What is death? -- an exploration of mankind's most often asked question
“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force.” -YODA, Star Wars Episode III
From the beginnings of humanity, mankind has struggled to understand the nature of his own mortality, and never has one question been pondered quite as much as the title of this article, ‘What is death?’
One might consider this a simple question, almost a stupid one; death is the cessation of life within an organism, and common to all living things – almost a rhetorical question, not requiring an answer, obvious.
Or is it?
There is no doubt death is a transformation, as anyone who has witnessed a death can attest. Here we see this hauntingly evidenced by the beautiful work of German photographers Walter Schels and Beate Lakota. Look at the photograph below of one of the subjects in their study of death.
- Life Before Death at the Wellcome Collection
This sombre series of portraits taken of people before and after they had died is a challenging and poignant study. The work by German photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta, who recorded
We see the living face, animated, eyes a mirror of the internal process – a person and next, we see the same face shortly after death, empty, abandoned, devoid of life and personality, a shell – a corpse. But only the dying know what transpires during this transformation; the rest of us can only postulate a hypothesis, speculate, wonder and indulge in our emotional responses – fear and dread; awe and celebration; grief and loss; relief …
Every death, like every life is different, but the end result is universal. We are dead, departed from our material form and world – this much is physically apparent. What happens to us while dying: this is the real question.
“The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life.” -- LUCAN
- Near Death Experience: Do you have a fear of dying?
Hubber Tusitala Tom from Australia shares his own near death experience and the life-changing effects of his taste of the here-after.
Many claim to have experience of the process, but not quite to the end – the near death experience. Even here on Hubpages, one can find the first hand testimonials of those relating their brush with the hereafter, several of them, and they all share certain elements – leaving the body and watching their bodies in extremis as disinterested observers, a sense of joy found in continuance, greetings from one or many spiritual beings, light in the distance and a desire to approach the light, complete love and for the most part, a disinclination to return to the living world.
"For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity." -- WILLIAM PENN
Many of us, myself included, find a sense of comfort in these reports, but I can’t help wondering, seeing as they didn’t actually die: is this but a symptom of the passage?
Perhaps it’s part of approaching my sixties; perhaps because I’ve faced the deaths of several loved ones in the past few decades; perhaps it’s part of my spiritual growth but I’ve found myself wondering about dying and death and what awaits us once ‘we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.’
“I am going to seek the great Perhaps” -- FRANCOIS RABELAIS
- On the other side of death
Hubber Coast Runner shares with us her psychic experience of connection to the 'other side.'
In one of those strange coincidences of life some call synchronicity, no sooner had I began this quest to learn more about death, than a friend said to me, “Lynda, there’s a woman I know you simply must meet, a lovely spiritual woman who worked in hospice for many years and I think you should write about her and her experiences.”
“For death is but a passing phase of Life;
A change of dress, a disrobing;
A birth into the unborn again;
A commencing where we ended;
A starting where we stopped to rest;
A crossroad of Eternity;
A giving up of something, to possess all things.
The end of the unreal, the beginning of the real.”
-- EDWIN LEIBFREED, "The Song of the Soul
Meet the Rev. Juliette Jones, Ph.D., an ordained minister of SpiritQuest, a new paradigm New Thought Church
Juliette was born and grew up in Michigan, a daughter to a family with a long history of spiritually aware women. She speaks of having glimpses into other dimensions of the universe as young as three or four, a gift not only accepted by her family, but somewhat expected. “In fact,” she says, “I didn’t understand why others didn’t talk about these things.”
Lucky for her, she admits, her family considered this a gift. “We live in a society that considers such reports as pathological, but in certain other cultures, which place emphasis on our cosmological identity, if you don’t have transpersonal awareness, you would be considered ‘impoverished.’”
An important turning point in Juliette’s life came with the death of her father from a brain tumor when she was in her late teens. She was present at the moment of his death, and watched his spiritual part ascend up the spine and exit the physical – not in a metaphoric sense, but physically watched it happen.
