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Rev Relig Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Sep 2.
Published in final edited form as:
Rev Relig Res. 2011 Jun; 52(4): 347–364.
PMCID: PMC3165003
NIHMSID: NIHMS180631

Reported Contact with the Dead, Religious Involvement, and Death Anxiety in Late Life

Abstract

The purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between contact with the dead and death anxiety. The data come from an ongoing nationwide survey of older adults. A conceptual model is developed that contains the following theoretical linkages: (1) making contact with the dead instills a deeper appreciation of the connection that exists among all people; (2) this fundamental sense of connectedness with others fosters a deeper sense of religious meaning in life; and (3) individuals with a deeper sense of religious meaning in life are less likely to experience feelings of death anxiety than people who have not been able to find meaning in life through religion. The findings from this study provide support for each of these relationships. The theoretical implications of these hypotheses are discussed.

Introduction

Research reveals that a surprising number of people report they have had some sort of contact with a loved one who has died. For example, Klugman (2006) found that 62.6% of the participants in his study say they have been in contact with the dead, Greeley (1987) indicates that over 40% of his study participants experienced having contact with people who have died, and 35.6% of the people in MacDonald's (1992) research say they had made contact with the dead. As these studies reveal, contact with the dead may take many forms, such as seeing the dead, hearing a dead person speak, feeling the touch of a person who has died, or dreaming about a deceased loved one. So far, research on having contact with the dead has focused primarily on two issues. The first has to do with identifying the demographic correlates of having contact with the dead, including variations by age, sex, marital status, and race (Kalish and Reynolds 1973; Klugman 2006). In contrast, a second cluster of studies have assessed outcomes that are associated with having contact with the dead. This research indicates that people who have made contact with a dead loved one tend to cope more effectively during the grieving process than individuals how have not had contact with the dead (e.g., Bennett, Hughes, and Smith 2005; Field and Friedrich 2004). This is consistent with the results that are reported by Kalish and Reynolds (1973), who found that the majority of the participants in their study said that having contact with the dead was a pleasant experience.

One outcome that has not received sufficient attention in the literature has to do with feelings of death anxiety. Based on the research discussed above, it would seem that having contact with the dead would reduce unpleasant feelings about death. But rather than focusing solely on this issue, researchers need to know more about why contact with the dead may reduce feelings of death anxiety. A core premise in the current study is that religion may have something to do with it. In the discussion that follows, a conceptual model is presented that was designed to explain how religion may help people who have had contact with the dead avoid feelings of death anxiety.

Contact with the Dead and Death Anxiety

The latent variable model that was developed for this study is presented in Figure 1. Two steps were taken to simplify the presentation of this conceptual scheme. First, the elements in the measurement model (i.e., the factor loadings and measurement error terms) are not depicted in this model. Second, the relationships among the constructs in this model were estimate after the effects of age, sex, race, and education were controlled statistically.

Figure 1
A Conceptual Model of Contact with the Dead and Death Anxiety

The overall conceptual thrust of this model is captured in the following linkages that are embedded in Figure 1: (1) Making contact with the dead instills a deeper appreciation of the connection that exists among all people; (2) this fundamental sense of connectedness with others fosters a deeper sense of religious meaning in life; and (3) individuals with a deeper sense of religious meaning in life are less likely to experience feelings of death anxiety than people who have not been able to find meaning in life through religion. The theoretical rationale for each of these linkages is provided below. The data for the current study come from an ongoing nationwide survey of older adults. Consequently, it is important to briefly reflect on why it is important to study the relationship between having contact with the dead and death anxiety among people in this age group. This issue is addressed after the theoretical foundations for this study have been presented.

Contact with the Dead and Connectedness with Others

Researchers have developed a number of models to explain the grieving process. One such conceptual scheme is called the Continuing Bonds model (e.g., Field, Oz, and Bonnano 2003). According to this theoretical framework, “.…bereaved individuals often report a sense of the deceased's presence as a source of comfort in dealing with the stress over the loss. Reports of such experiences well on after the death have been cited as evidence that the attachment bond to the deceased loved one does not end with death but continues on….” (Field and Friedrichs 2004:598). As this observation reveals, having contact with the dead helps the grieving person retain a sense of connectedness or bonding with the individual who has passed away. However, the Continuing Bonds model is typically evoked to explain how people cope with the death of a spouse (e.g., Field and Friedrichs 2004). Fortunately, the findings from several other studies reveal that having contact with the dead may produce a sense of connectedness with a wider circle of people than this. For example, research by Klugman (2006) reveals that people report having contact with dead friends as well as dead family members. In addition, the results from a recent qualitative study on contact with the dead by Krause and Bastida (2009a) indicate that some people feel that having contact with the dead makes them think about the bonds they hope to maintain with members of the younger generations they will someday leave behind.

