Camille Flammarion & the Mystery of Death

Camille Flammarion (1842-1925)

In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France, a famous, and favourite, personality was the astronomer, science populariser, and science fiction writer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925).1 It is difficult today to gauge the celebrity status that Flammarion held. Men, at least some men, admired and emulated Flammarion, and many a woman swooned over him. As the saying goes, some would “give their right arm” to be in any way associated with the great Flammarion – indeed, in a bizarre but true story, Flammarion received a body part from a deceased young female admirer. How this may have influenced his serious scientific interest in the possibility of life after death is unclear.

The Skin Off Her Back

A young French Countess became amorously infatuated with Flammarion. She is reported to have had an image of Flammarion tattooed on her body. She came down with tuberculosis and, before dying prematurely, she instructed her physician, upon her death, to cut a large piece of skin from her back and deliver it to Flammarion with the request that he have it tanned and use the leather as the binding of his latest book, in honour of her (and thus she would always be close to him, at least in some sense). The desires of the Countess were carried out, and the skin delivered to Flammarion. He duly had it prepared and used to bind a copy of his book Les Terres du Ciel (The Land of the Sky), which he kept in the library of his private observatory in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. On the cover in gold he placed the following inscription: “Pious fulfilment of an anonymous wish. Binding in human skin (woman) 1882.”2

The basic truth of this story has been confirmed (the skin was received and the book bound with it), but there are tantalising details and variations that may or may not be true. In one version, before her death the beautiful Countess invites Flammarion to her chateau, he compliments her on her shoulders, and as a way to ensure that he will never forget her, she arranges for the macabre gift upon her death. In another variation which Flammarion stated was the real truth of the matter, he had never met the Countess in life, and may not have known her name.3

The Mystery of Death

Apart from his anthropodermic adventures, Flammarion had a long and continuing fascination with psychical studies (in modern terms, we would call them parapsychological studies) and the question of what, if anything, lies beyond bodily death. Indeed, this was apparently one of the consuming passions of his life.

By his own account, Flammarion’s serious researches into psychical studies began in 1861 and continued until his death some six and a half decades later. In his lifetime he published such works as The Unknown (1902) and Mysterious Psychic Forces (1907), but his masterpiece and grand synthesis was the three-volume work Death and Its Mystery (1921-1923) – volume 1, Before Death; volume 2, At the Moment of Death; and volume 3, After Death.4

Death and Its Mystery is a massive compilation of evidence, with Flammarion’s analyses, bearing on psychical phenomena and the evidence for an afterlife. In many ways it encapsulates the work of the first generation of serious afterlife researchers, beginning in 1882 with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London. Yet despite the wealth of case studies it contains, many modern investigators of the afterlife have not cited Flammarion’s opus.5 I find this situation rather strange, even inexplicable, unless it is possibly due to Flammarion’s style, which can be rather opinionated, to the point of perhaps alienating the modern reader. Be that as it may, here I will briefly introduce some of Flammarion’s main themes, and also place his work into historical context.

A Plurality of Worlds, in this Life and the Next

One reason Flammarion was so popular with the public is that he was not afraid to speculate. He was not satisfied with simply recounting data and hard facts, but would extrapolate from those facts, mixing in his own speculations. This is seen in his astronomical work from the start. His first book, La Pluralité des Mondes Habités (The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds),6 originally published in 1862 (Flammarion had barely reached adulthood), was a bestseller, going through dozens and dozens of editions. Part of its amazing success was no doubt due to the stance taken by Flammarion, namely that the universe is teaming with life, exotic species, and even intelligent beings on other worlds. Extraterrestrial life, at least according to Flammarion, undoubtedly exists. Such themes were followed up in many of the dozens of books, both nonfiction and fiction, that Flammarion authored during his lifetime.7

Given this “speculative” and “open” attitude of Flammarion, many of his devoted readers expected him to also be open, even supportive of, the concept that there may be more to life than simple material existence – more than the physicists’ matter and energy, as we know it. That is, if there is life on other planets out there in the universe, could not there be the continued existence of life, or something, in some “dimension” or “space” after the dissolution of our material bodies? As Flammarion wrote,

When the first editions of my book “La Pluralité des Mondes habités” were published (1862-64), a certain number of readers seemed to expect the natural sequel: “La Pluralité des existences de l’âme” [The Plurality of the Existence of the Soul]. If the first problem has been considered solved by my succeeding books…, the second has remained an open question, and the survival of the soul, either in space or on other worlds or through earthly reincarnations, still confronts us as the most formidable of problems.8

But, though they may have had to wait nearly sixty years, ultimately Flammarion’s readers received their answer with publication of Death and Its Mystery.

Spiritualism & Psychical Research

The nineteenth century saw the rise of modern Spiritualism, essentially the belief in both survival after death and the ability to communicate with the deceased, for instance during a séance.9 Flammarion was not the only person of the educated classes to take a serious interest in the subject. The SPR was established by a group of Cambridge scholars to seriously and scientifically investigate, among other subjects, spiritualist claims and the possibility of an afterlife.10

Before addressing the question of life beyond the grave directly, the SPR first explored the issue of the reality of telepathic (direct mind-to-mind) interactions. This was seen as important both in its own right and as a possible way that discarnate spirits might communicate with living body-bound individuals. The initial study, spearheaded by SPR member Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), polled 5,705 people concerning possible telepathic experiences and resulted in the two-volume 1886 work titled Phantasms of the Living.11 The evidence in Phantasms of the Living supported the reality of telepathy, but not everyone was convinced, so more data were collected, resulting in a truly massive study.

Between April 1889 and May 1892, 17,000 sane and healthy people were polled as to whether they had ever had any hallucinatory experiences (the vast majority had not), and if so, the details of their experiences. The large number of people polled for the Census of Hallucinations was necessary in order to develop meaningful statistical analyses of the data.12 As the authors of the study realised, given the labour it involved, it was unlikely that such an extensive study would ever be undertaken again. So far, this is true.

While information on all kinds of hallucinations was collected, a special focus of the study was to collect data that could add to the “examination of the evidence for telepathy.”13 In particular, there was a special examination of death coincidences. Here is an example, which I have paraphrased, collected as part of the Census:

Mr. S. Walker-Anderson was living in Australia, while an aunt of his, Mrs. P., was in England. During the night of 17 November 1890 Mr. Walker-Anderson woke up from his sleep and saw his aunt standing near the foot of his bed. He watched her lips move, and although he could hear no sound, he understood that she meant to say “good bye.” The figure of his aunt then gradually vanished. Early the next morning he told his wife about the incident, being convinced that his aunt had died. Both Mr. Walker-Anderson and his wife made written notes of the time and date of the hallucination (or apparition). Some weeks later they learned from first an English newspaper, and later via a personal letter, that the aunt died on the same day and about the same time as Mr. Walker-Anderson’s hallucination (within a few hours, taking the time difference between England and Australia into account).14

This, like all material collected for the study, was carefully examined and cross-examined by the researchers, so that no false evidence would be included.

The authors analysed 65 attested death coincidences collected as part of the Census. A death coincidence was defined as a hallucination, similar to the case described above, occurring within twelve hours before or after the death of an individual. Eliminating all questionable cases, for the purposes of statistical calculations, only 30 of these death coincidences were accepted. These death coincidences were compared to other hallucinations found among the Census participants, the probability of a person dying on any particular day, and various other factors.

Ultimately, the result was that even though death coincidences are very rare, they occur at least 300 to 400 times more often than should due to chance alone! The authors wrote,

Between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connexion [connection] exists which is not due to chance alone. This we hold as a proved fact.15

The authors of the Census were less sanguine concerning possible evidence for postmortem existence. Although they had received some tantalising suggestions of possible communication from the dead, they did not regard the evidence as conclusive.

Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), who had helped author both Phantasms of the Living and the Census of Hallucinations, continued to study the issue of the afterlife until his own death. In his massive, posthumous, two-volume work Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Myers assembled the best evidence up to his time for life after death.16 His conclusions are summarised as follows:

I hold that certain manifestations of central individualities, associated now or formerly with certain definite organisms, have been observed in operation apart from those organisms, both while the organisms were still living, and after they had decayed.17

Thus, in a limited and somewhat circumspect way, Myers asserted that there is an afterlife, at least to some degree for at least some people (and possibly other organisms). This was farther than Phantasms or the Census had taken the subject, but still did not match either spiritualistic or everyday conceptions of an afterlife. Enter Camille Flammarion.

The Psychic Soul

The first task that Flammarion set for himself was to prove the existence of the soul independent of the material body. The second task was to demonstrate that the soul persists even after the dissolution of the physical organism. Let us see how he approached each issue.

Flammarion devotes much of the first volume of his trilogy, Before Death, to a discussion of the evidence for, in his terminology, “supra-normal faculties.” These include the ability to receive information psychically at a distance, classic telepathy, and precognition. Like the SPR studies, Flammarion is absolutely convinced of the reality of telepathy.18 He also argues strongly for the reality of precognition. Flammarion essentially equates the “psychic element differing from the material organism”19 with the concept of the soul. As he states at the end of volume one,

To solve the mystery of death, to establish the survival of the soul, we first had to prove that the soul does exist, individually, an existence proved by special, extra-corporeal faculties, which cannot be included among the properties of the material brain, or among chemical or mechanical reactions; faculties essentially spiritual, such as the will, acting without the spoken word; …telepathy; …the sight by the spirit of a far-off country, of a future scene or event – all phenomena outside the sphere of our physical organism, lacking any common measure with our organic sensations and proving that the soul is a substance which exists in itself.20

Flammarion discusses the possibility that at least some psychic phenomena might be due to unknown, but nonetheless physical or material or energetic causes, for instance something analogous to radio waves as the mode of telepathic transmission, but essentially dismisses such arguments as unrealistic.21 In particular, Flammarion places great importance on the fact that precognition can occur. Even if there is some chance that other “psychic” phenomena, such as telepathy, might ultimately be explainable by some sort of matter or energy phenomena, currently not understood, in Flammarion’s opinion there is no conceivable manner by which precognition – seeing or knowing the future – will ever be explainable by “conventional” physics. (I am not so sure this is actually true given recent developments in physics.22) For Flammarion the reality of precognition proves incontrovertibly that the “psychic element,” the soul, is real and distinct from the physical, mechanical, and chemical organism.

Given its importance to Flammarion’s reasoning, what evidence is there for the reality of precognition? Flammarion cites several examples to make his case, but perhaps the best can be summarised as follows.

On June 27, 1894, at nine a.m. Dr. Gallet (at the time a medical student) was absorbed in studying for an examination in Lyons, France, when he was suddenly obsessed with a sentence that came to his mind: “Monsieur Casimir-Perier is elected President of the republic by four hundred and fifty-one votes.” He not only wrote down the sentence, but told a fellow student. After lunch the two students met a couple of other friends, and all had a good laugh at the “prophecy” since Casimir-Perier was not considered a serious candidate. The election took place at Versailles at two p.m., and that afternoon the students heard a newsboy shouting “Monsieur Casimir-Perier is elected President of the republic by four hundred and fifty-one votes!”23

Given the fact (at least as established to Flammarion’s satisfaction) that the soul can somehow access the future, Flammarion posits that the soul, as an independent being, can survive into the future after the dissolution of the physical body. Volume 3 of Death and Its Mystery is devoted to the supposed occurrences or manifestations of the once living at time periods that clearly fall well after physical death. (The second volume is devoted to manifestations of the dying, death coincidences, that may be explainable by telepathy among the living, even if some of the “living” are about to die or in the throes of death.)

Flammarion cites numerous reputed manifestations and apparitions of the dead. Here is one, which for the sake of space, I have paraphrased.

On September 2, 1916, Madame A. Clarinval suddenly and inexplicably “knew” that her son, a pilot with the French air forces, was in danger. Two days later she was informed that at that very day and hour her son had disappeared behind German lines. After the end of the war, the family found out that the son had died and was buried in a soldiers’ graveyard at Dieppe, France. Madame Clarinval and her husband made four trips to the graveyard, but were unsuccessful in locating their son’s body. Then, on May 25, 1920, Madame Clarinval had a vision. She saw the face of her son in a group of trees, and on either side of him were the faces of two young men, a Russian and a German. It was subsequently discovered that her vision happened when, to the day, bodies were being exhumed from the graveyard and moved. Ultimately she and her husband went back to the cemetery area and found the body of their son buried between that of a Russian soldier and a German soldier. Madame Clarinval was convinced that her son had come back from the grave to direct her to the location of his bodily remains.24

As Flammarion acknowledged, the issue is whether or not such cases necessarily require the manifestation of the dead to explain all the details.

In general we can eliminate only with great difficulty the possibility of influence exerted by living persons’ minds.25

In the incident of Madame Clarinval, everything could conceivably be explained by telepathy (between her and her son when he died, and possibly between her and grave workers, although she did not know the grave workers), perhaps combined with her own precognition of the future – namely a precognition of finding her son’s grave. However, if we are to posit a precognition on her part of finding the grave, that precognition also seems to be the very factor that allows her to find the grave. How can this be? Flammarion and like-minded thinkers find the argument that the son is actually communicating from the beyond more convincing.

Reincarnation on Venus and Mars

Flammarion, like Myers before him, concluded that apparitions or manifestations of the dead are real, but they decline sharply with time after death.26 The vast majority occur within the first days and weeks after death, and by the end of the first year, manifestations of the dead are exceedingly rare, although Flammarion contends that some have occurred up to decades after death.

