Review by Charles Demm, 2002
Greeley, Andrew. “Hallucinations among the Widowed.” Sociology and Social Research 71/4 (July, 1987): 258-265.
MacDonald, William L., “Idionecrophanies: The Social Construction of Perceived Contact with the Dead.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32 (2), 1992.
Many people in the United States believe in the reality of some type of experience or ‘contact’ with the dead. Neither Greeley nor MacDonald set out to question the veracity of these claims, rather they reach other conclusions by turning their attention to the data received from recent surveys among widows. The findings of these surveys, they both claim, bolsters their own interpretation of these ‘events’.
Surveys conducted over the past thirty years reveal a general rise in the belief in such experiences. In 1972 25% answered affirmatively to the question posed by the General Social Survey (GSS), ‘How often have you felt as though you were really in touch with someone who had died?’ And by the time of the GSS’s 1984 survey that number had climbed to 40% of the United States. Both Greeley and MacDonald accept the survey results, but their interpretation of this material leads them to different conclusions.
Like MacDonald after him, Greeley’s analysis leads to the overwhelming recognition that two-fifths of the American population has had some type of contact with the dead. And among this group this experience is most likely to occur among the widowed, female, black Catholics or Baptists. That such an experience with the dead correlates more often among those who believe in life after death, pray and attend church regularly, and have experience of at least one of three other types of psychic phenomena (déjà vu, extrasensory perception, and clairvoyance) is not surprising. But the assumption that this type of experience with the dead is causally connected to these social factors is drawn too hastily in Greeley’s opinion. He concludes that the data may show that the widow’s experience of contact with a bereaved person may, in fact, affect the religious imagination and not vice versa, as is usually assumed. If the data does not support such a causal reverse it may at least show that there is an “intricate reciprocal flow between the two phenomena.” (p. 261). Such an experience of a deceased loved one may indeed trigger the imagination of the living towards a more benign view of God. To reject this outright, Greeley says, is hopelessly dogmatic and fails to take into consideration the fact that two-fifths of adult Americans have such experiences.
MacDonald’s research, based on the latest GSS data (1989) fails to heed Greeley’s hint to precede slowly before making any kind of rash decision about the nature of such ‘hallucinations’ among the widowed. He concludes that the ‘perceived contact’ with the dead is a social construction built out of many factors and variables, such as race, gender, age, religious disposition, traumatic experiences, etc. This ‘contact’ may be a tool to help the widow cope with the stress and loss of a loved one. MacDonald concludes that idionecrophanies may occur as part of the process of “constructing the reality of death.” (p. 222). The shape of the reality, however, may be of great variety due to the presence of many social and cultural variables, as well as gender, race and religious imagery.