If people who have had contact with the dead feel that timeless bonds exist with family, friends, and future generations, then perhaps having contact with the dead also instills a deeper appreciation for the bonds that exist among all people. Some indirect support for this notion may be found in a study by Piedmont (1999). He developed a scale to assess spiritual transcendence. The relationship between two of the dimensions (i.e., factors) that comprise this scale hint at this wider sense of connectedness. Although the first factor does not assess having contact with the dead directly, two items that are embedded in it come quite close to doing so: “Although dead, images of some of my relatives continue to influence my current life” and “I have strong emotional ties with someone who has died”. The second factor contains an indicator that speaks directly to feelings of connectivity with all people: “I feel that on a higher level, all of us share common bonds.” As Piedmont (1999) reports, there is a statistically significant relationship between these two dimensions of spiritual transcendence.

Even though the studies that have been discussed up to this point provide support for the notion that having contact with the dead instills a deeper appreciation for the bonds that exist among all people, the underlying theoretical rationale for this relationship is still not entirely clear. Some insight into this issue may be found by elaborating and extending the work of the early social theorists.

Edward Alsworth Ross(1896) was one of the first presidents of the American Sociological Association. He defined religion solely in terms of its social roots. And in the process of doing so, he placed an emphasis on the bonds that exist among all people. More specifically, Ross proposed that religion is, “…the conviction of an ideal bond between members of society and the feelings that arise in consequence of that conviction” (1896: 434, emphasis in the original). But more importantly, Ross (1896) maintained that the dead play a special role in the creation of these ideal bonds. More specifically, he argued that, “The dead are the cement that unites men. To have the same gods, to be watched, loved, and protected by the same deities, to be destined to join the same unseen company at death - these created fellowship” (Ross, 1896:437).

The work of Piedmont (1999) and Ross (1896) is important because it suggests that contact with the dead may foster an awareness of the common bond among all people. Moreover, this awareness is based upon underlying religious foundation. However, the research of these investigators does not provide an intuitively pleasing sense of precisely how this process operates. Cast within the context of the current study, it is proposed that coming into contact with the dead vividly brings to the foreground the striking realization that there really is life after death. Knowing that everyone will continue to exist after death suggests that all individuals share a common fate. As people begin to realize that they share a common fate, they are likely become more sympathetic and more compassionate towards each other. And ultimately, as Wuthnow (1991:298) maintains, this sympathy, “…links the whole community.”

Taken as a whole, the literature that is provided in this section leads to the following study hypothesis: Compared to people who have not had contact with the dead, individuals who have been contacted by a dead person will be more likely to believe that their faith helps them see the common bonds that exist among all people.

Connectedness with Others and Religious Meaning in Life

As Krause (2008a) discusses in some detail, Ross (1896) was by no means the only scholar to argue that social relationships lie at the heart of religion. In fact, many contemporary researchers subscribe to the same point of view. For example, Paul Tillich (1987:27), a noted liberal theologian, argued that, “…the act of faith, like every act in man's spiritual life, is dependent upon language, and therefore the community. For only in the community of spiritual beings is the language alive.” Similar conclusions are reached by Levin (2001) in his comprehensive discussion of research on religion, spirituality, and health. After reviewing the literature on religion and health he concludes, “I believe that supportive relationships provided through active religious fellowship best explain the findings we have examined” (Levin 2001:58). Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009) provide a good point of departure for developing a plausible explanation for why social relationships lie at the heart of religion. They persuasively argue that one of the basic functions of religion is to provide people with sense of meaning in life. This observation is important because Berger maintains in his classic book on religion, the Sacred Canopy (1967:16), that a sense of meaning, or nomos, is, “…built up in the consciousness of the individual by conversation with significant others.” And, as Berger (1967) goes on to point out, a good deal of this conversation takes place in religious settings. But Berger (1967) does not adequately describe the conditions in religious institutions that foster this kind of conversation. Conversations about the meaning of life are not likely to arise among people who do not feel close to others. Instead, it seems that people will be more likely to have the kind of intimate conversation that is discussed by Berger (1967) if they feel a deep sense of connectivity with other individuals. It follows from this that people who feel a closely connected with others should therefore experience a greater sense of religious meaning in life.

