Brendan Fitzgerald in The Morning News:
A man dies, leaving behind, among other things, a combination lock. Opening it may just prove the existence of the afterlife.
I first learned about Stevenson through his obituary, which ran in the New York Times in 2007. My wife and I have a habit of sharing interesting obituaries with each other. I sent Stevenson’s to her, with a few sentences highlighted: “Tucked away in a file cabinet in the Division of Perceptual Studies is an ordinary combination lock, which Dr. Stevenson bought and locked nearly 40 years ago. He had set the combination himself.” A colleague told the Times that Stevenson hoped to communicate the combination to a friend or loved one, who could open the lock and prove that some part of Stevenson had survived death. Ian Stevenson, who was born in 1918, spent about half his life studying reincarnation and past-life memories. He documented thousands of stories from young men and women who claimed to recall previous lives, whose birthmarks resembled fatal wounds sustained by others. Perhaps Stevenson’s death provided him with the answer he sought for most of his life. For me, it simply rekindled the question I’d struggled with for most of mine: What happens when we die?
…The Combination Lock Test for Survival began the same year Stevenson founded the Division of Perceptual Studies. Stevenson had heard a number of stories from colleagues about men and women opening combination locks set by deceased loved ones. In one instance, a widow opened a locked box, though she claimed her husband was the only person who knew the combination. In another, a widower asked a medium to help him open a lock set by his deceased wife, and the medium recounted the correct combination. Perhaps, after the death of its keeper, a combination might be communicated, its lock unclasped, its mouth opened. Stevenson purchased a Sargent & Greenleaf model combination lock from Brown’s Lock & Safe, a Charlottesville locksmith located a few miles from his home. He set its password then placed the lock in a drawer inside his office. “In setting my own locks, I started not with meaningless random numbers, but with a word or phrase that is extremely meaningful to me,” Stevenson said at the time. “I have no fear whatever of forgetting it on this side of the grave and, if I remember anything on the other side, I shall surely remember it.” Though, on one occasion, Stevenson opened his own lock—in 1975, to check either the lock’s reliability or his own—then closed it again. The Division of Perceptual Studies collected 10 more locks—a duplicate for Stevenson, and nine others. Upon news of the death of a lock’s owner, Stevenson awaited contact from family or friends who might have received some suggestion of a combination, or might have visited a medium for help contacting the dead. When a colleague and fellow combination lock owner died in 1979, Stevenson received more than 40 letters that suggested combinations, and consulted two mediums himself, his colleague’s lock in his pocket. All combinations failed.