Essay 8 Understanding Dying

Challenges of Birth, Life and Death – Understanding dying
Chapter 17 of Mysteries and Challenges of Birth, Life and Death


When you die according to your natural being, the whole of your personality will volatilize and only the fundamental fire-principle that gave you life will return to the higher self, to the aural being. Just as the being of a dog volatilizes within a few days after death, so it is with us after a somewhat longer period, if we continue to exist out of this nature. […] 

There is no reincarnation or re-embodiment of the personali- ty. Nothing remains of the mortal soul after death. The mortal soul, your I-being, volatises completely. Nothing is left of you, as a mortal soul. Just as the material body returns to dust and ashes, so it is with the mortal soul, for the soul that sins must die and something that is dead in this sense is absolutely dead. 

When your soul has become immortal through rebirth out of water and spirit, through transfiguration, you will reincarnate only if it is useful. Then it will be voluntary and in the service of the Universal Brotherhood’s great never-ending work of liberation on behalf of the whole of humanity. 

Jan van Rijckenborgh,
Elementary Philosophy of the Modern Rosycross, chapter 11

Certainly the time of death of the physical body can in many cases be postponed, for example by living a healthy life and through medical intervention. However complete cancellation of this breathtaking event is impossible, because death built into our universe according to a certain plan. That is why it is said that death is the only certainty we have in life. Whoever is born will die without doubt.

Death is frightening for many people. Those who are truly spiritual are generally less concerned about their personal encounter with the Grim Reaper than those people who are not very spiritual. Death is often depicted in old images as a skeleton with an hourglass and a scythe. The hourglass indicates that the end has come, the skeleton shows what remains of the person who dies and the scythe is a symbol of bringing in the harvest of the lived life.

Pythagoras taught his students ‘Fear not to lose life, because death is only the alteration of your dwelling place’. And the German poet Goethe at the age of 75 said to his secretary: ‘I remain very calm at the thought of my death, because I am firmly convinced that our spirit is a completely indestructible being; it continues from eternity to eternity. It is similar to the sun that only apparently goes down in our earthly eyes, but which in reality never sets, but shines continuously’.

Incidentally, it is not necessary to be quite old to perceive this. At the age of 31 the composer Mozart (1756-1791) wrote to his father that he thanked God to have learned that death is the key to true happiness and that he made himself familiar with ‘that good and faithful friend of man’. He writes: ‘I never go to sleep without realising that (young as I am) I might not be there when the next day dawns. And yet no one who knows me can say that I am ever grumpy or melancholic. Every day I thank my Creator for my happy mood and from my heart wish it to all my fellow creatures’.

Perhaps this clear sense of his mortality has also made it possible for Mozart to create playful and light-hearted musical compositions with great depth. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach also had a special relationship with death. Although his music swings, death is omnipresent in his life and work. Bach aptly expresses the duality between the fear of death and the desire for death in a number of his cantatas. Based on personal research published in 1994, the musicologist Helga Thoenes believes that Bach was strongly influenced by the rosicrucian saying ‘In Iesu morimur’ (‘In Jesus we die’), and that he incorporated that theme numerically and into content in compositions.

The central idea here is that attachment to the outer being must die to enable the inner Christ to become active. This is consistent with Paul’s statements: ‘I die daily’ (1 Corinthians 15:31) and ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me’ (Galatians 2:20). It is also reminiscent of a statement by Angelus Silesius: ‘Whoever does not die before he dies, perishes when he dies’.

By the way, Bach was not striving for an immortal name. He was well aware that he could compose only thanks to divine in- spiration. That is why he signed many of his compositions with SDG, the abbreviation for Soli Deo Gloria, which means: only honor to God. In addition, he incorporated the tones of E, D and G in many musical pieces. His St. John’s Passion begins with this, for example.

Dying with dignity

Every person has the right to a life of dignity as it was laid down in 1948, for example, in the Universal Declaration of Rights of the United Nations. In this way every human being should be entitled to die with dignity. But what is dignified dying? To make meaningful statements about this, it is important to realize what happens in the process of dying. Within medical science there is still great ignorance about this because this science is still largely based on the materialistic premise that when the heart stops beating and the brain activity disappears, the consciousness is no longer present. That is a huge misconception.