Religious Meaning in Life and Death Anxiety

An extensive literature suggests that people who are more deeply involved in religion tend to enjoy better mental health than individuals who are less involved in religion (Koenig, McCullough and Larson 2001). However, as Thorson (1998) astutely observes, this general relationship depends upon the dimension of religion that is under consideration as well as the nature of the mental health outcome that is being investigated. Researchers who study religion and mental health have devoted a good deal of attention to the interface between religion and death anxiety (e.g., Powell and Thorson 1991). Death anxiety is generally defined as uneasiness and uncertainty that is associated with death, including the extent to which a person feels prepared to die as well as fear that is associated with having a painful death. Unfortunately, as Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009) point out, findings from studies on religion and death anxiety have been inconsistent. Although there are likely to be a number of reasons for these inconsistent results, at least part of the problem may be associated with the way religion has been measured.

Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009) convincingly argue that one of the major functions of religion is to provide a sense of meaning in life. But more importantly, the sense of meaning that arises from involvement in religion may be especially well suited for assuaging many of the concerns that are typically associated with feelings of death anxiety (Groth-Marnat 1992). More specifically, religion provides explanations of the purpose in life, the reason for suffering in life, the promise of life after death, and answers to the ultimate concerns in life (e.g., belief in the ultimate authority, love, and protectiveness of God). As Tolstoy (1905/2000:18) aptly put it, “No matter what answer faith may give, its every answer gives to the finite existence of man the sense of the infinite - a sense which is not destroyed by suffering, privation, or death.”If people are able to find these insights and answers through their faith they should be less likely to experience death anxiety than people who do not find meaning through religion. There do not appear to be any studies in the literature that specifically examine the relationship between a religiously-based sense of meaning in life and death anxiety. One of the main contributions of the current study is to address this gap in the knowledge base.

Further Specifications

There is some evidence that attendance at worship services is associated with a number of the core variables contained in Figure 1. More specifically, a study by Krause and Bastida (2009b) suggests that individuals who attend church services on a regular basis are more likely to feel a deep sense of connectedness with all people than individuals who do not go to worship services as often. Moreover, Krause (2008b) reports that more frequent attendance at worship services is also associated with a greater sense of meaning in life. And research by Krause and Ellison (2003) reveals that more frequent church attendance is associated with lower levels of death anxiety. The effect of church attendance on these key study measures is controlled statistically in the current study in order to help insure that the results reflect the influence of having contact with the dead per se.

One additional point regarding the influence of church attendance should also be taken into consideration. As shown in Figure 1, no attempt is made to determine the direction of causality between having contact with the dead and the frequency of church attendance. Instead, the structural disturbance terms that are associated with these constructs are allowed to correlate freely. There are two reasons for making this specification. First, there does not appear to be a compelling theoretical rationale for specifying the direction of causality between these two constructs. Second, findings from empirical studies indicate that the relationship between participation in formal religious institutions is not significantly associated with mystical experiences (including having contact with the dead) in late life (e.g., Levin 1993).

Bringing Age-Related Issues to the Foreground

Recall that the participants in the current study are all older adults. Although it is not possible to assess age differences in the relationship between contact with the dead and death anxiety, it is nevertheless helpful to speculate on why it is important to examine the relationship between these constructs with data that have been provided by older people. Feelings of connectedness with others and finding a religious sense of meaning in life are two of the pivotal constructs in the model that was devised for this study. Research reveals that age is associated with both of them.

Carstensen's (1992) theory of Socioemotional Selectivity specifies that as people go through life and get closer to death, they tend to re-evaluate their priorities. Chief among these priorities is social relationships. As Carstensen (1992) argues, older people develop an increasing preference of relationships that are emotionally close and as a result, they disengage from more peripheral social ties. If older adults only maintain close social relationships as they near death, then their sense of connectedness with other individuals should be especially strong.

There is also some evidence that deriving a sense of meaning in life becomes especially salient as people enter their final years. Conceptual insight into the nature of these age-related changes may be found in Erikson's (1959) widely cited theory of adult development. He divides the life course into eight development stages. Each stage contains its own unique developmental challenge. The final stage in life is characterized by the crisis of integrity versus despair. This is a time of deep introspection where older people look back over their lives and attempt to reconcile what they set out to do with what they were actually able to accomplish. Meeting this challenge successfully allows them to weave the story of their lives into a more coherent whole. Those who are able to do so therefore derive a deeper sense of meaning in life.

