Weird name for a loving, benevolent being that shows up in so many cultures across the ages that it must be real. When does it show up? To help us transition from life, to death, to new life.
October ends and November begins with the death-themed holidays of Samhain (Halloween – Pagan New Year), the Days of the Dead, All Saints, All Souls – all reminding us that death is a natural, normal and peaceful transition from what’s happening here to what happens next. Even so, many people see death as terrifying – an unknown, possibly painful, horrifying ending to existence, to avoid at all costs. Talk of death is seen as macabre, morbid, weird. And yet once a year we celebrate all things macabre, morbid and weird. And of course, it’s my favorite time of year.
I’m a Scorpio, and, let’s face it, death is my thing. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens during our transition to the other side of the veil – from this existence to the next. I have always known, even when a child being raised as a Catholic, that there isn’t really a “heaven,” nor a “hell,” and that those allegorical “places” are manipulative devices to make us behave. I knew from a very early age that I had been here before, and that I will continue to return here as often as I want, for as long as I want. I see death as a normal and natural passage from here to there. Of course, I still grieve when loved ones pass over, and usually participate in funerary rituals (very difficult events for empaths, because of the overwhelming, palpable grief of others). But what about the passage – what is that like? I’m respectful, but fascinated and curious, and always looking to learn more.
Death rituals and celebrations vary between cultures and religions, but one almost universal theme is something, someone, or some type of essence, that serves as a guide and escort to usher the person transitioning. This supernatural assistant is called a psychopomp.
These beings include angels (Azrael, Samael, Michael), ascended masters (Jesus, St. Peter, Mary), deities or lesser deities (Mercury/Hermes, Anubis, Charon, Daena, Heibai Wuchang, Shiva, Yama, Valkyries, the Grim Reaper), animals or anthropomorphic creatures (owls, vultures, crows, ravens, deer, dogs, cats, horses, cuckoos, cardinals, whippoorwills, jack o’lanterns, faeries or sprites, devi, mermaids), and even loved ones who have passed this way before us. This is just a small sample of the psychopomps of various cultures, as there are as many traditions as there are peoples on the planet. The vast majority are benevolent beings, who realize that their charges are often conditioned to fear the next step, and want to make the transition as safe-feeling and loving as possible. Yet when human beings are faced with something mysterious and impossible to understand, they often build stories that are full of fearful images. Popular horror movies often show blood-dripping, hideous fiends who brutally rip the soul from innocent victims. Sadly, this human tendency to see the unknown as fearful often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that fills those at the ends of their lives here with a dread of what will happen when they pass over. When the time comes they will realize that their fears were unwarranted, and that their caring envoy will help them as they pass.
The ancients used their knowledge of the afterlife to write texts to guide those in transition. For example, the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead served as maps and “how to’s” for those passing from this world to the next.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead was actually not simply one book but a series of individual prayers and texts that span over the course of 1000 years. Translated as “The Book of Coming Forth by Day,” (how beautiful!) these instruction manuals were placed in sarcophagi and tombs, or even written on the mummys’ wrappings, to aid in the journey of souls to Duat, the underworld. The spells serve both as a census of deities that may be encountered, how to recognize them, and words that may give the bearer control over those deities, as well as offering amulets as protection from harm in the underworld. They were full of magic rituals and meant to help ease the passage of the soul to its next steps in the process of its journey.
What is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Bardo Thodol, or “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.” Composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) and discovered by a Tibetan terton (“revealer of sacred texts”) in the Gampo Hills in Tibet in the 14th century, the “book” (actually two instructional texts) describes the bardo as the interval between death and the next incarnation. Part of a larger body of works on secret Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the Bardo Thodol is intended as a guide through the experiences the consciousness has after death.
The three primary bardos mentioned in the Bardo Thodol are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of the Experiencing of Reality, and the Bardo of Rebirth. Along with three life bardos mentioned in the second text – Life, Meditation and Dream, the six bardos encompass every phase of consciousness through which we pass during our existence. Children of the 60s may remember The Psychedelic Experience, published in 1964 by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass). The book, based loosely on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was a guide through the different consciousness states that may be attained through the use of LSD, and a path to rebirth.
In any case, these and other books purporting to help the readers navigate the afterlife and rebirth process may serve as an enlightened roadmap for what lies beyond our death. But then there are the helpful beings whose purpose and vocation is to take our hands, and personally usher us in to the next phase of our existence – some of whom are still alive. Many cultures have their version of a shaman or other wise and compassionate person who helps the dying person and their family through the transformation process.
A few years ago my brother-in-law Tom entered hospice care in the last months of his travail against lung cancer (PSA – please don’t smoke). What struck me most was the empathy and compassion shown by the people who cared for him, including my husband, during his stay. My husband went to hospice almost every day after work, to chat with his older brother, or sometimes just sit with him while he slept. I accompanied him on a few of these trips, and listened and laughed as our brother talked about the birds, squirrels and chipmunks (each of whom he had named) outside his window. At one point, Tom had asked if he could have a barbecue for his family, and the folks at the hospice said no one had ever asked before, but they didn’t see why not. So we brought food and grills, invited family members and had a barbecue in the hospice parking lot, including other residents who were able to join us. It was a wonderful break from the routine, and the often somber atmosphere was festive for a day.
Upon his passing, one of our brother’s care nurses came to be with us as we sat alongside Tom’s earthly body, answering any questions we had, but mostly just being there. She would occasionally pat his hand, or brush a stray hair, to make sure we knew it was safe, and okay, if we wished to do the same. We didn’t cry – his time had come – but we did feel this as a sacred moment. There was peace in the quietude. And it was nice to have someone quietly sitting vigil with us who had spent time with him in his final moments here.
I recently learned of someone in our state who functions as an end of life doula. I had heard of midwife doulas who help new moms to care for their newborns, and help them navigate the joys and struggles of new parenthood, but never of someone who does the same for that other normal, natural transition – our passage through death. She is an unofficial minister of sorts, and not only helps those who are in their last months “put their affairs in order,” but acts as a friend and confidante to those who have no one to serve this function, and often helps them to fulfill their final wish – for example, organizing an end of life party, helping to write a memoir or letters to those left behind, serving as a sounding board for spiritual, religious or philosophical discussions about “what happens next,” etc. Obviously, it’s more of a calling than a job. I have seriously thought about taking the step to become trained for this honor – to be part of a process of “being there” for someone who is facing a time in their lives that we have all been taught to fear from almost the moment of our birth.
I don’t fear death, any more than I feared any other transition of my life – birth, graduations, marriage, childbirth, divorce, losing loved ones. If we stop having these little deaths and rebirths throughout our lifetimes, whether joyful or frightening, we stop living – and isn’t that why we’re here? To experience, to learn, and to grow. When the time comes, I know that I will not be alone. I will expect the best, and be excited for what comes next. I’ll be ready to be guided on.