Lois Hess is a wealthy, well-spoken woman, wife of a successful builder. Not the type at all, you'd think, to plan in detail, with full knowledge of the consequences, a murder of vengeance.

She talks about it now quietly, calmly. She is a woman at peace.

It began, she said, some five years ago when she attended a seminar conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross at George Washington University on care of the dying. A relative, to whom she was devoted, was dying of what she describes as "a particulaty gruesome" form of cancer of the digestive system. "She was getting more and more scared and I didn't know what to do." After the seminar, Lois Hess said, "I felt renewed."

Six weeks later Lois Hess' oldest son, Stuart, 24 years old, a "brilliant" young man with a graduate degree in land use planning, was found dead in a building project he was superintending, shot in the back of the head. d

"I couldn't relate. My first child. Burying a child is like . . . there's no way to describe . . . It was an escaped convict Stuart had apparently happened upon . . . You can't even get up to brush your teeth . . .

"My husbnd and I went to a psychiatrist. He couldn't say anything. I just cried. Then I thought of Dr. Ross . . ."

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is small, perhaps 5-feet-1, unprepossesing with wispy gray hair. Her voice is a little hoarse, the result of a lot of cigarettes and a lot of talking -- to patients, to reporters, to well-wishers, to old friends who travel miles to touch her hand. She is an unlikely guru. She is a spellbinding speaker.

She was in Washington Thursday night to open the fifth annual Conference on Death and Dying at the St. Francis Center, a counseling center headed by Rev. William Wendt. Some 1,200 people crowded the National Presbyterian Center to hear her unorthodox doctrine of life, death, dying and the hereafter.

Probably more than anyone else, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has revolutinized attitudes toward -- and care for -- the dying and the bereaved. The Swiss-born psychiatrist's documented studies of the phases of dying of near-death expereinces -- and the remarkably similarity of these experiences in thousands of cases -- are considered major scientific contributions. That she is also a skilled and compassionate psychotherapist, no one questions.

She has published a number of books and tapes, and she lectures almost constantly. She conducts seminars and workshops, and wherever she goes she sees patients. (She spent Thursday with patients in Annapolis before her Washington lecture.) Her first book, "On Death and Dying," was a runaway best seller. She has a new one coming out that she promises will rock the foundations of religious establishments and also "the parapsychologists."

In recent years, though, her research has taken on a religious-like tone of its own. From near death she has moved to afterlife, out-of-body experiences, reincarnation and an assortment of other bizarre -- but essentially benign -- pronouncements about the meaning of life and death.

Her knowledge, she says, comes from spiritual guides whom she has met in material form.

She is adamant that published accounts of explicit sexual adventures with so-called "entities" or guides at Shanti Nilaya in Escondido, Calif., where she runs her workshops, are simply not true.

According to an article in New West magazine, her partner Jay Barnham presided over seances in which entities materialized and led participants off to private rooms where they made love. In the wake of the publicity, the 53-year-old Kubler-Ross says, her workshops lost hundreds of clients. Her marriage of 20 years broke up.

Barham, she says, is uneducated and untrained, "but is the most wonderful, gifted healer I have ever seen." Moreover, she says that her research on the afterlife is totally removed from the therapy at Shanti Nilaya (which means, roughly translated from Sanskirt, Place to Die in Peace).

She refers with wry, ironic humor but no bitterness to the reports "of my sex orgies" (she pronounces it with a hard "g"). Likewise to published reports (all untrue) that she had a venereal disease, and was dying or dead of cancer. "They still call me psychotic," she says.

When Lois Hess wrote to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross asking for help, she got an answer in four days. After some correspondence and phone calls, they arranged to meet in Philadelphia. Hess remembers that "I still had some hard questions that needed answering. I met her in her hotel room and I said 'Please give me any time you possibly can and I'll pay you for anything you ask.'

"Dr. Ross said, 'You have an hour and 40 minutes, and I never charge any patients anything . . . .'"

"That," said Hess, "is when I had my first healing cry. I came home, like I was on a high, and began to work through a lot of my grief. One of the main things was, he wasn't found for 24 hours. He was alone and I wasn't there . . . Dr. Ross taught me that Stuart no longer needed his physical body and in that 24 hours, he was out of his body."