In their extensive meta-analysis, Fortner and Neimeyer (1999) were unable to find a significant relationship between religious involvement and death anxiety among older people. However, the studies they examined focused on measures of religious behavior (e.g., church attendance and prayer) rather than markers of religious beliefs. They speculate that their findings might have been different had measures of religious beliefs been examined. As discussed below, the measures of connectedness with others and meaning in life are explicitly grounded in the context of religion. Moreover, both represent different types of religious beliefs. So evaluating the impact of these measures on death anxiety is consistent with the recommendation of Fortner and Neimeyer (1999). However, there do not appear to be any studies in the literature that assess the relationship between these two measures of religiousness and death anxiety. Doing so is important because if religious beliefs affect feelings of death anxiety, and feelings of religiously-based connectedness with others and meaning in life are especially pronounced in late life, then samples that are comprised of older adults are especially well suited for this purpose.

Methods

Sample

The data for this study come from an ongoing nationwide survey of older whites and older African Americans. The study population was defined as all household residents who were either black or white, noninstitutionalized, English-speaking, and at least 66 years of age. Geographically, the study population was restricted to all eligible persons residing in the coterminous United States (i.e., residents of Alaska and Hawaii were excluded). Finally, the study population was restricted to currently practicing Christians, individuals who were Christian in the past but no longer practice any religion, and people who were not affiliated with any faith at any point in their lifetime. This study was designed to explore a range of issues involving religion. As a result, individuals who practice a faith other than Christianity were excluded because members of the research team felt it would be too difficult to devise a comprehensive battery of religion measures that would be suitable for individuals of all faiths.

The sampling frame consisted of all eligible persons contained in the beneficiary list maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). A five-step process was used to draw the sample from the CMS Files (see Krause 2002a for a detailed discussion of these steps).

The baseline survey took place in 2001. The data collection for all waves of interviews was conducted by Harris Interactive (New York). A total of 1,500 interviews were completed, face-to-face, in the homes of the study participants. Older African Americans were over-sampled so that sufficient statistical power would be available to assess racial cultural differences in religion. As a result, the Wave 1 sample consisted of 748 older whites and 752 older African Americans. The overall response rate for the baseline survey was 62%.

The Wave 2 survey was conducted in 2004. A total of 1,024 study participants were re-interviewed successfully, 75 refused to participate, 112 could not be located, 70 were too ill to participate, 11 had moved to a nursing home, and 208 were deceased. Not counting those who had died or moved to a nursing home, the re-interview rate for the Wave 2 survey was 80%.

A third wave of interviews was completed in 2007. A total of 969 older study participants were re-interviewed successfully, 33 refused to participate, 118 could not be located, 17 were too sick to take part in the interview, and 155 older study participants had died. Not counting those who had died, the re-interview rate was 75%.

Wave 4 was completed in 2008. A total of 718 older study participants were re-interviewed successfully, 61 refused to participate, 92 could not be located, 77 were too sick to take part in the interview, and 153 had died.

The analyses presented below are based on data from the Wave 4 survey because this is the first time that questions were asked about having contact with the dead. After using listwise deletion to deal with item non-response, complete data were available for 618 study participants. Preliminary analysis reveals that 36.6% of these individuals are older men and 53.2% are older whites. The average age of the respondents in this group was 81.6 (SD = 5.4 years). Moreover, the participants in this study reported that they had successfully completed an average of 11.7 years of schooling (SD = 3.2 years). These descriptive statistics, as well as the findings that are presented below, are based on data that have been weighted.

Measures

Measures of the core constructs that are depicted in Figure 1 are provided in Table 1. The procedures used to code these items are provided in the footnotes of this table.

Table 1
Core Study Measures

Contact With the Dead

Having contact with the dead was assessed with four items that were developed from the qualitative research of Krause and Bastida (2009a). As shown in Table 1, these items to ask study participants how often they have felt that a dead loved one is looking over them, is in the same room with them, as well as how often they have either heard or seen a significant other who has died. A high score on these indicators represents older people who have had more frequent contact with the dead. At first it may seem that contact with the dead is most likely to occur shortly after a significant loved one has died. However, as research by Klugman (2006) and others reveals, post death contact occurs long after a loved one has passed away. It is for this reason that no attempt was made in this study to determine the length of time that elapsed between the death of a loved one and subsequent contact with that individual.

Because data on contact with the dead is not presented often for samples that are comprised of older people it might be helpful if information on the frequency of contact with the dead is provided here. As shown in Table 1, study participants were asked if contact with the dead was made very often, fairly often, once in a while, or never. Approximately 73% of the participants in this study reported that they felt as though a loved one who has died is looking over them at least once in a while, 48.7% indicated they felt a dead loved one was in the same room at least once in a while, 23.9% said they heard the voice of a dead loved one at least once in a while, and 20.7% stated that they actually see a dead loved one at least once in a while. Consistent with the findings from other studies (Klugman 2006), these data suggest that having contact with the dead is a fairly common experience.

