I'm always interested in near-death experiences that were reported before NDEs became popularized in the media. Recently I came across one in an unexpected place -- a book about reincarnation by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, titled Past Lives: An Investigation Into Reincarnation Memories.
In Chapter 1, the famous case of Shanti Deva is sketched out. When she was four years old, Shanti, a native of Delhi, India, began talking about a past life lived in a town eighty miles away. Though her parents did their best to discourage her, she eventually convinced them to take her seriously by naming her husband in her previous life and the address of their home. The husband had indeed lost his young life in childbirth shortly before Shanti was born. Alert to the possibility of fraud, the husband's family subjected Shanti to various tests, all of which she passed. Finally they accepted her story as true.
In contrast to many such cases, Shanti retained her reincarnation memories until her death in 1987 at age 61. The book observes, "To the end of her life she maintained her conviction that she had lived before as Lugdi. She remained in touch with Lugdi's family and was an honored guest at family occasions."
But what about the NDE? The authors continue:
There is an interesting postscript to this story. Four years after Shanti's initial reunion with her family, in 1939, the whole case was re-examined by Mr. Sushil Bose. He interviewed Shanti, and for the first time asked her detailed questions not just about her previous life as Lugdi but about her death. What she told him seemed at the time preposterous. Shanti described how just before death she felt a profound darkness and then saw a dazzling light. She knew then that she had come out of her body in a vaporous form. She described seeing four men in saffron robes who had come for her, a beautiful garden and a river. Now, half a century later, this is instantly recognizable as a typical near-death experience....
Before the 1970s, when Raymond Moody wrote his first book on the subject, Life After Life, little was known about near-death experience. Shanti's description has many of the typical features of near-death experience -- her awareness of her consciousness leaving her body, her meeting with a being of light and then entering a wonderful garden -- and also has cultural features (being collected by men in saffron robes) which are more typical of an Indian experience. It is highly unlikely that a young child could have invented this, and [there was] at that time no way she could have been told about it or read it. She believed she had the experience at the time of her death in childbirth in her previous life: we don't, unfortunately, know whether she had ever been seriously ill in her present life, and perhaps had a near-death experience that later surfaced as an apparent memory from a previous life.
Of course, if we take the story at face value, then technically it is not a near-death experience; it is a death experience. And in that case, we might be justified in thinking that NDEs do accurately capture at least the early stages of the true dying process.
P.S. A more detailed account of Shanti Deva's NDE, featuring quotations from interviews with her, is found here.