Scent From Beyond: Olfaction and After-Death Communication


Since the autumn of 2022 I have been working on a study of RERC testimonies which include olfactory elements either as their sole feature(s) or in common with other features. To date I have uncovered 94 such accounts, all sent directly to the RERC (as distinct from accounts containing olfactory elements included in the archive as part-contents of donated collections).

As part of a preliminary enquiry into these accounts, I selected a sub-set for opening analysis – 23 in total – in which after-death communications (ADCs) figured predominantly. That is: a sub-set in which subjects report scents, smells, fragrances and other olfactory sensations suggestive to them of an attempt to communicate on the part of the deceased (or, often, freshly-deceased).

What follows is an outline of my findings with respect to this subset: a subset overwhelmingly composed of hitherto unpublished accounts.

Opening Examples

To clarify the types of experiences that this article will focus on, I begin with a couple of examples. The following testimony, submitted to the archive in the mid-1980s by a fifty-five year old lady, contains the following description:

On this occasion I was in my house alone. I went upstairs to bed when three quarters [of the] way up the stairs there was the most beautiful fragrance, light and flowery. I went into the bathroom, then my daughter’s room, then my own, smelling in turn all the toiletries and none had this same fragrance. When I returned to the same spot on the stairs, it had gone. Three days later I saw in the local paper that a very dear friend of my late husband had passed away 004502 15 (55) F

A number of features are worthy of note, here. The fragrance is a pleasant one, albeit unspecified, save for the comment that it was ‘light and flowery.’ The fragrance also appears to have surprised the subject somewhat. Having smelled it on the stairs she commences a search: the bathroom, her daughter’s room, then her own room. It seems clear that she is checking for a down-to-earth, this-worldly explanation for what she originally smelled and not finding one. When she gets back to the stairs it has not simply faded: the fragrance has gone. What could it all mean? The last sentence of her testimony provides a clue: ‘Three days later I saw in the local paper that a very dear friend of my late husband had passed away.’ And there we have it. The description of the event ends at this point but it seems clear that the writer has linked the olfactory experience to the death. Could it have been a communication from her late husband’s ‘very dear’ friend? The question is left hanging but seems to offer, at least, the possibility of an answer.

A somewhat longer archival account begins with a description of a very sad circumstance. The respondent writes:

After the sudden death of a four and a half year old son I found no comfort in anything or anyone, the Church seemed powerless to help me as did the medical profession. I could not go out of the flat I was living in at that time and although I tried very hard I could see nothing but blackness and an intense longing to die. One morning I was dusting – tidying, the usual household chores when I smelled the most wonderful garden flowers, it is difficult to describe the smell I mean – rather like a garden after rain, being of a somewhat practical mind in such things I looked around for the source of the smell, there were no flowers in the flat, certainly none outside, no perfumed polishes of toilet things in use, then I sat down and for the first time since my son died I felt peaceful inside. I believe this was God’s comfort, my son felt very near and I no longer felt alone. 002674 F

This is a powerful testimony indeed – much more so than the one with which this article began – but we do well to note the similarities also. There has been a death of somebody close: very close. Life has gone on but it has been hard. Then one day, as if from nowhere, a wonderful smell: of garden flowers. As with the first subject, this subject checks for an obvious source but there is none to be found: neither outside nor in. But this time we learn a little more than previously. The experience is transformative; abundantly so: ‘I sat down and for the first time since my son died I felt peaceful inside.’ What could it all mean? The subject ends with this: ‘I believe this was God’s comfort, my son felt very near and I no longer felt alone.’ This is an interesting sentence, particularly as regards the ultimate origin of the smell. It as if she ascribes the wonderful experience to God, but the nearness of the son is remarked on also.

Shared Scents

Overwhelmingly, the smells within the subset were positive, as revealed by the scents themselves: roses, rose perfume, the scent of violets, jonquils, incense, pine trees, a deceased mother’s perfume, and so on. Typical is the following, sent to the archive by a 48 year old subject eight years after her experience occurred:

[M]y family & I were sitting in the lounge one evening, & I sighed, I had such a desire for comfort from my mother & I said Oh, I do wish I had a mother, & I said Oh! Some-one has just touched my head, & then the room was filled with the scent of violets & my daughter said can you smell the beautiful violets, which stayed a considerable time in the room, & I could feel the love coming with the scent, it did make me happy, & I never say “I wish I had a mother” I know I have I was only 16YRS old when she died. I was surprised though & very pleased my daughter could smell the perfume too, she mentioned it first 002025 F 40 (48).