Connectedness with Others

Feelings of connectedness with others were evaluated with three items that were devised with the extensive item development procedures that are described by Krause (2002b). These indicators assess whether study participants feel their faith helps them see the common bond among all people, whether their faith helps them see how much people need each other, and whether their faith helps them appreciate the strength that can come from others. A high score on these indicators denotes a greater sense of connectivity with others. The mean of the brief composite that was created by summing these items is 6.906 (SD = 2.869).

Religious Meaning in Life

Three items were also used to measure an older person's religiously-based sense of meaning in life. These indicators, which were devised by Krause (2002b), assess whether older study participants feel that God has a purpose for their lives, whether God has a specific plan for them, and whether God has a reason for everything that happens to them. A high score on these items represents a stronger sense of religiously-based meaning in life. The mean of the short scale that was created by summing these indicators is 10.014 (SD = 1.893).

Death Anxiety

Feelings of death anxiety were assessed with three indicators that were taken from the scales that are in the literature (see Neimeyer 1994, for a list of these scales). These indicators ask older study participants whether thinking about death makes them uneasy, whether they are prepared to face their own death, and whether they are disturbed by the shortness of life. These items are coded so that a high score reflects more anxiety about dying. The mean of the brief composite that was developed by summing the scores on these items is 5.936 (SD = 1.870).

Church Attendance

The participants in this study were asked how often they attend religious services. A high score stands for more frequent church attendance. The average level of the responses to the church attendance measure is 5.821 (SD = 2.883).

Demographic Control Variables

As noted earlier, the relationships among the constructs that are depicted in Figure 1 were evaluated after the effects of age, sex, education, and race were controlled statistically. Age is scored in a continuous format. Education reflects the total number of years of schooling that were completed successfully by study participants. In contrast, sex (1 = men; 0 = women) and race (1 = whites; 0 = blacks) are scored in a binary format.

Results

The findings from this study are presented below in four sections. First, when the sample for this study was reviewed, data were provided that indicate that some people who participated in the baseline survey did not participate in the Wave 4 interviews. Some investigators maintain that study findings may be biased if the loss of subjects over time did not occur in a random fashion (McKnight, McKnight, Sidani, and Figuerdo 2007). Therefore the first section contains findings from preliminary set of analyses that were conducted to see if the loss of subjects over time occurred randomly. Section two contains information on the fit of the latent variable model to the data. Information about the psychometric properties of the multiple item measures that are used in this study is presented in section three. Finally, the substantive results from this study are reviewed in section four.

Assessing the Effects of Sample Attrition

The following procedures were used to obtain preliminary insight into the effects of sample attrition between the Wave 1 and Wave 4 surveys. First, a nominal-level variable containing three categories was created to represent older adults who participated in Wave 4 survey (scored 1), older people who were alive but did not participate at Wave 4 (scored 2), and older adults who died during the course of the follow-up period (scored 3). Then, using multinomial logistic regression, this categorical outcome was regressed on the following Wave 1 measures: age, sex, education, race, the frequency of church attendance, feelings of connectedness with others, a religiously-based sense of meaning in life, and death anxiety. Recall that data on contact with the dead was not obtained until Wave 4. Therefore, this construct could not be included in the sample attrition analyses. The category representing older people who remained in the study served as the reference group. Evidence of potential bias would be found if any statistically significant findings emerge from this analysis.

The results (not shown here) reveal that only two of the eight Wave 1 measures significantly differentiated between older adults who were alive but did not participate in the Wave 4 survey and older people who took part in the Wave 4 interviews. More specifically, the data suggest that compared to people who remained in the study, those who dropped out but were still alive were more likely to be older (b = .052; p < .001; odds ratio = 1.053) and they attended worship services less often (b = −.108; p < .01; odds ratio = .897).

The findings further indicate that compared to older people who remained in the study, respondents who died were more likely to be older (b = .093; p < .001; odds ratio = 1.097), they were more likely to be men (b = .475; p < .001; odds ratio = 1.609), they had fewer years of schooling (b = -.065; p < .01; odds ratio = .937), and they attended worship services less often (b = −.134; p < .001; odds ratio = .875).

