The children I met who had had these experiences carried an extra credibility because they were plainly recollecting exactly what had happened to them.
Near-death experiences have such an uncanny similarity that many people
now believe we can describe what 'coming back from the dead' is really like.
The first part of our special investigation focused on adults. Today we
describe the experiences of children which are, if anything, even more
The eight-year-old American boy was telling the story of the near-death experience he'd had at the age of four. One night in 1989, said Chris Eggleston, he and his Mom and Dad and brother John had been driving back from a skiing trip in the mountains near Seattle when their car went out of control, hit the side of a bridge and fell 80ft into a river.
'My Mom told us to take our seat-belts off,' he went on, 'but the car was upside down and full of water and I couldn't take mine off fast enough. I guess it got jammed. Mom was kicking her window in so she could get out of the car, and she and John made it.
'Then I started falling into something like a giant noodle. It was like this' - and he held up a drawing with concentric rings of color - 'and when I got to the end, there were two tunnels. I went inside one of them, and that's when I saw the family of really beautiful flowers.
'I started running towards them because I wanted to see what was inside. That's when I met this really nice humming bee - I can't finish this drawing because I can't figure out what kind of face to put on him - but he gave me some bread and orange juice.
'Then I came out into this other tunnel, where there was a castle' - and he held up a drawing of a castle, with a cross on the tower - 'and, when its doors opened, I went through them and saw these columns inside, just like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
'In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, there was this very sick old lady who I believe was my grandmother, and then I was back with Mom in the emergency ward. In the car my Dad died, because he hit his head on the windshield. That's all.'
The story itself is remarkable enough. Chris Eggleston was, in fact, under water for ten minutes and, when a providential passer-by eventually brought him to the surface, his mother Patti was quite sure he was already dead - 'you could see in the car headlights that child was just grey and lifeless'. His survival seemed no less than a miracle.
The way Chris tells his story is equally remarkable. Far from being a precocious exhibitionist on the standard American model, he is clearly reluctant to talk, withdrawn almost as if he is contemplating a private world of his own.
He answers questions from the other people in the room in an equally laconic and down-to-earth way. How did he feel about dying now? 'I'm thinking about it,' he replied, 'but I don't have any fear now. You always live, it's just that you go to a different place.'
The experience has had a no less profound effect on his mother, Patti. They had been, she said, a totally non-religious family. The first time she'd ever prayed was when she asked God to save Chris's life. Now, she has 'an absolute belief' not merely in God but also in Heaven and life after death.
Such stories provoke a natural skepticism. They sound like the over-the-top tales which Americans seem apt to tell. Is the child, one wonders, simply making it up? Has he seen other stories of near-death experiences on the talk shows which are such a staple of the American TV networks? Has his mother coached him in what to say, precisely in order to make him marketable on those talk-shows?
That skepticism, however, begins to dissolve as one listens to children like Chris Eggleston tell their stories. They are often both reserved and reluctant to talk about their NDEs, partly perhaps because their school friends and teachers have scoffed at what they regard as complete fantasies. The children I met who had had these experiences carried an extra credibility because they were plainly recollecting exactly what had happened to them.
That is also the view of Dr Melvin Morse, the American pediatrician who has made a special study of the near-death experiences of children.
He began as a complete skeptic. When Raymond Moody published his best-seller Life After Life almost 20 years ago, Morse and his associates decided they'd like 'to have a little fun' with Moody by showing that his credulous acceptance of NDEs was just a way of making a fast buck in a country whose people have a pathological fear of death.
Their own theory was that near-death experiences were caused by the effects of an anesthetic called halothane, or a similar kind of medication. 'We thought at the beginning we were going to show that some drug or other caused the experience,' recalled Morse. The more cases they studied, however, the clearer it became that this was not the explanation.
And when Morse - who did not, and still does not believe in God - began coming to the conclusion that there must be some spiritual explanation, his research colleagues dissociated themselves from him. 'They'd have been happier if it had been halothane,' he said with a laugh.
Since then, Morse has talked to no fewer than 80 American children between the ages of five and ten who claim to have had near-death experiences, and is totally convinced that they are genuine, that this is not a case of 'retrospective falsification'.
