Maps for the Journey of Death
Maps for the journey of death from many ancient traditions reflect universal themes that transcend culture and spirituality. The struggles, fears and concerns at the end of life are essentially unchanging in all societies: fear of the unknown, reluctance to leave behind loved ones, and a desire to cling to life.
Richard F. Groves and Henriette Ann Klauser address many of these concerns in their book, The American Book of Dying, Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain. They draw from the lessons found in the ancient books of the dying and offer answers to many of the universal questions regarding death.
Much of the below information has been gathered from this invaluable reference.
Plato, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, lived in Athens from 428 to 348 B.C. His writings on death are extensive and include one of the earliest references to an actual near-death experience. The context for this reference was the story of Er, a Greek soldier who was killed in battle along with many fellow soldiers. The bodies were collected from the battlefield and laid upon a funeral pyre to be burned. Er awoke on top of the pyre and described what he had seen on his journey to the realms beyond death. There he had been told that he must return to the physical world to inform men what these other realms were like.
Modern times have provided us with more information to create maps for the dying process. Most near-death experiences have been reported over the last 30 to 40 years. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, there was no advanced resuscitation technology available. “Bringing people back” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Today’s research shows almost 5% of the United States population has had a near-death experience.
We can’t rely entirely on the experiences of those who have died and been resuscitated, however, because they usually have had such a brief journey. We must look to the earth traditions for greater detail, such as Native Americans, Tibetans, and Buddhists. These ancient traditions offer the best references for the death experience—maps based on accounts of those who have journeyed to the realms of spirit and returned to us.
The Egyptian Book of the DeadThe Egyptian Book of the Dead formed a map to negotiate the perils when passing from life through the process of death. The maps were most often found as papyrus rolls that were placed in the coffin beside the mummy so it would be at hand when the deceased began his journey into the afterworld. Excerpts from The Book of the Dead are also found on tomb walls, mummy bandages, heart scarabs and in other contexts in order to assist people by accompanying them on their passage into the “Great Light.”
The Egyptian Book of the Dead was written as inspiring poem-like prayers, bearing an incredible resemblance to the psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. The texts were composed during the same time period as that of Moses and the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, acknowledging that their cultures borrowed and adapted both language and theology from one another. These poems were a psychological code providing a guide for how to live as well as how to die.
The Egyptians understood that death to the ego and personal identity was necessary before they could face the final “Great Death.” Therefore, little distinction was offered between the instructions for living and instructions for dying. Without an exemplary and moral existence, there was no hope for a successful afterlife; one would be judged in the afterlife on the basis of his or her deeds during life on earth. Personal integrity was the Egyptians' highest value.
Written over three thousand years ago, the book contains incredible insights still relevant today: For if I remain truthful, I am guaranteed possession over my Body and Soul. And if I live and die in integrity, my Spirit-Soul can never be destroyed.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead can be divided into four major sections, focusing primarily on speculation about what happens after death. The first section describes how the deceased enters the tomb and descends to the underworld. The corpse of the deceased regains the physical capabilities it had on earth, which may explain why corpses were left intact throughout Egyptian history. In the second section, the mythic origin of the important places and gods of the beyond is explained and the deceased is reborn and made to live again. In the third section, the deceased travels across the sky of the underworld and appears before the judges of the dead for judgment and vindication. In the final section, the deceased assumes his power in the universe as of one of the gods.
This Egyptian version, however, unlike later books of the dead, offers little practical advice for the physical well-being of the dying person or the bereaved family.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Bardo Thotrol, translated as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, teaches how one can attain heavenly realms by recognizing the enlightened realm as opposed to being drawn into the realm of suffering. This ancient text was passed down orally until the eighth century A.D. when it was first put into writing. This Buddhist scripture was traditionally read aloud to guide the dying person in recognizing the true nature of mind, untouched by change or death, and attaining liberation. This process was referred to as the “life-to-life Tibetan prayer wheel transition.” The spinning of a prayer wheel is a method of prayer to purify the mind of negative karma and bring peace, especially at the time of death. It helps transfer consciousness to the pure land of the Compassionate Buddha.
A number of passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead bear an uncanny resemblance to the Chinese text, Tao Te Ching. In both cases, powerful images are given to help neutralize the anxiety and fear that often precede death. After we stop breathing and before the dissolution of the senses, the true nature of mind arises. The Buddist refer to this state as the ultimate or “buddha nature” holding the seeds of enlightenment. If one is able to remember her true nature in that moment preceding death, there is an opportunity to transport consciousness to Dewachen—The Pure Lands, a place where one’s Soul may abide and learn its remaining lessons without needing to return to a physical body. It is the opportunity for enlightenment.