Even though there is some evidence that the loss of study participants over time did not occur in a random fashion, there are two reasons why the findings from this study may not be biased substantially. First, as Graham (2009) points out, because measures of age, sex, education, and church attendance are included in the study model, any potential bias associated with these constructs is likely to be minimized. Second, research reviewed by Groves (2006) suggests that non-response does not necessarily translate into non-response bias. This means that even though the loss of subjects did not occur in a totally random manner, it does not necessarily follow that findings involving the relationship between study measures is biased. Even so, the issue of bias that may potentially arise from non-response continues to be debated in the literature. Consequently, the potential influence of nonrandom subject attrition should be kept in mind as the substantive findings from this study are examined.

Assessing the Fit of the Model to the Data

The model depicted in Figure 1 was estimated with Version 8.80 of the LISREL statistical software program (du Toit and du Toit 2001). However, use of this estimator is based on the assumption that the observed indicators in a study model have a multivariate normal distribution. Preliminary tests (not shown here) revealed that this assumption had been violated in the current study. Although there are a number of ways to deal with departures from multivariate normality, the straightforward approach that is provided by du Toit and du Toit (2001) was followed here. More specifically, these investigators report that departures from multivariate normality can be handled by converting raw scores on the observed indicators to normal scores prior to estimating the model (du Toit and du Toit 2001:143). Based on this recommendation, the analyses presented below are performed with observed indicators that have been normalized. Normal scores, which are closely akin to z-scores, have a mean of zero and a standard deviation that is either one or very close to one (see Jöreskog, Sörbom, du Toit, and du Toit 1999). The formula for computing normal scores is provided by Jöreskog and Sörbom (1986, see pp. 1-6).

The data suggest that the fit of the model to the data is acceptable. More specifically, the Bentler-Bonett Normed Fit Index (Bentler and Bonett 1980) estimate of .958 and the Comparative Fit Index (Bentler 1990) value of .971 are well above the recommended minimum cut point of .900. Similarly, the standardized root mean square residual estimate of .035 is below the recommended ceiling of .050 (Kelloway 1998).

Psychometric Properties of the Observed Indicators

Table 2 contains the factor loadings and measurement error terms that were derived from estimating the model presented in Figure 1. These coefficients are important because they provide preliminary information about the psychometric properties of the multiple item measures. Kline (2005) recommends that observed indicators with standardized factor loadings in excess of .600 tend to have good reliability. As the data in Table 2 indicate, the standardized factor loadings range from .655 to .949. This suggests that the measures used in the current study have good psychometric properties.

Table 2
Measurement error parameter estimates for multiple item study measures (N = 618)

Although the factor loadings and measurement error terms associated with the observed indicators provide useful information about the reliability of each item, it would be helpful to know something about the reliability of the scales as a whole. Fortunately, it is possible to compute these reliability estimates with a formula provided by Raykov (1998). This procedure is based on the factor loadings and measurement error terms in Table 2. Applying the procedures described by Raykov (1998) to the data in the current study yields the following reliability estimates for the multiple item constructs in Figure 1: contact with the dead (.792), connectedness with others (.952), religiously-based sense of meaning in life (.929), and death anxiety (.872). Taken as a whole, these estimates suggest that the items used in the current study have an acceptable level of reliability.

Substantive Study Findings

The estimates that were derived from assessing the relationships among the constructs in the study model are provided in Table 3. Taken as a whole, these data provide support for the theoretical rationale that was developed for this study. More specifically, the results indicate that older adults who report having contact with the dead are more likely to feel more closely connected with others than older individuals who have not had frequent contact with loved ones who died (Beta = .150; p < .001). The findings further reveal that older adults who feel more closely connected with others report having a stronger religiously-based sense of meaning in life than older people who do not feel as closely connected with others (Beta = .572; p < .001). It is important to point out that the relationship between connectedness with others and religious meaning is quiet strong by social and behavioral science standards. Returning to Table 3, the data indicate that older people who have derived a deeper religiously-based sense of meaning in life are, in turn, less likely to be anxious about death than older adults who have not found meaning in life through religion.1

Table 3
The Relationship Contact With the Dead and Death Anxiety (N = 618)

The findings that have been reviewed up to this point reflect the direct effect of one latent variable on another. However, one advantage of working with latent variable models is that it is also possible to derive estimates of the effects of one construct on another that operate indirectly through a third latent variable. For example, having contact with the dead may influence feelings of death anxiety indirectly through the pathways that are specified in Figure 1. This means that contact with the dead influences a religiously-based sense of meaning in life, and meaning in life, in turn, is associated with death anxiety. As this simple example indicates, the analysis of indirect effects can provide a richer and more comprehensive picture of the process that is being evaluated with a latent variable model. These advantages are highlighted by turning to the indirect effects that are associated with two of the constructs in Figure 1.

