The regional writing community lost a well-known member with the recent death of David Pitkin, 73, of Chestertown on February 13. I first communicated with David via email many years ago to obtain copies of his books for our online store. In person or by email, he came across as friendly, kind, and gracious. While I didn’t know him well personally and only met him a few times at book events, I did know him through his writings.
David was the most recognized ghost-story author in the Adirondack region. A native of Corinth in Saratoga County, he wrote his first book of ghost stories in 1998 following retirement from 36 years as a schoolteacher. The subject was ghosts of Saratoga County, which Pitkin called “America’s most haunted county.” The book was a success, leading to many more similar titles, the most recent of which was released just six months before his death. He also wrote a novel and was working on a sequel at his passing.
What struck me as most interesting about David were his in-depth ruminations on some exotic subjects, including the paranormal. Thousands of interviews he conducted in gathering ghost stories convinced him that ghosts are former humans with unfinished business on earth. That led him to a fascination with death, a subject on which he wrote extensively.
While his belief in ghosts might be scoffed at by some, David’s stance on the subject was very similar to the dogma of many mainstream religions. In fact, he often built his discussions around mentions of god and faith. Followers of his blog discovered a truly deep thinker with wide-ranging interests.
Still, his focus was on death―defining it, studying it, facing it, and determining what follows. I wasn’t raised that way―death was by far the greatest fear everyone faced in life, and it was to be avoided as long as possible, with one exception―giving your life to save another.
While the lone exception is commendable, the concept of death as “the greatest fear in life” was foreign to David. He was a very thoughtful man, and he addressed death from many angles. In May 2008, after listening to a Memorial Day talk show addressing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military, he wrote the following:
“… if we consider what combat really is, we can hypothesize the damage that killing others inflicts. So, at this time of honoring those who have gone forth in good conscience, believing they were defending their wives, husbands, and children, and who went elsewhere in the world to kill the sons, brothers, wives, husbands, and daughters of strangers, we pause to pray for guidance.
“What does it do for our soul-self when we come to understand that needless damage we have done in a fight that is not a defensive war? How and when will more people see the great damage that killing (For oil? For territory? For power?) does? When will enough near-death experiencers and ghosts share their soul-grief (which can register in us even while we are alive) with the living? The goal of true brother- and sisterhood is still so far away as humans count time. The ones that should feel shame are those with large bank balances who pay poorly-educated or desperate young men and women to prop them up. Life is short.”
This is not to suggest that David was politically motivated. He was speaking from his knowledge and experience of death itself, and how we focus on the physical victim without worrying as much about the person who, in a war situation, legally delivers death to another. Most of his work dealt simply with the concept of passing and what awaits those who pass.
To publicize his work and stimulate conversation on the subject, Pitkin developed the website AfterWorld.info, with the subtitle, “Life and love really do continue on ….” His writings there reveal a man who thought far beyond the mundane and was free of the one fear―death―that grips most people.
“Our Web site name says it all—here is a place to find information about death—the world that follows what we call ‘life.’ For some, the interest is simply in ghost hunting. For others, there is a fascination with a more profound cosmic plan for each individual’s future state.
“This ghost-researching site addresses the journey into death that all people must one day take—a venture into whatever comes after our physical life is concluded, and why some individuals remain as ghosts. Death and hauntings, as well as apparitions, are the subject matter here, but not in a dreary or fearful presentation.”
David’s research was definitely not the stuff on TV, where one episode is barely discernible from the next. How many times have we seen it? Speculation about sounds or changes in temperature elevates them to mind-boggling evidence of ghostly presence, with nary a supporting fact.
Instead, he studied people and their stories, writing about a post-death “state of being … the semi-conscious energy residue of each now-completed earth life.” A little wild or offbeat for you? Ironically, I’ve heard those very concepts dismissed by folks standing rigidly by their belief in a talking snake.
But David didn’t criticize the work of others, and instead of sensationalizing what we call ghost stories, he used them to study and learn about life and death. In his own words, “There is much hope expressed in these ghost tales, for it seems certain that the most vital part of our being does survive the end of our body’s functioning. So, death is not only not an end, it cannot be. … My books all involve our eternal essence surviving death.
“The living seldom want to discuss death—it seems better left to ‘another time.’ Yet, reader, your body has to die—all organic things do decay and die. So what will be left of you, if anything? I pose this question here because most students of this subject matter are very hopeful about the answer.
“It is therefore the purpose of this near-death experience and survival of death website to help you seek your way through the suppositions about death and ghosts … to find a deeper meaning for your life. Pursuit of truth is always the better path. One cannot gain ground by merely entertaining him or herself on falsehoods or scary tales.”
Because of the subject matter, this was not an easy piece for me to write. I view most things with a healthy dose of skepticism. Had I been present around the year 30 AD, we might be using the term “doubting Lawrence” instead of “doubting Thomas.” The world of ghosts is not something I subscribe to.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy ghost stories. (While I wouldn’t enjoy murder, I do enjoy murder stories.) David was an excellent historian, speaker, and writer on the subjects of ghosts and death, and his cerebral, thoughtful approach is far more inviting than most.
In fall 2012, Yankee Magazine featured Pitkin’s story. In a comment to writer Joe Bills, David succinctly summarized his own work:
“I’ve interviewed maybe 1,500 people, which has helped me gain some perspective. My books are trying to say, ‘There’s no reason to be afraid of death. There’s no reason to be afraid of ghosts.’ Most of the ghosts people encounter are people they knew.
“Personally, I’m not afraid of dying. What bothers a lot of people when they die is that they didn’t expect to go and there’s still something they’re trying to tidy up and get done. I’m not worried at all about it. I’d like to be a helper over there.”
Though David Pitkin is gone (at least as far as my understanding allows), his books and other writings remain, providing ample proof that he was a helper over here as well.