The greatest mystery for most continues to be our inevitable death. Many fear this concept and try their best to avoid the topic until the day of their passing. It is never easy to think about death and even less so to embrace it. Some people are fine with the idea of their own passing, while the thought of a loved one shedding their mortal coils terrifies all. This is understandable, for the sheer image of Archangel Azrael, Santa Muerte, the Grim Reaper and other beings of death is overwhelming enough for many to look away quickly. Death continues to shake up feelings within humanity that most prefer to leave out of sight and mind. Humanity has devised unique and fascinating ways in order to revere the dead. The sheer diversity of burial and honouring the dead is immense. However, to many spiritually inclined persons, the understanding of their own temporarily can aid in giving them a purpose to life. In this article, various ways in which human society deals with death will be discussed, along with a spiritual application of this great inevitability.
“Everything you have ever seen, every rock, every flower, every bird will pass away and turn to dust, but the fact that you have seen it will never pass away” – Kabbalah Teachings
Since antiquity, the cycles of life and death have fascinated all who wish to enter into its darkened domain. From individual burial ceremony to the celebration of yearly seasonal cycles, humanity has displayed creative and insightful ways of understanding and honouring this cycle. It is unfortunate that in conventional western society, the view of death is one most grim, this is understandable, however, far more power lies within the understanding and acceptance of this uncertain journey. The western culture, compared to so many others, perceive death as a finality and most unfortunate of circumstances. This is understandable, however, if one is to look at a variety of other cultures, death is celebrated as a form of liberation and transcendence. To many, death is to be honoured and understood as a beautiful thing. This may sound odd to many western orientated minds and especially so for those of an atheistic or damnation orientated perspective. There is method to the madness of a beautiful death. One simply needs to find it hidden within the macabre reality of decay. This is where many falter.
Death is inevitable. Change is constant. This statement is powerful enough to have such a large portion of humanity striving for immortality. Whether immortality will be achieved through cryogenics, medical telomere enhancement or true enlightenment, it is clear that this remains a great goal of our human collective. We have eaten of the fruit of knowledge, now all that remains is the fruit of immortality. Many will grasp furiously at the chance to avoid their death, however, for the time being, we only have the means to greatly prolong our time on earth. Through a healthy diet, lifestyle, conscious living and technological advancement we can keep the inevitable at bay and consequently leave a much larger mark on the planet than we could have previously. This blessing, however, must be dealt with consciously as our population is ever growing and the means by which society functions continues to corrupt the living earth system. This continual destruction of planet earth will surely lead to our demise. With immortality comes the greatest of responsibilities. Until the day that we are able to live as long as desired, death will surely follow. This is a great fact. As Dr Watson states in Th Romeo Error, “The mortality rate in life is one hundred percent.”
Depending on the culture, geographic location and religious ideal the way in which we ceremonially treat death varies greatly. In the western culture, death is seen as a great tragedy and for the most part a permanent ending. We give the dead over to experts who then embalm or cremate the dead for us, creating a separation between us and the cruel look of death itself. For the most part, people in western society have never seen the body of a dead person. We are comfortably sheltered from this gruesome image, not to mention the lack of understanding when it comes to slaughterhouses and the meat industry alone. By the time we see death, it has already been shed of its macabre nature and packaged in a more acceptable way to our delicate sensibility. Not all cultures, however, share this separation from death as in the west. In fact, some cultures share such a close connection to its image, that most people of the west will be left either squirming or call it heresy. These rituals and ceremonies are fascinating and provide a holistic view on dealing with death.
One of the most profound and awe-inspiring burial ceremonies are to be found in the high mountains of Nepal. Here, due to the lack of soft soil for burial and restricted timber for cremation, another method of discarding the body is employed. It is also practised in Tibet, parts of China, Mongolia, Bhutan and other regions. If the body is simply left in the open, disease soon spreads, thus the body is instead incorporated into the ‘circle of life’ by feeding it to scavengers, vultures being the most prevalent. A Buddhist monk called a ‘rogyapa’, meaning ‘body breaker’ is responsible for preparing the body, in most cases having to carve the flesh into pieces small enough for vultures to eat with comfort. Once the cultures have had their fill, the bones remain which are then ground up and mixed with a variety of other foodstuffs such as butter, milk, tea, barley etc. This is then fed to other creatures such as cows and a variety wild creatures. The thought behind this ceremony is intimately tied to Buddhist teachings, in that it fully incorporates the cycles of life and continuation of energy that may be used by the living.