A number of features are worthy of note here. Firstly, the experience was shared. This pleases the subject; all the more so, perhaps, because her daughter mentioned it first. And note how the smell isn’t the only feature. There is a sense of touch, first, and then the smell. And again we note the strong implication that this is an after-death communication: one that certainly transforms the person who receives it. From exclaiming that she wished she had a mother, as a result of her experience she writes that now ‘I never say “I wish I had a mother” I know I have…’ [my emphasis]

Interestingly, only two of the 23 accounts within the subset contained experiences undergone by males – something for later discussion, perhaps. The following experience was described by a 52 year-old male and concerned events from the previous year, in Cyprus:

It was Monday 11th December, my wife [Name A] had died on 20th November. My daughters had flown out to Cyprus with me to help and to attend the Memorial Service to be held on Friday 15th December. It was noon on a beautiful sunny December day. I was working in my study with the sliding doors of the sitting room open. My daughter, [Name B], was writing a Eulogy for the forthcoming Memorial Service. She spotted a white feather on the lawn – fascinated – she brought the feather into my office and said that she had heard that a white feather was sometime a sign of Angels. I said that I wasn’t aware of such a claim, but took the feather anyway, and placed it in front of a picture of [my wife] on my desk. [My daughter] continued writing, but after a few minutes, she asked ‘Dad can you smell roses?’ Indeed the scent of roses was starting to fill my study. Perplexed I went into the sitting room which was also filled with the scent. (The house had only recently been completed and the garden not even begun, so there were no flowers at all there and no cut flowers in the house.) The scent was in the sitting room – even stronger in my study, then up the stairs and in the master bedroom. (There was no scent in any other rooms in the house). I then called my mother and my other daughter [Name C] to the sitting room – who immediately identified the scent as roses. Of course we soon realized that [my wife] was visiting us – and were all so happy and felt very, very comforted. The scent lasted for about half an hour.

This detailed account is remarkable in several respects and returns us to several by-now familiar motifs. There are some interesting differences, too. We note for example, the curious appearance of the white feather – before the smell – and the attempt made to explain the significance of this. We note, too, the emphatic nature of the eventual identification of who was behind the smell. There is no ambiguity here: ‘we soon realised that [my wife] was visiting us – and were all so happy and felt very, very comforted.’ An after-death communication indeed – at least as far as the grateful family were concerned.

But there is more. A postscript, in fact, of sorts. After telling us that the scent lasted for approximately half an hour, the writer adds:

After the excitement and the scent had gone, I went to look for the white feather – it was nowhere to be found. The previous evening [my daughter] had asked me what my favourite flower was and I had replied, roses. A few hours prior to this experience I had ordered bunches of lilies for the Memorial Service. [My wife] was for sure telling me to change to roses – which I did. 005441 51 (52) M

Scents and ‘Something Else’

This very detailed account is one of several in the sub-set I looked at whilst researching this article where the smell occurs in conjunction with something else: in this case the mysterious appearance of a feather which seemingly just as mysteriously disappeared. This ‘something else’ turned out to vary quite widely: a sense of warmth, a feeling of being touched, a sense of love, tapping, something on the face, and so on. Two additional examples are particularly illustrative here. In the first, the subject writes:

I forgot to tell you that after the sudden and unexpected death of my dear husband I smelled the most beautiful flowers and perfume in my bedroom and home. Many times, I even heart faint music in the back bedroom. My husband did play music there. 003863 F 48-50.

In another example, writing a year after the events occurred, the subject describes how:

After the death of a friend’s daughter, when they were visiting me (but I was alone, resting) a glorious sweet perfume was wafted across my face and an impression of great happiness, almost teasing me, twice within a minute or so, which I and her mother are sure was her daughter. 004154 F (60s).

Clarity and Ambiguity

Teasing. An interesting choice of word. As if the experience was, perhaps deliberately, ambiguous. Perhaps this is not particularly surprising. After all, a smell – however unusual and unexpected its sudden occurrence might be – could be construed as being ambiguous: certainly as regards its meaning. This makes me think of another olfactory account I examined in preparation for today. Walking back home from her husband’s grave on a frosty morning along the village street, the experient was stopped by ‘a warm scent of flowers on my face.’ She adds:

It was beautiful. I stopped & sniffed looking round to see where it could have come from & I remember looking over garden walls – there did not seem to be any plants or flowers to account for the experience, though the scent disappeared as I went indoors.

So far, so familiar. But once again the postscript adds another layer of interest, as she writes:

Another time I was walking…& the same warm scent came & this time I felt a lifting of spirits & a longing for the experience to continue & not stop – after a few minutes – the scent faded. I did not mention this to any one & though I cannot remember the exact moment, I felt in some kind of feeling that it was in some way connected with [my husband] but very very ephemeral in my mind and very very fragile. 004756 F 25-34 (65 +).