The first indirect effect involves with having contact with the dead and feelings of death anxiety. Recall that research by other investigators indicates that having contact with the dead is a pleasant experience that helps people cope more effectively with the grieving process (e.g., Bennett, Hughes, and Smith 2005). To the extent that this is true, having contact with the dead should be associated with less death anxiety. At first it may seem as though the data in Table 3 do not provide support for this view. As the direct effect of having contact with the dead on death anxiety reveals, the relationship between these constructs is not statistically significant (Beta = .023; n.s.). Fortunately, greater insight into this relationship may be found by turning to the indirect effects of contact with the dead on death anxiety that operate through connectedness with others and a religiously-based sense of meaning in life. Further analysis (not shown in Table 3) reveals that this indirect effect (Beta = -.061) is significant at the .001 level. This suggests that older people who have contact with the dead are less anxious about death because they feel more closely connected with others and because they have derived a deeper sense of religiously-based meaning in life. The direct effect of contact with the dead on death anxiety takes on a useful meaning in this context. This coefficient (Beta = .023) represents the effects of all the other ways in which contact with the dead may affect death anxiety net of the influence of connectedness with others and religious meaning in life. The fact that this coefficient is not statistically significant suggests that there are no other ways in which contact with the dead influences feelings of death anxiety. Put another way, this means that the model presented in Figure 1 fully explains why having contact with the dead is associated with death anxiety.

The second indirect effect that warrants further discussion has to do with the influence of church attendance on death anxiety. As discussed earlier, Fortner and Neimeyer (1999) were unable to find that religiousness is significantly associated with feelings of death anxiety. In an effort to explain this result, the authors speculate that the measures of religion that were available to them may have something to do with it. More specifically, they worked solely with measures of religious practice, such as church attendance and the frequency of Bible study. Fortner and Neimeyer (1999) suggest that the findings might have been different had measures of religious beliefs been available to them. Consistent with the findings reported by Fortner and Neimeyer (1999), the direct effects reported in Table 3 indicate that more frequent church attendance does not appear to be significantly associated with feelings of death anxiety (Beta = -.060; n.s.). However, a different picture emerges when the indirect effects of church attendance on death anxiety that operate through religious beliefs (i.e., feelings of connectedness with others and a religiously-based sense of meaning in life) are taken into consideration (Beta = -.093; p < .001). When these indirect effects are coupled with the direct effect reported in Table 3, the resulting total effect (-.060 + -.093 = -.153; p < .001) suggests that older people who attend worship services more often are indeed less likely to experience death anxiety than older adults who do not go to church as often.

Taken at face value, the findings reported by Fortner and Neimeyer (1999), as well as the direct effect that is contained in Table 3, may discourage researchers from studying the relationship between religious practices and death anxiety. But a different recommendation emerges when the indirect effects that were discussed above are taken into account. Viewed in a more general way, these results suggest that religious practice measures are an important part of the process because religious practices shape religious beliefs and religious beliefs, in turn, influence feelings of death anxiety. This interpretation is consistent with the theoretical perspective that was devised by Stark and Finke (2000). Referring to religious beliefs as religious explanations, these researchers propose that, “Confidence in religious explanations increases to the extent that people participate in religious rituals” (Start and Finke 2000:107). As these insights reveal, measures of religious practices as well as religious beliefs are intimately bound together in a larger process. To the extent that this is true, the task that confronts researchers is not to determine whether one is more important than the other. Instead, the real issue involves learning how to configure the interface between them.

Discussion

For thousands of years, people have been reporting that they have had contact with the dead (Hyslop 1919). Clearly, coming into contact with the dead is a highly emotional experience (Krause and Bastida 2009a). Yet the impact of these encounters on the psychological well-being of the living is not fully understood. The findings from the current study shed some light on this issue. More specifically, the results indicate that feelings of death anxiety tend to be lower among people who report having contact with a loved one who has died. However, the data further reveal that these potential benefits are likely to arise only among older people who are able to interpret this experience from a religious perspective and who use an encounter with the dead to strengthen their own religious beliefs. Two types of religious beliefs appear to be important in this respect. The first has to do with seeing a religiously-based connection between all people whereas the second involves a religiously-oriented sense of meaning in life. These findings are noteworthy because this appears to be the first time that the relationship between having contact with the dead, select religious beliefs, and death anxiety have been empirically evaluated with data provided by those who are closest to death themselves- older adults.