The purpose of reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the dying person is to remind her of what she had practiced in life and the importance of her state of mind as she approaches death.. Tibetan Buddhists spend their entire lives preparing for the moment of death, studying and going through intensive training in the meditation practices of Tonglen and Phowa. Tonglen is a method of overcoming fear of suffering through connecting with the suffering of others and thereby awakening inherent compassion. The goal of Phowa is to transport one’s consciousness to merge with the wisdom mind of the Buddha and avoid becoming seduced by lower-dimensional or negative thinking. The practitioner guides the dying person through these meditations to achieve liberation at the moment of death even when enlightenment was not achieved in her lifetime.
If the dying person leaves the body without transporting her consciousness, she has several days in which to remember the practices from a preceding lifetime. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember, because one is seduced by images of solace and comfort as well as images that induce terror and revulsion. These images are witnessed in the transition passage known as the bardo. In the bardo there are a series of realms which correspond to all of the psychological states that keep us attached to the illusion of separation. We fail to recognize that what we are experiencing is not real and solid but a manifestation of mind. In each of these realms there is an opportunity to make a choice, abandon interaction with illusion and seek the land of love and compassion, the land of the Buddha.
Until one can clear the deeply-rooted negative habits that one harbors, one will be caught in a cycle without end. The ideal is for the practitioner to continue these practices for a full forty days following a person’s death to offer the soul a chance to step out of the illusions of the bardo. The soul will be reminded that nothing negative is real and that nothing which appears to offer comfort or solace has substance.
Celtic Books of the Dead
The Celtic Books of the Dead are a series of hands-on practices rather than a book and have been passed on through centuries of oral communication. Considered an art, these practices sought to relieve both physical and spiritual pain at the end of life. It was primarily through the end-of-life midwife–called anamcara–that the teachings were preserved and their influence extended throughout Western Europe. The anamcara was considered a “soul-friend” to the dying, a source of comfort and support.
The Celts recognized the inter-relationship of physical and spiritual suffering and taught the dying patient –on all levels–to “lean into” pain at the end of life rather than resisting it. The anamcara would do whatever it took to magnify the very issue that caused suffering and help the person face it directly, thus leaving no unfinished business.
The Celtic model provided unique elements of soothing medicine: harp music, poetry and a wide range of complementary healing modalities, addressing everything from regulating a person’s breath and diet to the content of their dreams. The Celtic style of end-of-life care influenced much of the Mediterranean world as far away as Spain, France and Switzerland. Monasteries became a stronghold of palliative care and this holistic approach to healing became the first to bear the name “hospice” at the turn of Europe’s first millennium.
Monastic Books of the Dying
The Monastic Books of the Dying is not a distinct textbook but rather a library of records called “customaries.” These records preserved the daily life or customs of the monasteries that housed Europe’s earliest hospices. Written a thousand years ago, they detail an amazing range of holistic modalities for treating the sick and dying, including music and ritual, morphine, acupressure and aromatherapy.
The Monastic Books of the Dying described a unique plan of care tailored to specific needs. Nothing took priority over supporting someone through his or her spiritual pain. The customaries included texts and sentiments common to all the monotheistic traditions of Jews, Christians and Muslims as these religious groups often lived and died side by side in peaceful coexistence. The psalms, for example, encouraged the terminally ill of these faiths to express a full range of emotions from despair to anger with God, perhaps even cursing under the rubric of prayer.
Gnostic Books for the Living and Dying: Bridge between the East and West
The monastic communities from Syria to Egypt produced the Gnostic Scriptures in the third and fourth centuries. These scriptures, which never were accepted as part of the Bible, are remarkably similar to Asian spiritual teachings. This is especially true when describing how to alleviate suffering at the end of life.
An early text fragment from the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene parallels passages in the Tibetan Book of the Dead in describing the stages of dying and the challenges faced during the life-to-death transition. In the gospel’s tradition, the role of the spiritual companion to the dying person was to help her negotiate universal perils that show up at the end of life, such as doubt in the essential goodness of one’s nature.
Parts of the Gnostic Scriptures read like an ancient map for finding peace at the end of life, exhorting the dying to embrace the moment and rest in the power of the present.
Consistent advice is given to face one’s mortality and embrace the indestructible nature of spirit. Stories of contemporary near-death experiences corroborate what our ancestors realized: the dying person faces fierce spiritual obstacles before being able to release the spirit.