When Dandy-Hope Verderamo first tried to talk about her near-death experience 26 years ago, everyone scoffed.
What she saw as she hemorrhaged after the birth of her son -- a tunnel suffused with light, seven robed beings, a vision of herself as an old woman waiting on a porch with needlepoint on her lap -- was just a dream or the result of anesthesia, they told her.
"I reached the point where I kept my mouth shut," Ms. Verderamo says.
Today, Ms. Verderamo, 49, sits in her Towson shop, Angels of Hope, knowing she isn't crazy or alone.
Since the 1975 publication of Raymond Moody's "Life after Death," a chronicle of 50 people who visited death and returned, the near-death experience has snowballed into a popular
phenomenon, replete with true believers, skeptics, a slew of books, an international association and "20/20" television exposure.
This weekend, the Baltimore-based Network Of eVolutinary Advancement, addresses the afterlife's eternal hold on the present at a conference called "The Journey Continues: A Near-Death & Reincarnation Conference." The speaker list is a ,, near-death "Who's Who," including Dr. Kenneth Ring, founder of the International Association for Near-Death Studies.
Dr. Melvin Morse, a Maryland-raised pediatrician who studies the visions of children who clinically died and returned to life, will speak, as will Dannion Brinkley, author of a best-selling near-death account, "Saved by the Light."
Needless to say, naysayers -- scientists with dry explanations for near-death experiences, and theologians who consider near-death visions a sloppy shortcut to hard, moral truths -- are not on the roster.
But for those like Mrs. Verderamo, the lessons learned from a near-death experience transcend any attempt to explain its cause scientifically. And though near-death experiences have a way of reflecting a person's religious affiliation, certain universal verities emerge, whether the experiencer is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or something else, says Laurie Koller Schwartz, coordinator of this weekend's conference.
For one, people reporting near-death experiences "are not afraid to die," Ms. Schwartz says.
For another, those who have near-death experiences return with an obligation to recommit one's life to love in its purest, most spiritual form, says Ms. Schwartz, a hypnotherapist and "thanatology consultant" who has counseled near-death experiencers for 14 years.
Ms. Verderamo had a near-death experience during emergency surgery, after severe post-partum hemorrhaging. She struggled with the experience for years afterward -- but she never forgot the question put to her while near death: "How deeply have you loved?"
Ms. Verderamo has learned the importance of trying to "overcome our own selfish ways."
Every day, we are given an opportunity to help others, "even something so minor as letting someone in front of you in traffic." This creates a cosmic domino-effect "that can help their level of kindness," Ms. Verderamo says.
The charge to love more deeply is a direct consequence of the "life review" common to most near-death experiencers, Ms. Schwartz and other experts say. In a life review, one's entire life unfolds like a fast-forwarded movie, from the moment of conception until death. Near-death experiencers feel the joy, grief, embarrassment, and anger they have caused others and see the ripple effect these emotions have beyond immediate circles.
Many near-death experiencers return to life rich with the implications of their actions. As their own spiritual judges, near-death experiencers think twice when they arrive at a moral intersection. They may still make the wrong decision, but at least they're aware of the risks. "In this whole process, we have lots of choices and lots of responsibilities and that's the beauty of it, and that's the way I think God would operate," says Ms. Schwartz, who has never had a near-death encounter.
It took Larry Heath, the 44-year-old owner of a Dundalk laminating business, 10 years to remember and act upon his near-death encounter, experienced after a drinking binge in the service that almost killed him at 23. Mr. Heath led a life rife with drugs, alcohol and trouble with the law. He could not escape the grip of his Cherry Hill neighborhood, and its grim prospects for young men.
But one day, while he was driving, he says he suddenly remembered being in a place of light and peace, reviewing all the worst moments in his life and being reassured by a disembodied voice that not everything in his life was bad. The "experience itself brought me to a new level of understanding of what life was all about," says Mr. Heath, a tall, expressive man.
Gradually, the focus of his life changed from his own pleasure to the welfare of others. In addition to his business, he manages a recovery house for drug addicts and alcoholics. He also operates a small custodial and laundry service that employs his recovering residents.
"I'm not expecting anything in return," Mr. Heath says. "I'm doing what is necessary."
"The Journey Continues: A Near-Death & Reincarnation Conference" takes place Friday Oct. 13 through Sunday Oct. 15 at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson. For information, call (410) 859-7521.