Although the findings from the current study may have contributed to the literature, a substantial amount of research remains to be done. Three issues deserve a high priority. First, as research that was reviewed earlier reveals, a number of investigators maintain that social relationships lie at the very heart of religion (Krause 2008a). If these assertions are valid, then it is important to explore the influence that fellow church members may have on explaining and interpreting contact with a loved one who has died. Although people may not always share this type of experience with significant others (Kalish and Reynolds 1973), discussing contact with the dead with people who share the same faith may help reduce the risk of encountering feelings of death anxiety. Second, research is needed to see if contact with the dead influences a full spectrum of psychological distress and well-being outcomes. Moreover, research is needed to see if having contact with the dead affects physical health, as well. Staking out the scope of the reactions to having contact with the dead should help clinicians deal more effectively with the emotional events that confront the individuals who are under their care. Third, research on potential age differences in the effects of having contact with the dead should be conducted. Although it seems as though having contact with the dead would be more salient for people who are closer to death themselves (i.e., older adults), empirical research is needed to make sure this assumption is valid.

In the process of exploring these as well as other issues, it is important to address the limitations in the current study. Four shortcomings are especially important in this respect.

First, the data in the current study were gathered at a single point in time. As a result, the causal ordering among the constructs in Figure 1 were based on theoretical considerations alone. However, it is possible to specify a different causal sequence. For example, instead of arguing that contact with the dead influences feelings of connectedness with others it could be proposed that people who feel more deeply connected with others are likely to be more open to having contact with a loved one who has died. Clearly this as well as other causal issues can only be fully evaluated in studies that employ an experimental design.

Second, data was obtained in the current study on whether contact was made with someone who had died. However, further details about the nature and context of these encounters were not obtained. As Krause and Bastida (2009a) report, contact with a dead loved one was not always welcomed because some study participants felt that the deceased should not remain with the living. Instead, these individuals reported that the deceased should be in Heaven with God. If there is variation in the extent to which contact with the dead is welcomed, then there is likely to also be variation in the extent to which contact with the dead influences psychological well-being. To the extent that this is true, the data that are provided in this study may not accurately reflect the full impact of encounters with the dead.

Third, another contribution of the present study arises from the fact that an effort was made to develop a conceptual model of the process that connects having contact with the dead and death anxiety. However, this model is not complete. Research reveals that women are more likely to report having contact with the dead than men (Klugman, 2006). Moreover, research indicates that women are more deeply involved in religion than men (Krause, 2008a). This raises questions about whether the process linking contact with the dead and death anxiety differs for men and women. If there are significant gender differences in the relationships among the variables depicted in Figure 1, then the estimates that were presented in this study may be biased.

Fourth, a religious sense of meaning in life was assessed in the current study with three items. Clearly, meaning is a broad construct that encompasses a number of different dimensions. As a result, the content domain of a religiously-based sense of meaning in life may not have been covered adequately in this study. However, deriving a comprehensive measure is likely to be an arduous task because, as Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009:44) point out, “Meaning and purpose are broad and elusive concepts that are difficult to investigate empirically.” Although adequately measuring a religious sense of meaning in life is bound to be a difficult task, further advancements in this area await the development of more comprehensive measures of this complex construct.

Even though there are limitations in the current study, perhaps the model that was developed and the issues that were raised will encourage other researchers to delve more deeply into exploring the ways in which contact with the dead may influence those who are living. Because having contact with the dead is a fairly common experience, it is somewhat surprising to find that more research has not been conducted on this fascinating issue. This is especially true with respect to scholarship involving the interface between religion and health. Perhaps part of the problem arises from the fact that studying contact with the dead brings researchers into the realm of the mystical and the numinous. And as a result, this subject matter may seem as though it falls outside the realm of “good” science. There are two reasons why this may not be so. First, it does not matter if people who report having contact with the dead were actually visited by a loved one who has died. Instead, the only thing that matters is if they believe it is true because, as W. I. Thomas, argued some time ago, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928:572). Second, as Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009:184) point out, “Religion has historically been our culture's dominant means of coping with the inevitability of our own demise.” If one of the primary functions of religion is to help people deal with death, then it would seem that researchers must explore issues that surround it. Perhaps this is one reason why Albert Schweitzer (1933/1990:237) argued that, “Rational thinking, if it goes deep enough, ends of necessity in the irrational realm of mysticism.”

Acknowledgments

This research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging (RO1 AG014749; RO1 AG026259) and a grant from the John Templeton Foundation that is administered through the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health, at Duke University.

Notes

1The standardized estimate of the relationship between the structural disturbance terms associated with the frequency of church attendance and contact with the dead is .003 (n.s.). This suggests that the frequency of church attendance is not significantly associated with how often they come into contact with the dead.

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