What do we make of this pattern? Do the deceased, perhaps occasionally, remain in our everyday terrestrial realm for a short period of time, before leaving? The longer the temporal duration after bodily death, perhaps the more likely it is that the deceased will have left the terrestrial realm? Such a hypothesis would account for the rapid drop off of apparitions as we become farther removed temporally from the death incident. But what happens to the deceased? Where do they go? I will conclude this article with Flammarion’s speculations:

In our total ignorance, from a scientific point of view, of the conditions of ultra-terrestrial life, we can only make conjectures as to this life. We know, and shall know henceforth, that the soul exists. To admit this survival leads us to admit preëxistence. Earthly life is but a phase in the life of the spirit. The doctrine of reincarnation is, moreover, the only one which remains admissible after we have pondered all metaphysical considerations, and it is the oldest of definite religious beliefs. There must be both a previous existence and an after life.27

Ever the astronomer, Flammarion adds,

There is no reason for thinking that the reincarnations of the human soul are limited to our planet. Nor is it unscientific to attribute to psychic monads the faculty of voyaging through the immensities of space, of passing from one planet to another – from the earth to Mars, Venus, or some other world.28


This article was published in New Dawn 123.
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Footnotes

1. His full name was Nicolas Camille Flammarion, but he went by Camille Flammarion.
2. The original French reads, Exécution pieuse dun voeu anonyme. Reliure en peau humaine (femme) 1882; see, Steven Connor, The Book of Skin, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004, 45. See also, Dan Alban, “Books Bound in Human Skin; Lampshade Myth?”, Harvard Law Recored, article dated 11 November 2005, updated 29 September 2009, posted at: www.hlrecord.org/2.4462/books-bound-in-human-skin-lampshade-myth-1.579032?pagereq=2 (Accessed 18 September 2010); David Darling, “Flammarion, (Nicolas) Camille (1842–1925)”, posted at: www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/F/Flammarion.html (Accessed 18 September 2010).
3. With regard to the bookbinding incident, Flammarion wrote to Dr. Cabanès, editor of a French medical journal: “My Dear Doctor: The story has been somewhat elaborated. I don’t know the name of the person whose dorsal skin was delivered to me by a physician to use for binding. It was a matter of carrying out a pious vow. Some newspapers, especially in America, published the portrait, the name, and even the photograph of the chateau where ‘The Countess’ dwelt. All of that is pure invention. The binding was successfully executed by Engel, and from then on the skin was unchanging. I recollect I had to carry this relic to a tanner in the Rue de la Reine-Blanche, and three months were required for the job. Such an idea was assuredly bizarre. However, in point of fact, this vestige of a beautiful body is all that survives of it today, and it can endure lastingly in a perfect state of respectful preservation. The desire of the unknown woman was to have my last book published at the time of her death bound in this skin: the octavo edition of the Terres du ciel, published by Didier enjoys this honor. Your reader and admirer, Flammarion.” Note that even though Flammarion supposedly did not know the name of the person who left him her skin, he considered it a “vestige of a beautiful body.” My instinct is that he may well have known what she looked like, and may have admired her physically, or else he would have written something to the effect of “a beautiful soul,” especially in the light of his studies, even in the early 1880s, of the distinction between the material body and the immaterial soul. I suspect he had an eye for the young, beautiful, intelligent woman. His second wife, astronomer Gabrielle Renaudot (1876–1962; they married in 1919), was over thirty years younger. [English translation of Flammarion’s letter quoted from: Kathy Lechuga, “Flesh and Ink: A Brief Overview of Books Bound in Human Skin”, paper dated Fall 2007. Posted at: www.ischool.utexas.edu/~klechuga/human%20skin%20bindings%20paper.pdf (Accessed 18 September 2010).]
4. Here I am here citing the American versions of his books: Camille Flammarion, The Unknown, New York: Harper and Bros., 1902; Camille Flammarion, Mysterious Psychic Forces, Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1907; Camille Flammarion, Death and Its Mystery: Before Death: Proofs of the Existence of the Soul (Translated by E. S. Brooks), New York: The Century Co, 1921 [there was also a 1922 Century Co. edition]; Camille Flammarion, Death and Its Mystery: At the Moment of Death: Manifestations and Apparitions of the Dying; ‘Doubles;’ Phenomena of Occultism (Translated by Latrobe Carroll), New York: The Century Co, 1922; Camille Flammarion, Death and Its Mystery: After Death: Manifestations and Apparitions of the Dead; The Soul after Death (Translated by Latrobe Carroll), New York: The Century Co, 1923. Death and Its Mystery was originally published in France under the title La Mort et son Mystère, in three volumes, 1) La Mort et son Mystère: Avant la Mort, 2) La Mort et son Mystère: Autour de la Mort, and 3) La Mort et son Mystère: Après la Mort, Paris, Ernest Flammarion [Camille Flammarion’s brother], 1920-1922. In France tens of thousands of copies of La Mort et son Mystère were printed in the first few years after initial publication, and Flammarion revised and added to subsequent printings.