"The parents of children who are raped and murdered or die horrible deaths have such special problems," Kubler-Ross says. "Here is where my life-after-death work has helped the most.

"When you have a violent, brutal kind of death, human beings have the ability to shed the physical body, temporarily most of the time, but permanently when the body is killed. When a child is murdered or raped, they instantly have an out-of-body experience so that they watch the scene of the crime from a distance without pain or anxiety. And parents have to know this or they would go insane if they think of how many hours the child had been brutalized before it was able to die."

In a short meeting with a group of reporters before the Thursday night session, Kubler-Ross is asked, if perhaps, the new biochemiical discoveries about the human brain and its capacity to produce substances that ease pain and soothe the spirit are not possible explanations for the near-death experiences she has written about. According to her books, they usually take the form of being in the presence of a supreme being of light and love. Is the body, she is asked, simply responding to ultimate trama to shield itself from the unbearable?

She dismisses this almost peremptorily. And cites cases in which blind people, considered clinically dead, revive and recount out-of-body experiences in which they "see" and then describe perfectly all who were in the room.

She has herself had such experiences, she says. "I have never talked about anything in public that I have not verfied myself . . . or experienced myself. It is not a question of believing. I know."

The Hesses began to plot vengeance on the ex-convict who shot their son. Lois Hess discussed it at length with her husband. "It was all worked out," Lois Hess can now say with equanimity. "I was going to shoot him at the trail. We had it all figured out, they would probably just send me to a mental hospital or something, you know, "The poor anguished mother.'"

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is preparing to deliver to the world her work on the afterlife in the form of two 90-minute cassette tapes. One she describes as "rather conservative." The other is a dialogue between herself and the healer/preacher Jay Barham, which will also appear in book form.

She is reluctant to discuss the work in any great detail, but the general picture is this:

"Man is created by God (or the spiritual source) to fulfill his destiny in one lifetime.

"Of course," she says, "most people goof it up. You literally reap what you sow. Everybody dies a beautiful death, that is true. You do your own evaluation in the presence of spiritual source, or Christ or God or whatever you call it, and you evaluate whether you've taken the highest or lowest choice every single day of your life.

"That," she says firmly, "is what we have to teach children, that total existence at the end of your life is the result of consequences you've chosen every day . . . ."

There is no Satan. "Hell or Satan or brimstone are projections of man's psychic energy. There is nothing negative in spiritual energy, and God is all spiritual energy. It's a projection of our fears.

"Man has always misused his gifts.You can heal somebody with psychic energy, but you can also kill."

There is no such thing as "karma." "All the troubles in this life you cause and create yourself and you cannot blame a past life. It is just easier to blame something else . . . . Your destiny is what you make out of your life."

Two aspects of man's life are total "no-nos," she says. "If you take another's life or kill yourself, all the positive experience you have accumulated in this lifetime are annulled and you have to start from scratch.

"For the next life you must pick a more challenging existence in order to be able to pass the test and overcome this life so you don't have to come back over and over and over and over.

"The longest existence a human being ever had is two million years.The shortest, from the source back to the source, 43 years." Later, she will exempt men killed on the battlefield from instant forfeiture of a life's worth of deeds.

The trail of Stuart Hess's murderer has moved to southern Maryland. The Hesses attended, but Lois Hess, owing largely to the influence of Kubler-Ross, had long since given up the plan born of despair and bereavement.

Now she is a volunteer for a gun-control organization, and for a group in Baltimore called "Compassionate Friends," made up of parents who have lost children of their own, who help other bereaved parents.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross announced to great applause Thursday night that her dream "of a hospice for children was about to become a reality in the Washington area (probably in Northern Virginia).

"What we have to do," she had said earlier, "is to have a healing center (Shanti Nilaya) in each state where anybody, whether he can afford it or not, can get the best of the science of medicine and the healing arts and we're trying to prove that physicians, M.D.s, can work and help together with the people who have the healing gifts."

"I know," signed a doctor friend of hers later, "a lot of it is, well . . . but if she were purple and walked on two hands I would still love her for all the wonderful work she's done."