From that moment on, she knew that death was something that she wanted to study, something more than what people tend to see through eyes of grief or fear.
“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?” -- KAHLIL GIBRAN, from "The Prophet"
- International New Thought Alliance - Wikipedia
A link to an article on the history and scope of the New Thought Alliance.
- International New Thought Alliance
For those wishing more information on the International New Thought Alliance, a link to their home page.
- International New Thought Alliance -- 10 basic tenants
This is a direct link to the ten basic tenants of New Thought beliefs.
Later, she studied and became an ordained minister of the New Thought Church, a spiritual congregation adopting elements of many spiritual philosophies and religions, but with a basic foundation of “the principles of one’s inseparable oneness with God, the Good,” and whose mission is “to encourage awareness in individuals as to their Divine Nature which ever seeks to manifest as health, supply, wisdom, love, life, truth, power, peace and joy.”
While busy with her South Florida center, Juliette decided to become a professional volunteer with hospice and return to her studies, completing a Doctorate in Pastoral counseling and Spiritual Psychology, and her primary focus became the study of death.
She entered into a work life dedicated to spiritual counseling for both the dying and their loved ones, their families and other survivors. “The most necessary component of effective counseling,” she says, “is what I call compassionate detachment. You may offer awareness, compassion and respect. This is not about you, the counselor, but about the dying person.” She went on to discuss how hospice employers make efforts to ensure that caregivers are well grounded emotionally, and not there to work out their own emotional issues with dying.
“My soul is full of whispered song;
My blindness is my sight;
The shadows that I feared so long
Are all alive with light.”
-- ALICE CARY, Dying Hymn
“What do most people think about when preparing to die?” I ask.
“Almost everyone is affected by thoughts on two aspects of life: their family and their life’s work. When it comes to family, they may celebrate joys, or lament failures, perhaps both. And work – work is very important --- they either tend to have a sense of accomplishment or incompletion, again, perhaps both. In both family and life, unfinished business can make dying more challenging.”
“Does religion help the dying person?”
“Religion can be either a great help or a great hindrance. Some people have suffered religious abuse which affects the health of their psyche.” (And I missed taking notes because her statement carried me back to a death I witnessed of an elderly woman close to me who had enjoyed a bit of a ‘wild’ life, and as death approached suffered great fear of ‘God’s judgment’ – one of those rare moments when a profound understanding of someone’s words floods into your being.) “The meaningful thing appears to be spiritual realization---that is , truly inwardly awakened to gnosis---that they exist at the core---as a spiritual being who has and is having a human experience.”
“Can you explain?”
“Beyond this I will just say, this is why it is important to love, and to give of oneself throughout life---it gets us out of the ego, out of the material consideration and into a progressive inner awareness of the energy of the soul. When it comes time to pass, it seems that one is then more familiar with letting go.”
“You spoke of seeing your father’s spirit leave his body; does this happen for you often?”
“Not very often in the way it happened there---a few times, I would say. The death of a beloved relative, involves a very personal experience, a very different degree of attachment. But I will say that I have had many sorts of transpersonal experiences in the course of my work with the dying. Experiences that have convinced me that our culture has a long way to go with respect to our knowledge of death and dying. Death is a great teacher, if we can bring ourselves to open the inner eyes.”
“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
The Carriage held but just ourselves
“What happens to our minds as dying begins?”
“There is a series of processes that are characteristic to shutting down of the physical body. As far as the psyche goes---again, this is very different for different people. One thing that I have seen quite often is what I like to refer to as “approaching the shores of heaven.” This has to do with the higher mind revealing things to the human person. Many different sorts of perceptions including, but not limited to lucid dreams, visions, various phenomena---the unfolding of super-conscious and transcendental states of awareness.
"Those reporting near death experiences speak of ‘the light’ -- are these part of the visions you speak of?”
