“From recollecting our dreams …we may learn to correct many improprieties in our conduct…to resist, in due time, evil habits that are stealing upon us: and to guard against hopes and fears which detach us from our proper concerns, and unfit us for the duties of life” – William Smellie
A friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a body. A best friend will sign a formal compact to return from the dead with proof of the afterlife. One might assume that proof of an eternal life beyond death communicated by a trustworthy source would be a source of great comfort, unless of course the description offered is disappointing, as was the case when Reverend William Greenlaw returned from the grave to share details of the spiritual world with his intimate acquaintance, the famed Scottish encyclopedist William Smellie (1740-1795).
They had entered into a solemn compact, in writing, signed with their blood, that whoever died first should return, if possible, and testify to the survivor regarding the world of spirits; but if the deceased did not appear within a year after the day of his death, it was to be concluded that he could not return. Greenlaw died on the 26th of June, 1774. As the first anniversary of his death approached and he had made no sign, Smellie became extremely anxious, and even lost rest during several ‘successive nights, in expectation of the re-appearance of his friend (Dale, 1860, p98).
Now, I don’t know if the whole blood thing was necessary, but no doubt under the influence of a tasty, aged scotch it probably seemed like a cool idea at the time. Smellie began to fear his friend would be unable or unwilling to return, but his patience was finally rewarded.
At last, one evening, worn out with fatigue, Smellie would appear to have fallen asleep in his easy chair. The apparition of Greenlaw, clad all in spectral white, now appeared to him, and in a solemn tone informed him, “That he had experienced great difficulties in procuring permission to return to this earth, according to their agreement; that he was now in a much better world than the one he had left; and yet that the hopes and wishes of its inhabitants were by no means satisfied, as, like those of the lower world, they still looked forward in the hope of eventually reaching a still happier state of existence” (Ingram, 1886, p641).
Essentially, Greenlaw was informing Smellie that the afterlife was just “the same old shit all over again”, complete with an immigration bureaucracy from which ghosts had to obtain license to travel. So much for eternal bliss. Oddly, this did not greatly perturb Smellie, who seemed more touched that his friend Greenlaw had honored their agreement and communicated that there was indeed life after death, such as it was.
This dream completely satisfied Mr. Smellie, and removed from his mind all anxiety on the subject of the agreement. He afterwards showed this singular contract, and related the story of the apparition to the late learned Lord Monboddo; who observed, “That there could not be the smallest reasonable doubt or hesitation in believing that Greenlaw did actually appear” (Kerr, 1811, p187).
Smellie was evidently a “cup-is-half-full” kind of guy. Personally, I can think of no greater disappointment than to find out that after you’re dead, you still have to deal with the same crap as when you were alive, answering to authorities and seeking satisfaction where you can find it. Seems like a cruel sort of joke, but imagine how much more afraid of death we would be if we didn’t feel there was something to look forward to. Sadly, given the intelligence provided by Greenlaw, as Noel Coward said, “We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?”
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. 3d ed. London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1886.
Kerr, Robert, 1755-1813. Memoirs of the Life, Writings, & Correspondence of William Smellie, Late Printer In Edinburgh, Secretary And Superintendent of Natural History to the Society of Scotish Antiquaries. Edinburgh: J. Anderson, 1811.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.