In other parts of the world this style of ceremony is taken a step further. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea, the Jukun people of Africa, and multiple tribes in South America to name a few, practice what is known as Endocannibalism. This practice involves the consumption of a tribe or family member after they have passed away. The primary rationale behind this is that the deceased must not be disrespected in such a way as to simply have them rot in the ground, but must instead be embraced through consumption by family and friends. This throws the western ideal completely on its head, as it is seen as blasphemy and dark practice. We must, however, remember to not judge such a cultural practice simply because it is alien to us. In Papua New Guinea one problem does arise from the practice of endocannibalism. The spread of Kuru or Prion diseases in woman and children. In their ceremony, it is the woman and children who eat the brain among other parts of the body. It is by ingesting a brain already contaminated with the prion that the disease is able to spread, which greatly shortens the expected lifespan of an individual.
There are many more cultures who have such a personal relationship with death and its ceremony, however, for the purpose of progression let us move on. To our western perspective, these customs may seem alien or outright barbaric. There is, however, a more intimate relationship formed with the concept of death in these cultures. Thus, they do not shy away from this inevitability and perceive it to be something special. As Dr Watson states, ‘Throughout all these many and varied ways of dealing with the dead, runs one central theme. Implicit in every funeral practice is the assumption that death is not the end, that it marks some kind of transition.’ To most cultures around the world, death is a phoenix, out of it splendour rises. Nevertheless, death itself does not generally provide any form of comfort. The understanding of one’s own mortality may provide insight into the purpose of life on earth and what can be achieved before the inevitable transcendence. Some spiritual groups utilise this fact in order to better equip themselves while in their mortal coil.
In various forms of esoteric and spiritual practices, one must become familiar with the aspect of death and what it means to be mortal. From Hermetic teachings to Buddhist philosophy, a practice of envisioning and meditating upon one’s own death is a form of empowerment. It creates a sense of comfort with the concept of death, while also ridding the practitioner of their ego inherited upon earth. A loss of ego or carnal self is a major or primary goal for many spiritual practices. Most should be familiar as to why this is necessary for spiritual advancement. This concept is far too large and diverse to explain here, but I implore those unfamiliar with it to research it further. It is of the utmost importance. Please have a look at this link for ‘The Nine-Point Meditation on Death’ as an example. Many different meditations and practices exist concerning getting to grips with death. All of these practices attempt to have one become comfortable with death, to shed the ego and to realise the purpose of life in its temporal state. This I believe to be very important if we would have humanity evolve, instead of stagnating and becoming lost in fear the material.
To conclude, it is clear that death is viewed in a variety of ways worldwide. The manner in which humanity deals with this most touchy of subjects is diverse, to say the least. What seems normal in one part of the world is perceived as insane in another. This phenomenon is one that most wish to escape and few embrace, unfortunately so many who wished to escape it fall short and perish in misery. Embracing or at least understanding the fact of our mortality can greatly enhance the way in which we perceive the world and our place in it. Western society, in general, has created a gap between death and our perception of it, only to our detriment. We have lost touch with the reality of death and instead wish to live in a fantasy world of arbitrary materialism. It is only when we confront it, that we will properly revere it. One thing remains for certain, however, which is that we will only truly understand death when we ourselves are reaped. Whether we will fight it or embrace it continues to be unknown.
Keep Well Friends,
Campbell, G., Centre, I.O.W. and McGill (2013) ‘Eating the dead in Madagascar’, South African Medical Journal, 103(12), pp. 1032–1034.
Christopher, L.T. (2006) Kabbalah, magic, and the great work of self-transformation: A complete course. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications,U.S.
Watson, L. (1975) The Romeo error: A matter of life and death. Garden City, NY: ANCHOR Press/Doubleday, 1975.