“Certainly, yes there are some aspects of NDE’s and OBE’s (out of body experiences) that appear universal – the tunnel, the light, but beyond that the vision may be of a relative, or a religious figure. I believe people see that which inwardly significant, and often relevant to their spiritual practice, family or culture. For instance, a Christian might see an angel, or even in some cases, Jesus; a Buddhist, may see a Buddha, or a spiritual teacher, and so forth. It seems to be a manifestation which is symbolic of our own inner understandings.”
A related article on the process of dying
- Crossing Death's Doorstep
Hubber mighty mom discusses the physical progression of death -- a must read.
(Once again, my mind jumps off and contemplates an article here on hubpages written from a Christian perspective of near death experiences. This writer wondered why, when only Christians can attain heaven, non-Christians report the same lovely visions – surely this could not be. It must be Satan, this writer concluded, deceiving them into continuing without Christian salvation – a view I found particularly abhorrent. Juliette’s words “it seems to be a manifestation which is symbolic of our own inner understandings” take on a new meaning.)
“With all of your experience of death, I must ask: in your opinion, do we continue?”
“Absolutely. I feel this inside; how could it be otherwise? We are not separate from the universe, from the Infinite Field, or from the Divine. I couldn’t conceive otherwise. It wouldn’t occur to me – such thought is contrary to all I have experienced and learned in life.”
“What are we after death?”
"What are we before birth?”
“What do you expect of death?”
She smiled. “Peace. Comfort. Do we even know where we will be tomorrow?”
“For death begins with life's first breath.
And life begins at touch of death” --JOHN OXENHAM
Thank you, Juliette, for sharing your insights on life, death and spirit.
We agreed to meet again and discuss the cultural aspects of death – why some cultures accept death as part of life, even celebrate it and why others fight so hard against the end, take it as tragedy, almost a crime. And this will have to wait for the next article.
“Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.” -- DAVID SEARLS
Our conversation was an enlightening one. I have many more questions, as just this morning I experienced the death of a loved one – that of a beloved companion, Didi, my mastiff, and I wonder if she, too, saw the light at the end of the tunnel, if her ancestors welcomed her home. As death comes to all living things, would it not come to them all in the same form?
Didi suffered a cascade of strokes, the first leaving her paralyzed in her hindquarters (a spinal stroke) which led to a series of cerebral strokes. I watched helplessly as all that was Didi was destroyed, and although her heart still beat, her legs still thrashed, her eyes told me she had already departed.
When the emergency veterinarian finally arrived to put an end to her body, there was no need for me to comfort her. There was nobody home in that empty but still living house that had once held a loving and devoted entity.
I phoned Juliette and asked her, "Do you believe animals have a soul, a spirit?"
She said, "We are all God's children, creations of the Divine and part of the whole. Most assuredly, your Didi is fine and content." She paused as my grief overpowered me for a moment. "Isn't it interesting that at this particular time when you are exploring the meaning of death, she brought home to you this insight -- her parting gift."
Thanks again, Juliette.
Other links of interest
- Aziz Khabirpour - What it is like to die from the near-death experiences perspective
Aziz Khabirpour describes what it is like to die from the near-death experiences perspective.
- Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) with Evidence of the Afterlife
Near Death Experience Research Foundation the largest collection of Near Death Experiences (NDE) in over 20 Languages. Over 1000 full-text near death experiences posted. Share your near death experience, research, spiritually transforming events ...
- A Reply to Shermer Medical Evidence for NDEs, Pim van Lommel
Pim van Lommel makes the argument the near death experiences are in fact evidence of post-death existence.
"Life is a great sunrise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one."- Vladimir Nobokov
“After your death you will be what you were before your birth.” --Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 -1860
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” -- unknown
“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” --Leonardo da Vinci
"Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other." -- Francis Bacon
“For certain is death for the born
And certain is birth for the dead;
Therefore over the inevitable
Thou shouldst not grieve.” -- Bhagavad Gita (250 BC - 250 AD)
And that most famous of all musings on death ..
"To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet