, in some cases at least, in the minds of the living.

The following case appears to point to a hallucinatory origin of the music heard. It is an interesting case and worth quoting in an abbreviated form. It is printed in the "S.P.R. Journal," Vol. IV, p. 181.

Here the subject was a deaf mute, John Britton, who was taken dangerously ill with rheumatic fever, which caused his hands and fingers - which were his only means of conversation - to become so swollen that he could not use them, greatly to the distress of his relatives, to whom he could not make known his wants nor his sufferings.

The narrator, Mr. S. Allen, Steward of Haileybury College, and a brother-in-law of John Britton, states that the doctor thinking John could not recover, they had sent for members of his family. He adds that when he and his wife were in a room below John's bedroom, they were greatly surprised to hear music coming from upstairs, and ran up at once to find out what it was. He narrates as follows:

"We found Jack lying on his back with his eyes fixed on the ceiling, and his face lighted up with the brightest of smiles. After a little while Jack awoke and used the words 'Heaven' and 'beautiful' as well as he could by means of his lips and facial expression. As he became more conscious he also told us in the same manner that his brother Tom and his sister Harriet were coming to see him. This we considered very unlikely as they lived some distance off, but shortly afterwards a cab drove up from which they alighted. They had sent no intimation of their coming, nor had anyone else. After Jack's partial recovery, when he was able to write or converse upon his fingers, he told us that he had been allowed to see into Heaven and to hear most beautiful music."

Mr. Allen asks, "How did John know that Tom and Harriet were travelling, and how could he have heard these musical sounds which we also heard?" He remarks that the music could not have come from next door or from the street, and he gives a rough plan of his house to show that it was not in a row, and that the sounds could not be due to any normal cause.

Mrs. Allen confirms her husband's statement, and says that she heard the sounds of singing which came from her brother's bedroom, and that when she entered the bedroom he was in a comatose state and smiling, and his lips were moving as if he were in conversation with someone, but no sound came from them. Mrs. Allen continues, "when he had recovered sufficiently to use his hands he told me more details of what he had seen, and used the words 'beautiful music.' "She adds that her brother died a few years later, and states "the nurse and I were watching in the room, my brother was looking just as he did on the former occasion, smiling, and he said quite distinctly and articulately 'Angels' and 'Home.'"

The Rev. L. S. Milford, a master at Haileybury College, in giving an account of the interview he had with Mr. and Mrs. Allen, states that "Mrs. Allen says the sounds she heard resembled singing-sweet music without distinguishable words-that she went upstairs directly she heard the music, which continued until she reached the bedroom. Mr. Allen's impression is that the sound resembled the full notes of an organ or of an aeolian harp."

The following interesting case is an instance in which the dying person heard the sound of singing and also had a vision of a lady of whose death she was unaware. The case is taken from the "Proceedings S.P.R." for 1885,(1) and is as follows somewhat abridged:

(1) See "Proceedings S.P.R.," Vol. III, pp. 92, 93; also "Human Personality," Vol. II, p. 339.

Mrs. Z., wife of Col. Z. (a well-known Irish gentleman who does not wish his name published), was having some friends to stay with her and asked a Miss X., who was training as a professional singer, to spend a week with her and help to entertain her guests. This she did. Several years later Mrs. Z. became very ill and expected to die; she was, however, perfectly composed and in the full possession of her senses, and was anxious to arrange some business affairs. For this purpose her husband came to her bedside and talked over these matters with her. Suddenly she changed the subject and said to her husband, "Do you hear those voices singing?" Col. Z., who narrates the incident, replied that he did not, and his wife continued, "I have heard them several times to-day, and I am sure they are the angels welcoming me to Heaven, but," she added, "it is strange, there is one voice among them I am sure I know. but I cannot remember whose voice it is." Suddenly she stopped and said, pointing straight over her husband's head, "Why, there she is in the corner of the room; it is Julia X. She is coming on; she is leaning over you; she has her hands up; she is praying. Do look; she is going." Her husband turned round but could see nothing. His wife then said, "She has gone."

These things the Colonel at the time believed to be merely the phantasms of a dying person, but two days afterwards on taking up "The Times" newspaper, he saw recorded in it the death of Julia, who some years previously had married a Mr. Webley. He was so astounded that a day or two after his wife's funeral he went to see Julia's father, and asked if his daughter were really dead. "Yes," he said, "poor thing, she died of puerperal fever, and on the day she died she began singing, and sang on and on till she died."

In a subsequent communication from Colonel Z. the following facts were given:

Mrs. Webley (nee Julia X.) died on February 2,1874.
Mrs. Z. (wife of Colonel Z.) died on February 13, 1874.
Colonel Z. saw notice of Mrs. Webley's death on February 14, 1874.
Mrs. Z. never was subject to hallucinations of any sort.

Mr. Gurney subsequently received a note from Mr. Webley (husband of Julia) in which he stated that beautiful as his wife's voice was, it never had been so exquisitely beautiful as when she sang just before her death.

John Bunyan relates an incident of this kind which is worth quoting, though its evidential value is not very great.

He states:

"Talking of the dying of Christians, I will tell you a story of one that died some time since in our town. The man was a godly old Puritan, for so the godly were called in times past. This man, after a long and godly life, fell sick, of the sickness whereof he died. And as he lay drawing on, the woman that looked to him thought she heard music, and that the sweetest that ever she heard in her life, which also continued until he gave up the ghost. Now, when his soul departed from him the music seemed to withdraw, and to go further and further off from the house, and so it went until the sound was quite gone out of hearing."(1)

(1) See Bunyan's "Works." Edited by George Offor, Vol. III. pp. 653, 654. Glasgow, 1855.



Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

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