by Jane Hope
Despite our understandable fear of the unknown, our need to recognize and accept
the reality of death is an essential element of our development. From a spiritual perspective, death is an everyday, inevitable
presence which gives sharper focus to our experience of life; by contrast, modern secular societies seek to minimize its significance.
The fragility of the body was perceived by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa: "This thing we call 'corpse', which we dread so much,
is living with us here and now," he observed, adding that avoiding the contemplation of death served only to increase human
Spiritual philosophers have tried for centuries to help others accept
death's inevitability. Plato described his work as "phaidros melete thanatou" — a joyous rehearsal and preparation
for death which could inform the soul's understanding and appreciation of life. The Daoist master Zhuang Zhou described the
folly of ignoring death through the example of a man disturbed by his own shadow. He tried to run from it, but the more he
ran, the more the shadow kept up with him. As the shadow continued to follow him, he ran faster and faster until he dropped
dead. He did not realize that if he stepped into the shade and sat down, his shadow would vanish.
By its very nature, the contemplation of death and its mystical separation
of soul and body are usually expressed through metaphor and symbol. Meditational aids, such as the Buddhist mandala or the
Shri Yantra pattern used in Hindu Tantra, celebrate the soul's union with the wider universe that enables the individual to
transcend his or her physical death. Christian beliefs are rooted in the conviction that the death and resurrection of Christ
offer hope of immortality to every penitent soul. Contemplation of Christ's Passion, through either stylized representations
or the symbol of the crucifix, is an important aspect of the faith which brings the believer into direct confrontation with
agonizing physical death. St. Paul emphasized the integral relationship of life and death, observing: "I die daily, I crucify
the flesh with its passions, I have no lasting city here." In the Orthodox Church, icons provide the focus for reflection
and prayer. Remote and beautiful, in the formulaic Byzantine tradition, they offer the worshipper "windows on heaven" through
which encounter with an unimaginable Godhead may be anticipated.
The rituals surrounding burial and mourning give spiritual guidance
during an acute confrontation with death. Traditionally, family and friends prepare a corpse for cremation or burial and often
undertake periods of ritual mourning, reflection and prayer. After a funeral, Jews observe seven days of mourning known as
the shivah ("seven"). Family members receive visitors, but leave the house only to attend the synagogue. The mourners
are also required to refrain, as signs of grief, from bathing, having sexual relations or cutting their hair. The continuation
of the deceased's soul is symbolized throughout the period by a burning candle.
Many spiritual traditions have sought to offer guidance to the dying
and provide them with descriptions of the soul's passage after death. In ancient Egypt, extracts from the Book of the Dead
— a compilation of sacred spells — were buried with rich members of society and included images of the deceased
overcoming trials in the underworld. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes death as a moment of piercing luminosity,
or white light, before the soul begins its journey toward rebirth or liberation. Emphasis is placed on the importance of facing
death courageously, allowing the soul to release itself calmly from the body.
For many centuries, confronting death was a way of facing a beginning
as well as an end. The large body of European medieval literature on the subject, the Ars Moriendi or Art of Dying,
sought to enable the Christian soul to overcome diabolic forces and reach paradise. By unflinching acceptance of the reality
of death during life, the soul is able to blossom into its full maturity.
From The Secret Language of the Soul by Jane Hope (San Francisco: Chronicle Books,
Copyright © 1997 by Jane Hope