So now we have ‘teasing’, ‘ephemeral’ – ‘very ephemeral’ – and ‘very fragile.’ One thing I’ve discovered over the years whilst doing research in the RERC archive is that sometimes you do get surprises. Quite a lot of the time, actually. Sometimes you find what you didn’t expect to find. Other times you don’t find what you thought you would. Before I started work on this little sub-set of accounts I thought I’d find lots of clear messages included in the experiences too: change to roses, tell Stan, it’s wonderful here, and so on. Of course, the sense of positive presence I did find – several times – but a clear and specific message: not really. Only twice, in fact. The Cyprus one with the smell and feather. And just one other one – containing something spelled out very clearly, almost as if the communicating presence was speaking the words. The subject writes:

I was alone one evening at home when I received a very strong & pleasant scent & I was delighted at this; then suddenly got a very definite message from an old friend named [name A], of whom I had not thought for many years. She said “You never pray for me, & I need your prayers badly”. I should explain that I do pray almost every day for the many relations & friends, some 15 altogether, that have died & moved on, but I had forgotten [this old friend], although we were close as children & for many years later, but I did lose touch with her some 30 years ago (I am over 80 now) & then heard that she committed suicide. She is, of course, at the top of my list now, but it was a strange & very vivid experience. She was a keen proffessional [professional] gardener, & taught my daughter for a year before she went to [place A], near [place B], to learn to become a proffessional [professional] gardener too, which makes me wonder. 005089 80s (80s) F

Facts and Figures

I’ve hinted at a couple of places so far at actual figures: 23 accounts in the sub-set. Only two from males. Only two with definite messages. To be honest, I’m not a great lover of statistics and as I worked on this article I found myself wondering why. It’s not like a statistical analysis was difficult, after all. I only had 23 accounts which I colour coded and entered on a spreadsheet. All I had to do was to look and perform some extremely basic calculations. 11 accounts containing more than one incident involving fragrance. 12 accompanied by other phenomena such as the faint music and the feather. Five accounts indicating that the scent was smelled by more than one person at the time. Eight revealing that the subject made a thorough check for a this-worldly source before concluding there was none. And so on. I think it lay in the fact of how I’ve come to view the archive over the years. What it contains, I mean. Letters from over 6000 people. Very many now dead. Some born in the nineteenth century. Each one a living, breathing, personality: confronted by wonder. Compared to that, statistics seem so lifeless. So impersonal. Almost brutally cold. I remember years ago when I actually worked at the RERC and Diana Hasting was first entering the accounts on the computer database. She’d often be in floods of tears. They were so moving. As interesting as they are, numbers never quite do that. Not to me, at any rate.

Consider, for example, the following account:

[M]y alsatian bitch, much loved by us all, died, she guarded me constantly, wherever I worked she was there, at the kitchen threshold, by my bed, by my chair. As she died I leant over her body on my knees weeping and burying my face in the large ruff round her neck which is full of the warm smell of dog, for two or three days I was inconsolable and depressed, came home from work sat in the back dining room which has a large window, the whole wall is glass doors looking on three old hawthorn trees where birds gather in the evening after leaving the bird table. One evening I sat there my hand dropping to the side for the head that was not there to receive my hand, weeping silently again and I found I could smell her fur, it lasted maybe seconds, but it was intense the room was full of the scent of dog’s fur, it faded quickly and I felt much better, almost happy began to think of the good times, when she was a pup and we walked for miles, even smiled all depression and sadness gone, I felt that there is no cause for sadness every thing is fine, it is right and natural, life and death are the order tears are not called for…

I should include the postscript, too, because the writer adds:

 Something else I must emphasise about this experience is its intensity, when I told my husband he said, ‘You willed it because you wanted your dog back’, maybe that is so I cannot say but this was not just a scent in my nose, it was in my throat, the air above me and all around me the room was heavy with the scent of dogs fur it was pressing on me and then faded, that is all. 004658 F (50).

I think in popular parlance this account is known as an outlier: something differing from all other members of a particular group or set. It’s certainly the only after-death olfactory communication I found where a dog was thought to be the source.

‘Inliers’ and Outliers

But on the subject of outliers, I should at this point perhaps share another statistic. Of the 23 accounts within the sub-set, twenty one and a half contained descriptions of wholly positive experiences. Whatever else we might conclude about them, they seem overwhelmingly pleasant and positive and to have had positive effects on their often grateful recipients. I reproduce the following comments pretty much at random:

I remember the joy 004756 F 25-34 (65+)

I slept at peace 000279 F 59 (69)

I was delighted at this 005089 F 80s (80s)

I reached home safely and no longer afraid 003086 F 48 (60)

I now thank God and wonder… 003492 F 14

And so on. But we were considering outliers. Twenty-one and a half very positive accounts leave one and a half that weren’t. This goes against the grain a little. In their seminal study of after-death communications, Hello From Heaven, the fruit of a study of 3,300 such experiences over a seven year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bill and Judy Guggenheim found no negative examples in the sub-set they dubbed ‘olfactory after-death communications.’ Emma Heathcote-James includes none in her own study from 2003. And examples could be multiplied still further.