Dying is also called excarnation and is in fact the reverse of incarnation. Upon death, the connection between the more subtle vehicles and the physical body is broken off and the consciousness can no longer express itself in the physical body. That consciousness is still there, but it then resides mainly in the etheric body. During the first three days after death the so-called retrospection takes place, during which the soul oversees the past life. That overview passes by like a panorama, so that the soul can take stock of the past life. What was good in it? What lessons still need to be learned? After that the soul can move on to the area that suits her and is most appropriate for her further development. Even the more subtle vehicles are gradually decomposed and dissolved, until only the essence of the person in question remains – that which connects multiple lifetimes – is left.

After an indefinite period of time, new parents will be attracted and a new quadruple vehicle will be conceived, born and built up: physical body, etheric body, astral body and mental body. All of this is surrounded by a spherical magnetic system called the microcosm. In fact, the microcosm is what remains and reincarnates. The cyclic process of incarnation, life on earth and excarnation is repeated until once, through the process of transfiguration, this cycle is broken and the microcosm, after very many life lessons, returns to its divine origin.

Because the soul is still closely connected to the physical body during the first three to three and a half days after death, any post-mortem examination or any other damage caused to the physical body will be felt by the soul and could possibly hinder the process of retrospection. Also bustle or the loudly uttered misery of family members who want to keep the dead person near to them can be harmful for the undisturbed completion of the life panorama.

Even unspoken thoughts or strong emotions can draw the soul back into the atmosphere that it is trying to leave. That is why peace, understanding and love are needed in the immediate vicinity of the dead person, all of which can be extremely helpful in the profound process that the soul goes through then. Appropriate care (taking) and respectfully doing what is part of this care will certainly not be a nuisance, but rather will promote the sacred rest that is desired for the deceased.

Bury or cremate?

According to the universal wisdom, it is preferable to cremate a dead body well after the aforementioned review instead of burying it. Why? When the moment of death has come, a split takes place in the personality. The physical body, with part of the ether body or life body, remains behind in the material sphere. The rest of the personality, with the consciousness, leaves for the reflection sphere or, if there is already a new-born soul state, for an area beyond that.

Since the entity in question has lived for so long in the now-abandoned physical form, and since that body was attuned to the entire being, there is a strong polarity between the part that has already died and the part that is still living. This polarity can be maintained by the molecules of the dead part with the substances of the still-existing part of the personality. If this happens, numerous unwanted situations can arise, both for the person concerned and for the relatives. In 1909 Max Heindel writes about this in his book ‘The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception’:

‘Just as in sleep, at death a division is made between bodies, but with this important difference, that though the vital body returns to the dense body, it no longer interpenetrates it, but simply hovers over it. It remains floating over the grave, decaying synchronously with the dense vehicle. Hence, to the trained clairvoyant, a graveyard is a nauseating sight and if only more people could see it as he does, little argument would be necessary to induce them to change from the present unsanitary method of disposing of the dead to the more rational method of cremation, which restores the elements to their primordial condition without the objectionable features incident to the process of slow decay.’

Kama Loka and Devachan

Max Heindel also describes in his book what the consciousness experiences after the aforementioned life panorama of a few days, whereby the experiences are imprinted on the astral body. After the first retrospect, the silver cord that connects the lower vehicles with the higher ones breaks and the physical body is really dead. Consciousness then retreats into the astral world where a purification process takes place, an area that in theosophy is referred to as the kama loka. Then again a panoramic re- trospective takes place that, according to Rudolf Steiner, usually takes about a third of the number of lived years. In that period, a person experiences all the pain and suffering that he has inflicted on others and so learns the grief that he has caused to others. This purification process is aimed at learning to love the world and humanity. 

The experiences in the kama loka will be forgotten in later lives, but the feeling remains. That is the ‘silent conscience’, the weak whispering voice that warns people when they think, say or do something that is not pure. The purification period can be shortened considerably by living consciously now and cultivating the longing to be truly good. An important help herein is the so- called evening exercise that the initiate Pythagoras gave to the students of his mystery school as early as the beginning of the fifth century before the beginning of our era, and which is de- scribed as follows in the historical document known as ‘The Golden Verses of Pythagoras’ (40-48): 

Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions of the day. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it; and if thou hast done any good, rejoice. Practice thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart. Tis they that will put thee in the way of divine virtue.’

When a deceased person has passed through the kama loka and the last remains of the astral body and the thought forms associated with it have evaporated, the emptied microcosm enters into a more heavenly region. This region is also part of the reflection sphere, but has a pleasant character and is called devachan in theosophy. A certain peace and joy is experienced there until it is time for a new incarnation on earth.