'I've been studying children for 12 years now,' he said, 'so I know when they're romancing. I also know when parents have coached their kids because I've testified in 50 child abuse cases.'
The first thing which convinces him is the way the children tell their stories - 'It just tumbles straight out, and they never change them subsequently. Unlike some adults, they don't embellish them in terms of their own religious preoccupations. Unlike adults, they don't fill in memory gaps to please the questioner. They just say "I don't remember".'
As an unbeliever himself, he is also intrigued by the fact that, whether the children come from religious or non-religious homes, 'they always endow their experience with feeling of spirituality, a sense of God.'
The other thing which he finds convincing but at the same time inexplicable is that, again and again, children who have told him that they left their bodies and looked down on themselves while they were being treated in hospital have given him verifiable details of what was going on although they were, in fact, unconscious.
He recalls, for example, the case of a little girl of ten who almost died from complications which arose out of her diabetes and who, after she recovered, drew a detailed picture of herself under treatment in the operating theatre. The picture shows two doctors, both of them women, both wearing green masks, but no sign of an intravenous drip.
'So I pulled out the records at the hospital,' recalled Morse. 'Those showed that they couldn't put an IV into her, that both the doctors involved were women and that both were wearing green masks because we had thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that the girl had meningitis. Yet that child was in a deep coma and remained in one afterwards.' And that, he added, was just one case among many.
The skeptics, both in the United States and this country, remain unconvinced. To Daphne Briggs, a child psychotherapist in Oxford, there is nothing surprising about a child painting 'a very lively picture' of what was happening when she was unconscious.
Doctors often used only the very lightest anesthetic when treating children. 'In any case,' she added, 'there is a capacity to register happenings that involve oneself under anesthetic or even in a coma - and then, when one recovers, to recall them using some sort of imagination or memory.'
Christopher Adams, one of Britain's ablest neurosurgeons, heartily disagrees. It was, he said, no longer true that surgeons like himself used light anesthetics on children - 'they get the full whack!' - and, while they could still hear under anesthetic, he found it difficult to believe that they could visualize with their eyes shut.
'I certainly think it most unlikely that they could produce a picture such as that child did,' he said, 'but then we know so little about all this. The medical profession is extremely arrogant and prejudiced. They feel they've always got to have an answer to shore up their so-called expertise.'
Accounts of children having near-death experiences are not limited to the United States. Geoff Freed, a 55-year-old Home Office civil servant, was only four when he had his, 'too early,' as he says, 'for me to have been indoctrinated.
'I'd been ill for quite a while with pleurisy and lung complications and, one Friday afternoon, I drifted into a coma in my parents' bed. After a day, two doctors came and said they thought I was dead. My Dad told me that one of them had said: "I'm sorry, but the little lad's gone."
'Because my parents were orthodox Jews, they didn't want an autopsy done on their Sabbath, so it was fixed for Sunday at 11 in the morning and I was taken to the local morgue. But at half-past ten I came out of the coma, while the Jewish watcher - whose job it is to say prayers over the coffin - was there in the mortuary. According to my parents, it scared the life out of him when I came to!
'I can only assume that the experience I had happened just before I woke up. It's still incredibly real even after all these years. I can remember that my body seemed to be rushing out into space. There was blackness dotted with lights and balls which I would now say looked like planets. There was also a very bright light and I knew that, if I went into it, I would never come back.
'On my left was the bust of a being with a very young, ordinary face, a black beard and a multi-coloured hat. It said - I don't know whether it was in words or mind-to-mind - "My name is Joseph", and indicated that I should look down. As a matter of fact, my own Hebrew name is Joseph.
'When I did as he told me, I saw something turning in space like a coloured tennis ball and I knew I wanted to go down there, though I wasn't scared at all. I knew there was something I had to do. I rushed down and the ball got bigger and bigger until I hit it and woke up on the mortuary shelf.
'My parents always told me it had just been a bad dream but, years later, we were shown pictures of the earth as seen from space and I leapt over the couch, because that was exactly what I had seen. At the time, though, it was all hushed up because they were afraid I would be classified as crazy.'