Weight of the Soul

Halloween or Hallowe’en is a celebration observed in many countries on October 31st

One theory holds that many Halloween traditions were influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain (pronounced saa-wn), which is believed to have pagan roots. 

Popular Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (or the related guising and souling), attending Halloween costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories, and watching horror or Halloween-themed films. Some people practice the Christian religious observances of All Hallows’ Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, although it is a secular celebration for others. Some Christians historically abstained from meat on All Hallows’ Eve, a tradition reflected in the eating of certain vegetarian foods on this vigil day, including apples, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.

Allhallowtide

Since the time of the early Church, major feasts in Christianity (such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost) had vigils that began the night before, as did the feast of All Hallows’. These three days, (Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Souls Day) are collectively called Allhallowtide and are a time when Western Christians honor all saints and pray for recently departed souls who have yet to reach Heaven.

Departed Souls

Thinking of the recently departed brings to mind the topic Weight of the Soul.  Despite its rejection as a scientific fact, MacDougall’s experiment popularized the idea that the soul has weight, specifically that it weighs 21 grams.

Fringed Science

In 1901, Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, who wished to scientifically determine if a soul had weight, identified six patients in nursing homes whose deaths were imminent. MacDougall specifically chose people who were suffering from conditions that caused physical exhaustion, as he needed the patients to remain still when they died to measure them accurately. When the patients looked like they were close to death, their entire bed was placed on an industrial-sized scale that was sensitive within two-tenths of an ounce.  One of the patients lost weight but then put the weight back on, and two of the other patients registered a loss of weight at death but a few minutes later lost even more weight. One of the patients lost “three-fourths of an ounce” (21.3 grams) in weight, coinciding with the time of death. MacDougall disregarded the results of another patient on the grounds that the scales were “not finely adjusted” and discounted the results of another as the patient died while the equipment was still being calibrated.  While MacDougall believed that the results from his experiment showed the human soul might have weight, his report, which was not published until 1907, stated the experiment would have to be repeated many times before any conclusion could be obtained.

Before MacDougall was able to publish the results of his experiments, The New York Times broke the story in an article titled “Soul has Weight, Physician Thinks“. MacDougall’s results were published in April of the same year in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, and the medical journal American Medicine.

In 1911, The New York Times reported that MacDougall was hoping to run experiments to take photos of souls, but he appears to not have continued any further research into the area and died in 1920. His experiment has not been repeated.

Popularized in Media

Despite its rejection as a scientific fact, MacDougall’s experiment popularized the idea that the soul has weight, specifically that it weighs 21 grams. Most notably, ’21 Grams’ was taken as the title of a film in 2003, which references the experiment.  The concept of a soul weighing 21 grams is mentioned in numerous media, including a 2013 issue of the manga Gantz, a 2013 podcast of Welcome to Night Vale, the 2015 film The Empire of Corpses, and a 2021 episode of Ted Lasso. Songs entitled “21 Grams” which reference the weight of a soul have been released by Niykee Heaton (2015), Fedez (2015), August Burns Red (2015), and Thundamentals (2017). Travis Scott references the concept in the song “No Bystanders“, released in 2018. MacDougall and his experiments are explicitly mentioned in the 1978 documentary film Beyond and Back, and episode five of the first season of Dark Matters: Twisted But True. A fictional American scientist named “Mr. MacDougall” appears in Gail Carriger’s 2009 novel Soulless, as an expert in the weight and measurement of souls.

Divine Existence

Your soul is the part of you that consists of your mind, character, thoughts, and feelings. Many people believe that your soul continues existing after your body is dead.  The soul is an incorporeal substance, akin to the gods yet part of the world of change and becoming.  Generally speaking, the human soul is the unphysical entity of the human being apart from the physical matter. Before modern science, humans defined the concept of the soul from a religious point of view. They portrayed the soul to be a mystical and divine existence that existed within the body. 

Is the soul important to our Creator?

The weight of your soul is not a physical thing but instead spiritual.  It is the seat of your memory, your feelings, your imagination, your convictions, your desires, and your affections. In Mark 8:35-36, Jesus says our soul has great value.  This soul is capable of knowing God and enjoying God, and it is capable of sinning against God. This is at the heart of what God is saying when he says, “You are made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). God has breathed life into you and that life will never end.

The early Christian philosophers adopted the Greek concept of the soul’s immortality and thought of the soul as being created by God and infused into the body at conception.

 In Hinduism, the atman (“breath,” or “soul”) is the universal, eternal self, of which each individual soul (jiva or jiva-atman) partakes.

The Egyptian Soul: the ka, the ba, and the akh. The Ancient Egyptians believed the soul had three parts, the ka, the ba, and the akh. The ka and ba were spiritual entities that everyone possessed, but the akh was an entity reserved for only the select few that were deserving of Maat kheru.

The Bible teaches that we consist of body, soul, and spirit: “May your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:23). Our material bodies are evident, but our souls and spirits are less distinguishable.

How does the soul leave the body?

“Good and contented souls” are instructed, “to depart to the mercy of God.” They leave the body, “flowing as easily as a drop from a waterskin”; are wrapped by angels in a perfumed shroud, and are taken to the “seventh heaven,” where the record is kept.

When someone is dying what do they see?

Visual or auditory hallucinations are often part of the dying experience. The appearance of family members or loved ones who have died is common. These visions are considered normal. The dying may turn their focus to “another world” and talk to people or see things that others do not see.

Five Ways to Honor the Dearly Departed on this Holiday

1.  Create jewelry with their handwriting, ashes, or hair

The unique longhand script of your loved one can bring back memories.  If you’d like to wear a one-of-a-kind reminder of their handwriting, consider memorial jewelry that features printed or engraved images of their actual written words.  If you’re unable to find their handwriting, you can always create a memorial necklace made with their ashes or a lock of hair.

2. Keep something of theirs with you

You can make a simple and meaningful tribute by wearing something that belonged to your loved one.  Whether it’s a hat, a scarf, or a piece of jewelry, you will have their memory close to you all day.

3. Frame something they’ve written, like a poem or a recipe

There’s nothing like seeing something written by your loved one and then framed.  Consider putting a treasured letter or another handwritten item in a special frame and remember that special someone whenever you pass by it.  You can buy a pack of simple 8×10 frames, fill them with photos, and hand them out to friends. Or pick up a pack of frames in assorted sizes and make a memorial wall in your home.

4. Live a life of worthiness

The legacy of our parents and grandparents also lives on in us as people. Think about what they valued in life and see how these lessons can inspire you today.  Whether it’s your education, ethics, or other life choices, remember what they would have wanted for you and let yourself be guided by the life they modeled for you.

5. Save them a seat

A respectful commemoration of the loss of your elder might include giving that person a “seat” at special gatherings and events for a period of time after their death.  Setting a place at the table at your holiday meal in their memory can be a reminder of their lasting presence in your family. 

Happy Halloween!