The process and the time between two incarnations can take a short time, such as with young children or with a premature death, but can also take a long time, said to be as much as three thousand years. The length of time between two lives can vary greatly per microcosm and per occasion. Moreover, in the reflection sphere time is experienced in a completely different way than on earth in a physical body.

Organ transplant

On the basis of the aforementioned information, it is easy to understand that donating and receiving organs through organ transplantation can cause considerable chaos and disharmony in the immaterial areas. The dying processes of a person who donates an organ or several organs to serve others are seriously disrupted. So much so that the result of the past life of an organ donor is not fully harvested. Organ recipients benefit from the damage the organ donor in ignorance has allowed to be caused to his process of dying by being listed as a supplier of ‘spare parts’.

Donating an organ to a dying person is a humanitarian act. It is certainly also a sacrifice. For respect for everyone’s decision in this regard, it is important that all those involved experience it in that way. The sacrifice made by the donor is often much great- er than he or she realised at the time of signing up, because the advertising for the recruitment of organ donors is very one-sid- ed. It is stated that after your death your body is of no use to you anymore and that there is therefore no harm in donating your organs, in order to give sick people a better life. The things that are not said are that you, as a ‘brain dead’ organ donor:

  • die on the operating table as a result of removing organs because you have given permission for this yourself;
  • are limited in harvesting the results of your life because the operation disrupts your retrospection/review;
  • enter into a karmic bond with the recipients of your organs and the surgeon in question, which can be a hindrance for the development of the microcosm that you inhabit;
  • have to deal with disruptions in the dying processes of your personality because parts of your body live on in others.

Suffering and dying from an untreatable disease is part of life. Of course it often comes unwanted and inconveniently, but in fact it is normal. In advertising campaigns, it is often suggested that people die as a result of a shortage of organ donors. The technique of organ transplantation is a serious violation of the human body because all kinds of medication must be used for a long time to prevent rejection of the foreign organ by the organ recipient. The immune system of the recipient is hereby affected, making him or her more susceptible to infectious diseases, for example. Psychological problems can also arise because it is experienced that there is something in the system that does not fit with one’s own individual being. We may wonder whether, from the perspective of the development of the whole, the means of organ transplantation is not worse than the ailment.

Driven by compassion, continuously sustained by the harsh reality of the sick with failing organs and the declining supply of organs, donor recruitment comes to us with promotions again and again. We are addressed at our feelings of compassion, charity, social duty and moral duty. In some countries there is a national action week every year in which you are requested to ask everyone in your area whether he is already registered as a donor. You can just be persuasively approached. Young people can receive a donor registration form on their eighteenth birthday. They are invited through youth-oriented projects to discuss and reflect on this topic.

The practice of transplantation medicine states that it handles the body of a dying person and his family with care. Nevertheless those involved in transplantation are transplant-oriented, based on the world in which they live and work, and their ethical objections will be minimal. They regard emotions as human, inevitable and understandable, but these can be dealt with by an adequate approach by the transplant team. They also believe that better information should be provided to let people know how carefully doctors proceed in determining death… and to assert to the population that brain death is actually dead.

Brain death

After the first successful organ transplants in the 1960’s, it soon became clear that two conditions had to be met: there must be living organs and deceased donors. To solve that impossible contradiction, the concept of brain death was introduced. Brain death means the complete and irreversible loss of brain functions, including the brainstem and the extended marrow, due to a fatal brain injury, the cause of which is known and which cannot be treated. The criteria differ by country. The method of determination also differs by country. There are regular discussions about the manner of determination.

A brain dead person would no longer have consciousness, but the entire biological system functions completely normally. There are brain-dead women who have given birth to children after many months; dozens of brain-dead have returned to a 100 percent normal life. The best-known example is the American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander for whom brain death was established 2008 due to brain inflammation. After waking up from his brain death and after he eventually fully recovered, he confirmed the clinical diagnosis of brain death after having examined his medical record.

He wrote the book ‘Proof of Heaven: a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife’ and gives interviews worldwide about his seven-day brain death period and journey to the hereafter, where he met the deceased sister he had never dead and came back to life. Many of them describe how they clearly experienced what was happening around them and with them and what was said, but how they were literally paralyzed and unable to give any sign of life. For some of them, these experiences extend to just before the moment of the intended organ removal. There are no reports of those in whom organ removal actually took place.