5. For instance, I failed to find any discussion of Flammarion in: Stephen E. Braude, Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life after Death, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003; David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife?, Ropley, Hants, UK: O Books, 2005 [reprinted 2007]; Gary Doore, editor, What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life After Death, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990.
6. Camille Flammarion, La Pluralité des Mondes Habités: Étude où l’on expose les conditions d’habiabilité des Terres célestes (septieme edition), Paris: Didier, 1865.
7. For examples of his fictional work, see: Camille Flammarion, Omega: The Last Days of the World, New York: The Cosmopolitan Company, 1894; Camille Flammarion, Urania, Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1890.
8. Flammarion, 1921, 3-4.
9. According to Latrobe Carroll, translator of volumes 2 and 3 of Death and Its Mystery into English, Flammarion considered Spiritualism to be “the general doctrine that departed spirits hold intercourse with mortals” while Spiritism refers to “mediumistic research” (footnote to Flammarion, 1923, 319). Mediumistic research is basically the concept of using a person, a medium, as the go-between for communication between this world and the next.
10. See: Robert M. Schoch and Logan Yonavjak, editors and compilers, The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008, 15; William G. Roll, “My Search for the Soul,” Chapter 2 (50-67) in Body, Mind, Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality, edited by Charles T. Tart, Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 1997, 52; Charles E. Tart, “World Parliament of Superstition? Scientific Evidence for a Basic Reality to the Spiritual,” Chapter 1 (33-49) in Body, Mind, Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality, edited by Charles T. Tart, Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 1997, 44.
11. Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore, Phantasms of the Living, two volumes, London: Rooms of the Society for Psychical Research and Trübner and Co., 1886.
12. Henry Sidgwick, Alice Johnson, Frederic W. H. Myers, Frank Podmore, and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, “Report of the Census of Hallucinations”, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 10, part 26, 25-422 (1894).
13. Sidgwick, et. al., 1894, 26.
14. Sidgwick, et. al., 1894, 211-213.
15. Sidgwick, et. al., 1894, 394, italics in the original.
16. Frederic W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, two volumes, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1903 [1954 reprint].
17. Frederic W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (edited and abridged by his son Leopold Hamilton Myers), New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907, 27.
18. In my opinion, any open and unbiased thinker, after carefully reviewing all of the evidence, will conclude that telepathy can genuinely occur; see Schoch and Yonavjak, 2008.
19. Flammarion, 1922, 12.
20. Flammarion, 1921, 321, italics in the original.
21. See Chapter 1, “The Positive Method”, in Flammarion, 1922, 3-33.
22. For discussions of precognition, see: Robert Schoch, “Can We See into the Future? A Scientist Looks for Evidence of Precognition”, Atlantis Rising, no. 71, 40, 67-69 (September/October 2008); Robert M. Schoch, “Grasping the Future: Can We Change It or Is Free Will an Illusion?”, Atlantis Rising, no. 73, 23, 59-61 (January/February 2009); Robert M. Schoch, “E’ possibile prevedere il futuro? La realtà della precognizione”, Hera, no. 123, 80-81 (April 2010).
23. Flammarion was particularly impressed by this case, and he cites it both in volume 1 (pages 270-272) and volume 2 (pages 11-12) of Death and Its Mystery.
24. Flammarion, 1923, 282-290.
25. Flammarion, 1923, 282.
26. Flammarion, 1923, 299; Myers, 1903/1954, vol. 2, 14.
27. Flammarion, 1923, 388.
28. Flammarion, 1923, 391.

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About the Author

Classically trained (Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale University), Dr. Schoch has been a fulltime faculty member at Boston University since 1984. For over two decades Dr. Schoch has been studying ancient civilizations around the world, in such diverse countries as Egypt, Turkey, Bosnia, Romania, Wales, Scotland, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile (Easter Island), Indonesia, and Japan. In the early 1990s, Dr. Schoch's geological analyses of the Great Sphinx demonstrated that the statue is thousands of years older than the conventional dating of 2500 BCE, bringing him worldwide fame. This work has been both controversial and pivotal in reshaping our understanding of the origin and history of civilization. Recent discoveries in Turkey, particularly at Göbekli Tepe, confirm the very ancient origins of civilization, going back to the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. For more information about Dr. Robert Schoch, visit his personal website: www.robertschoch.com

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