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October 31, 2005|Mary Roach | MARY ROACH is the author of "Stiff" (W.W. Norton, 2004). This essay was adapted from her new book "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" (W.W. Norton).

HERE'S MY BEEF with the dead -- you'd think they'd be bursting to talk about all the things us not-yet-dead are madly curious about. Such as: Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on the toilet? Would you cut that out?

But in medium-brokered exchanges, if the dead come through at all, they come through in cryptic little impressions: a stout woman, a small black dog, the date May 23. When they talk in the background on tape recordings or over the radio -- and there are thousands of people who believe that the garbled, echoey words and whispers they can make out on tape or over the airwaves are coming from the Beyond -- they say things like "bird songs at night" or "please interrupt" or "industrious!" It's a maddening way to communicate.

Based on such reports, ghosts strike me as quite senile, which I suppose is par for the course when you've been around 200 or 300 years. Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, possessor of a Phi Beta Kappa key from Cornell and a famous tester of mediums at his U of A Human Energy Systems Laboratory, says the dead are bad communicators because it's the best they can manage. As another afterlife researcher, psychologist Robert Thouless, once pointed out, a dead communicator "is suffering from the disadvantage that he can no longer have the use of his material brain." (Thouless is well known for encoding a message when he was alive and planning to transmit the decoder key after his death; it's been two decades since his demise, and it hasn't worked so far.)

A University of Arizona postdoc named Julie Beischel thinks that maybe the dead say silly things because no one asks them the right questions. She's the researcher behind the Asking Questions Study at Schwartz's lab. Beischel assembled a list of 32 questions about the afterlife, which were posed to two "discarnates" via four mediums. Each medium took a turn with each of the spirits.

Beischel hadn't finished analyzing the data, but she gave me printouts of the answers she had collected. With both discarnates, the answers to a given question usually differed with each medium. "Do you eat?" for example, garnered an even split of "yes" and "no."

I asked Beischel how she interpreted this. She said: "My interpretation is that the mediums are just guessing, or the answer is biased by the medium's own ideas of what the afterlife is like, or the questions don't have enough emotional interest for the discarnate to give a strong answer."

Which more or less covers all the explanatory bases. In case the answers are in fact coming from the Beyond, I've culled some highlights for you, from various mediums and one female spirit.

We'll start with the good news.

Q. What do you do every day?

A. She's showing herself at the table eating.

Q. What type of body do you have.

A. She says fat people are thin here....

Q. How is the weather?

A. It's Florida without the humidity.

And now some less good news:

Q. Is there music?

A. Yes. She whips out a xylophone and goes, bum, bum, bum bum bum. I also get the Carpenters.

Q. Are there angels?

A. Yeah ... but they've got their own clique going. They've got their own little deal going.

Q. Do you engage in sexual behavior?

A. I don't know if, like, she can and she chooses not to or what the deal is, but it's like, no, not really.

To the formal study data I feel I must add one last statement about the afterlife, passed along to me by Allison Dubois. DuBois is the Arizona woman on whose life NBC's "Medium" is based. Before she became a medium, DuBois was on a career track to the Maricopa County prosecutor's office as a criminal prosecutor. In April 2000, someone got in her way. Well, more than that.

"I went downstairs to get the laundry, and a man walked through me," she told me. "I knew that he loved clam chowder, and that he'd had a heart attack." She ran upstairs and told her husband, Joe, who is an aerospace engineer. Joe blinked at her, as one might when abruptly confronted by one's spouse's possible mental disintegration, and then he said, "That's my grandfather."

So what has DuBois found out about the afterlife? An unnamed discarnate sent this message during a private "sitting": "I can wear pleated pants now."

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