A brain-dead person who has signed up as an organ donor is therefore declared legally dead, but in reality he dies later, on the operating table, as a result of the removal of his organs. He is seen before. There is a long list of other people who were declared brain dead when returned to the family. The Brazilian neurosurgeon Cicero Coimbra (publications 2009-2013) has determined that in the event of a brain death, the brain stem no longer functions de- monstrably, but is still alive. Due to the failure of the hypothalamus, a number of glands with internal secretion are no longer controlled. At this stage the patient can be saved from death with substitution of the deficient hormones. Coimbra has succeeded in doing this on several occasions.

Brain death is not a diagnosis but a prognosis. After the deter- mination of brain death, the patient is no longer treated. He has then become an organ donor. At the start of organ removal, heart and blood pressure rise, just as with a normal patient who is insufficiently anesthetised. At the start of the organ removal it can occur that the brain dead one rises and makes repelling gestures: the so-called Lazarus reflex. To prevent this, anesthesia is administered prior to organ removal.

Material medicine is aimed at maintaining life; it has little understanding of what ‘death’ means. Without understanding and without evidence, life and consciousness are linked to the brain in order to make organ donation possible. Decisions on whether or not to receive or donate organs should not be imposed. Every person should be free to make these choices according to their own conscience.

Palliative care

Returning now to the question about dignified dying. Doctors often notice that the preparations for the very last trip seem poor compared to the preparations for a random holiday trip. Palliative care can offer a solution through guidance in the very last phase of life. The goal is then no longer to cure the patient – that is no longer possible – but to offer the patient and his environment the highest possible quality of life in the last part of life.

Palliative care is aimed at controlling and keeping pain and other discomfort under control. Attention is also paid to how incurable illness affects the family and the immediate environment in a psychological and social way. Furthermore, space is created for spiritual aspects associated with questions about the meaning of life and death. The term palliative care is derived from the Latin word pallium, which means mantle. Just as in the fourth century Saint Martin gave part of his cloak to a beggar in the cold, palliative care can give people warmth and attention just before they die that can be helpful to proceed peacefully to the other domain of life.

Dying is a sacral process. It is an individual event, but a person is rarely alone in the dying process. Usually care and guidance are needed. The question is whether that help is in accordance with the state of consciousness of the dying person. During the final phase of life it is possible that all masks, ties with the old life and the urge to maintain oneself lose their compelling power and are discarded. It is often a period in which the spiritual person takes important steps. The state of consciousness is the state of life, but also the state of death…

If the person has been able to place a truly different accent in life during his active existence, then this is the time that he will come to real surrender; not to death, but to the new soul that gives life. The faith, trust and tranquility of the new soul are then indispensable aids to bear and endure the pain associated with dying.

The fixed, most material aspect of the organism is often the first to be released. The sick person becomes bedridden and does not eat anymore. The element earth is released and leaves the body. The dying process will then take a few weeks at the most. The next step is that the person concerned no longer wants to drink. The element water can be seen as a symbol for the etheric body: the last days have begun. No longer being hungry and thirsty means that the human being, but also the material body, is no longer interested in the physical-etheric. The human being, the soul, is busy releasing all that.

During the last hours, it is usually the respiration that responds to the process of release. Breathing becomes irregular until, when the last respiration is blown out, the astral vehicle, the ether body, and the soul truly release from the physical body. The elements air and heat disappear from the body. Then, if the heart no longer beats, the person is freed from the material body.

If pain is too intense during the dying processes, there are aids that relieve the pain. This can cause the consciousness to diminish or it can no longer be maintained. The process of transition can then be continued in artificial sleep. Dying is an essential part of life, and it is a certainty that what has been lived through in a human life and the soul power that has been built up are protected in the final phase.

The dying process in relation to karma

The entire process of letting go of life and turning to what comes after this life is one of the most intense and profound experiences that a person can have in his life. Consciously going through this phase of life can therefore be very valuable, especially for people who know that physical existence is part of a much more comprehensive process.

In this sense, we may question the broadened possibilities of stepping out of life when life is supposedly ‘complete’. Everyone is of course free to make their own choices, but it is important to realise that the dying person denies his microcosm an important experience when he or she commits suicide for fear of physical or psychological suffering or to avoid being a burden to the ones who surround him. The person who has lived a valuable life and faces the end of his life may be inspired by the following poem by Rumi:

I died as a mineral and became a plant
I died as a plant and rose to animal
I also died as an animal and I was Man.

Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?
Yet one day I will die as a person
to raise myself up with the angels,
but even then I have to go further.

Everything except God perishes.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I will become what no spirit ever contained.’