By contrast, then, the RERC archive provided a couple of surprises. We’ll deal with the half-surprise first: a half-surprise because it describes an experience that changed. In an account submitted to the archive in the late 1980s, a twenty year-old female subject writes of a series of experiences in which she was aware of the presence of her dead uncle. Describing one of these, she narrates how:

[T]he room I was in immediately filled with a sickening smell and I could not breath[e], when I said a prayer and said hello to my uncle the smell disappeared and the room once again became filled with fresh, clean air 004485 F (20).

Alas, such a positive note of final resolution cannot be discerned in the following account, submitted to the archive by a 62 year-old woman in which she describes an extended event that occurred the previous year:

[M]y husband was buried on the 19th July 1983, at 11 am. At 8.10pm the 19th July whilst watching a comedian on my television, a very strong smell of carnations came close to me. As I {do not} have nor ever had, a flowered garden, I was t-h-e-n aware I was not alone in my flat; the next moment something was at the back of my easy chair, lightly touching my hair. I was petrified, not having this experience before. I got up from my chair and moved over to the sideboard and this thing, what-ever, who-ever it was, followed me; the room began to get freezing cold. I walked slowly to the front door to get out in the warm July air; the door was {as} if it had been glued, I had to put my hand in the letter box and use all my power to to open it; this thing was still at the back of me; getting colder and colder. I stayed at a Mrs Daisy Stevens’ flat that night, it was terrible, the noises, then an icy cold feeling would go right through my body to come out at the other end, this was happening at 3 minute intervals. I was very glad when it became day light. 004416 61 (62) F

A Note To End On

We should not end on such a note. As we have seen, such an account is far from the norm. We finish, then, with two others. One of them I explored in a previous book published some ten years ago: a study in which I was examining accounts involving episodes of transcendent love. I’m not sure that it qualifies as an after-death communication but it certainly bears several close resemblances. As the subject tells the story:

Experience: in {operating} theatre ante-room, prior to by-pass machine, baby of 4 weeks died in an attempt, under hypothermia, to repair Fallet’s Tetralogy. Surgeon had the heart of the baby and was explaining, to 3 S.R.N.s (I was one) on a cardiac course, the syndrome. I was 23 at the time and had accepted death as the final disillusionment – where the glory of death? Suddenly the room and theatre were permeated with the scent of violets and, the almost tangible sense of peace. The surgeon, a hard-bitten Australian, comments on the scent, no source could be found. Since this time I have felt no pain at any death. I am sure of the presence of – who knows? Love, peace, God? I have no personal fear of death despite threats of hell and purgatory in my life prior to this event. No longer do I fear, or feel angry with God because of a child’s death. I am married, have three children, work as a Sister in a neo-natal Theatre. In fact, a hard-headed professional woman. The peace is still in me. I have never discussed this “experience” with anyone other than the staff present at the time. All had smelled the perfume. This has always puzzled, not obsessed me, but has upheld faith in love. 000696 23 (36) F

The second account might also be seen as an outlier – of sorts at least – because the scent occurred as part of a visionary episode, almost an incidental part, and does not seem to have been superimposed on the writer’s usual landscape. It starts in this world, though, and deals once again with a premature death: the loss of the subject’s two year-old son:

While we were still in a state of shock, just before the funeral the Protestant Rector called and read the 23rd Psalm, in French. As the familiar yet slightly strange words swept over me, I was outside myself. I walked in a narrow valley – the valley of the shadow of death- on sharp uneven stones. It was absolutely dark but I was not afraid; the air was warm with the scent of pine trees all around, and [I] could hear a little stream splashing & the pine trees stirring. I could walk quite safely & I knew no-one need ever fear death knowing what its valley of approach was like. I came out of the shadow of the trees & was allowed to do more than look for a moment. I saw a simple countryside of hedges and meadows & my son playing by a stream too shallow to hurt even the smallest child. He was playing with the total absorption & content I knew so well, and the main thing was that I knew he was absolutely safe for ever & ever. More – I knew that nearby though I could not see it was a beautiful ‘mansion’ and when evening came, One would come out & gently lead him home to be cared for 004422 F 23 (46).

This is a deeply moving note on which to end. In fact, there is a lot more that could be said about each and every account cited throughout this article, but what I really wanted to do was to let each testimony speak for itself. At the very least, it is hoped that every narrative presented here has given something of the flavour and atmosphere – not to mention the scent – of the RERC archive’s content: an almost inexhaustible treasure trove of more than six thousand testimonies to a rich range of religious and spiritual experiences.

This is an edited version of a talk originally given at the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies’ annual conference at Charney Manor, Oxfordshire, on 22nd April 2023.