Many years ago, in the village of Kona on the big island of Hawaii, a woman named Kalima grew ill and died, leaving behind a bereaved family, including a husband and young children. Having prepared her grave and readied her body for burial, kinfolk and friends gathered about her corpse for their last farewell.
Suddenly, though, she moved, took a long breath, and looked around.
“I have something strange to tell you,” she announced. And, several days later, she finally felt strong enough to share her story.
As they knew, she said, she had died. But, even while dead, she was still alive. She found herself standing beside her body, looking down on it, in a different body that nonetheless resembled it in appearance. After a few minutes, though, she left.
She walked through nearby villages. But these villages were different — much larger than she had known them to be, with far more people. “Some of them I knew,” she said, “and they spoke to me — although this seemed strange, for I knew they were dead — but nearly all were strangers. They were all so happy! They seemed not to have a care; nothing to trouble them. Joy was in every face, and happy laughter and bright, loving words were on every tongue.”
“I felt so full of joy, too,” she recalled, “that my heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.”
But then, when she reached South Point — the sacred promontory where Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands — the people there told her, “You must go back to your body. You are not to die yet.”
However, she didn’t want to go back, and she begged them to let her stay. But they refused, declaring that if she didn’t return willingly, they would force her. Which, as it happened, is precisely what they did.
Finally, she recounted, “I reached my home and stood by my body again. I looked at it and hated it. Was that my body? What a horrid, loathsome thing it was to me now, since I had seen so many beautiful, happy creatures! Must I go and live in that thing again? No, I would not go into it; I rebelled and cried for mercy.”
“You must go into it,” insisted those around her. “We will make you.” And, thereupon, they pushed her, head first, through her feet into her lifeless body. Her continued fighting and struggling was of no avail. So, eventually, she resigned herself to the process.
“Then,” Kalima said, “my body came to life again, and I opened my eyes. But I wish I could have stayed with those happy people. It was cruel to make me come back. My other body was so beautiful, and I was so happy, so happy!”
This story is probably impossible to verify. What you’ve just read is my shortened retelling of a retelling by one “Mrs. E.N. Haley,” which was published in 1907 in a book edited by the pioneer Honolulu publisher and antiquarian Thomas Thrum (1842-1932) under the title of “Hawaiian Folk Tales.” No details are provided from which to identify Kalima, nor are any hints given as to when her purported experience occurred or how Mrs. Haley learned of it.
Nonetheless, whatever its precise provenance, the story seems both remarkable and significant. Although it was published nearly seven decades before Raymond Moody’s famous 1975 best-seller “Life After Life” launched the modern fascination with near-death experiences, or NDEs, Kalima’s account matches standard models of the NDE in many specific ways.
Her out-of-body experience, seeing her dead physical body (and viewing it with distaste), a spiritual body (similar in appearance to her earthly one), meetings with very happy people known to be dead, an apparent boundary beyond which she may not pass, the idea that it wasn’t “her time,” her being ordered to return to her body and her reluctance to do so — all of these are abundantly paralleled in literally hundreds of such accounts that I’ve read, and probably in thousands more that I haven’t.
Yet, obviously, neither Kalima nor Mrs. Haley could possibly have been influenced by the reports that have been published in scores of books and hundreds of articles since 1975. In other words, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss this story as mere fantasy.
Dedicated to the memory of my brother, Kenneth Dee Walters, who would have been 72 years old this week.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.