In 1975 Raymond Moody published his groundbreaking book Life After Life, which introduced the term "near-death experience" to the general public. In the years since, as many thousands of NDEs have been reported, some skeptics have been driven to claim that the NDE is a mere "meme," an idea that people picked up from Moody or from subsequent books on the subject, which they repeat in the same way that they might repeat the jingle from a TV commercial. Thus, these skeptics say, the rash of NDE reports is simply a tribute to the power of suggestion.
This idea has little to recommend it, since many of the NDErs had never heard of Moody or of NDEs before their experience. An even more telling objection is that NDEs were, in fact, reported well before Life After Life was ever published. Stories resembling NDEs can be traced back to antiquity and to medieval times. Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Ascent to the Empyrean seems to depict an NDE.
While reading Jule Eisenbud's The World of Ted Serios, I came across a brief discussion of out-of-body experiences that are relevant to NDEs. The book was published in 1967, well before Moody's book came out. Eisenbud writes,
Apparently a higher percentage of the general population than is generally thought -- 25 per cent, according to some authorities -- have at one time or another experienced the sensation of leaving their bodies and, briefly or at greater length, seeing themselves or other things from a distance, almost invariably from a higher position in space, as if their point of perception were in a floating position or in a balloon. So-called out-of-the-body experiences have been reported in fevers, in states such as migraine and epilepsy, in delirium, under anesthesia, after shock, and in moribund conditions, especially the latter. Many such reports have been given by people who have briefly experienced clinical death, and who have later been revived....
A significant aspect of these experiences is the unanimity of agreement among those who report them ... as to the complete qualitative difference between the experience of being out of the body and states of dreaming or reverie.... And although many of these out-of-the-body experiences take place under conditions, such as traumatic concussion or terminal coma, in which awareness of any conscious kind, even dreaming, is supposed not to occur, some organized aspect of the person involved seems to perceive itself and its environment with perfect, sometimes preternatural clarity.... This part of the individual, moreover, seems to have a firm sense of continuity with his prior self, and has the experience of moving about in space on its own volition.
He then quotes from a report published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 34, 1948, p. 207. It recounts what we might now call a near-death experience that took place on August 3rd, 1944, in Normandy. The experiencer, an armored car officer, was hit by fire from an antitank gun, and his vehicle exploded. He was thrown from the vehicle, passing over a hedge. When he hit the ground, he was on fire. He reported,
I was conscious of being two persons -- one, lying on the ground in a field where I had fallen from the blast, my clothes, etc., on fire, and waving my limbs about wildly, at the same time uttering moans and gibbering with fear -- I was quite conscious of both making these sounds, and at the same time hearing them as though coming from another person. The other 'me' was floating up in the air, about 20 feet from the ground, from which position I could see not only my other self on the ground, but also the hedge, the road, and the car which was surrounded by smoke and burning fiercely. I remember quite distinctly telling myself: 'It's no use gibbering like that -- roll over and over to put the flames out.' This my ground body eventually die, rolling over into a ditch under the hedge where there was a slight amount of water. The flames went out, and at this stage I suddenly became one person again.
In a footnote Eisenbud adds, "Several hundred cases of out-of-the-body experiences, of varying degrees of authentication, have been collected by Crookall (1964) and classified according to the state of the individual and time of the experience -- normal health, exhaustion, illness, shock, or moribundity." The book by Robert Crookall is More Astral Projections, The Aquarian Press, 1964, which is itself a sequel to his 1961 work The Study and Practice of Astral Projections, released by the same publisher.
So it appears that experiences that would now be classified as NDEs have been collected and evaluated since the mid-1960s, and many of these cases date back decades before that time.