Frances Power Cobbe’s “The Peak in Darien: The Riddle of Death” (1882)

Humans have always wondered what becomes of individual consciousness after death. Does it disappear all at once? Fade? Does it find some new existence in a dimension the living cannot see? In the nineteenth century, belief in some sort of unseen spiritual world was taken for granted by almost everyone. But with the Second Great Awakening in America came the birth of “spiritualism”, which held that the dead (or rather “discarnate humans”) were not only able but eager to speak to the living, with the aid of mediums, who often charged a pretty penny for their services.

In 1882 — five years before the Seybert Commission debunked slate writing, spirit rappings, and ghost photography, among other spiritualist practices — the Irish writer and women’s rights advocate Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) published an essay called “The Peak in Darien: The Riddle of Death.”

Cobbe, who was no friend of superstitions, begins by observing that “inquirers into so-called ‘Spiritual’ manifestations” have bitten off more than they can chew by trying to “obtain communication with the dead”. Instead, she suggests, we might better “penetrate the great secret of mortality” by paying attention to the dying. While she concedes “it is possible that the natural law of death may be that the departed always sink into a state of unconsciousness, and rather dip beneath a Lethe than leap a Rubicon”, she adds, “there is also at least a possibility that consciousness is not always lost, but is continuous through the passage from one life to another”.

Cobbe finds proof of this possibility in the many reports of happy visions seen by the dying. A lover of poetry, Cobbe connects these deathbed visions with John Keats’ description, in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, of the awe Cortez must have felt when, “with eagle eyes”, he first stared at the Pacific—

... and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

A dying person is, according to Cobbe, our “forerunner on the hill-top” and perhaps shows “by his looks and actions, since he is too far off to speak to us, that he beholds from his ‘Peak in Darien’ an Ocean yet hidden from our view?”

Cobbe cites a number of deathbed scenes in which the dying are gladdened to see their deceased children and relations, or become ecstatic at the sight of a vision invisible to others — such as the elderly man “dying of a painful disease” who, in his last moments, “opened his eyes wide, and gazed eagerly upward with such an unmistakable expression wonder and joy that a thrill of awe passed through all who witnessed it”.

But perhaps the most curious incident Cobbe relates concerns a dying lady who was delighted to see,

one after another, three of her brothers who had long been dead, and then, apparently, recognized last of all a fourth brother, who was believed by the bystanders to be still living in India. The coupling of his name with that of his dead brothers excited such awe and horror in the mind of one of the persons present that she rushed from the room. In due course of time, letters were received announcing the death of the brother in India, which had occurred some time before his dying sister seemed to recognize him.

Indeed, in the years since the publication of Cobbe’s essay, the term “Peak in Darien” Experiences has come to describe, in the words of Bruce Greyson, a range of “mystical experiences” in which the dying see either a dead person they could not have known was dead or a dead person they could never have known at all. Though this is a somewhat narrower definition of a “Peak in Darien” Experience than Cobbe intended, it does speak to our abiding fascination with what becomes of consciousness, individuality, and experience after death.

Cobbe herself expresses it very well:

[F]or most of us, God be thanked, no dream of celestial glory has half the ecstasy of the thought that in dying we may meet — and *meet at once*, before we have had a moment to feel the awful loneliness of death — the parent, wife, husband, child, friend of our life, soul of our soul, whom we consigned long ago with breaking hearts to the grave. Their “beautiful” forms…entering our chamber, standing beside our bed of death, and come to rejoin us for ever, — what words can describe the happiness of such a vision? It *may* be awaiting us all. There is even, perhaps, a certain probability that it is actually the natural destiny of the human soul, and that the affections which alone of earthly things can survive dissolution will, like magnets, draw the beloved and loving spirits of the dead around the dying. I can see no reason why we should not indulge so ineffably blessed a hope.