Psychopomp Stories:
Contemplating Death in a Spiritually Diverse Society

Doctoral Dissertation by Laura Strong, PhD

Chapter 1: Introduction

If your life on earth were to suddenly end tomorrow, do you have a clear concept of where you would go from here? And, if so, are you confident in your ability to make the journey on your own? Since time immemorial people have pondered questions such as these. They have asked themselves what, if anything, survives the death of the body and how it makes the transition from this existence to the next. Many of the imagined solutions to the mysteries of life and death have developed into stories, stories that have been shared for generations as some of the mythological tales, religious texts, and sacred narratives that can be found around the world.

A recurring image in many of these stories is that of the psychopomp, which acts as an escort to the afterlife. The term psychopomp originates from the Greek words pompos (conductor or guide) and psyche (breath, life, soul, or mind), but examples of this guide of the soul are far more universal. In addition to the Greek god Hermes, psychopomps have been envisioned in such grand mythological and religious figures as the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis, the female Valkyries of Teutonic legend, the Buddhist Bodhisattva Jizo, and the Archangel Michael. Psychopomps also come in less flamboyant forms, including a variety of animals, ancestors, natural phenomena, and shining beings of light. Throughout much of human history, these archetypal escorts have been a great comfort to the dying. They have also affirmed that there is life after the death of the body, and that a compassionate being will be waiting to offer guidance through the transitional rite of passage known as death.

Unfortunately, many of the myths and rituals that once contained images of psychopomps seem to be largely lost or forgotten in the Western world—a world that also appears to be plagued with fears of dying. Death has become such a big taboo in the West that most people avoid even talking about it, even though we hear about it almost every day in the media. At the same time, the modern medical field keeps us focused on extending our lives at all costs, rather than preparing for this inevitable event. As David Darling, the author of Soul Search: A Scientist Explores the Afterlife explains: “No longer is there a sense of participation in the living cycle, the renewing, regenerative, sequence of life-to-death-to-life. Western man has wandered into a spiritual desert where traditions of intimacy with nature, the final rite of passage, and the belief in an eternal life have all but been forgotten” (xvii-xviii).

A long history of events has contributed to the current avoidance and unfamiliarity with death in the West. One of the foremost is the fact that death has been steadily moving from the home to the hospital over the past one hundred years. According to Ronald L Grimes, author of Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage:

Before the twentieth century, dying in Europe and North America was more consciously embraced and publicly performed. A dying person’s deathbed scene was saturated with explicit death rites as well as ritualized social drama. Dying was a family, if not a public, occasion. Deathbed utterances were given special credence. To listen to someone straddling the great divide was considered an opportunity for spiritual growth. (222)

Much has changed since that time. Today, there are few opportunities for people to learn about death first hand, or to observe family rituals and practices. The result is an almost complete dependence on outside physical, mental, and spiritual professionals at the time of death.

The modern medical approach to end-of-life care has also introduced a number of new complications that are contributing to the current fear of dying. These include the reality that most people now die in unfamiliar environments, surrounded by noisy machines, bright lights, and other distractions. They also die all-too-often alone, which is something most people dread. In such settings, death is also often seen as a failure, and many of the attending staff are often too overworked and underprepared to discuss such ethereal matters as the soul. And when an opportunity does arise, it is increasingly common to find oneself in the care of someone with a completely different religious and cultural background than one’s own. All of which adds to the complexity of discussing death and the transition to the afterlife.

Over the past few decades, enormous efforts have been made by numerous doctors, nurses, psychologists, spiritual leaders, and others to change the way we deal with death and dying. The growth of the hospice movement and the fact that HMOs now employ spiritual counselors are all steps in the right direction. Most bookstores now have entire sections on death and dying. Information and seminars are also readily available through many hospitals and organizations. Even so, most people do not generally seek out such information until they are forced to face their own death or that of a loved one.

Around the world, other cultures actively encourage the contemplation and exploration of death during one’s lifetime. Most of these societies also appear to be much more comfortable with death and the dying process. In such environments, death may be explored through dreams and meditation, or through the use of initiatory rites of passage, shamanic journeying, or other mind-expanding techniques that enable the individual to investigate the mysterious after-death realms. Many of the discoveries made during these journeys have also become the inspiration for mythological stories and rituals. Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax explain: “Mythological systems have not only detailed descriptions of various afterlife realms, but frequently also complex cartographies to guide souls on their difficult posthumous journeys” (2).

It is also interesting to note that the West has not always been without its own myths and rituals that could prepare a person for death. For example, in ancient Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries were known to eliminate a person’s fear of dying, and during medieval times, Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying) literature was extensively used to ensure a “good death.” Ronald Grimes points out that during the medieval era: “A good death, then, was one contemplated and prepared for. A bad death was the outcome of refusing to face your mortality until it was too late” (223).

Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in this concept of a “good death.” Although a number of Western stigmas would need to be overcome before the idea of contemplating and preparing for this final journey returns as a social norm, I believe it is not impossible. To begin with, Westerners would need to stop thinking of death as something to be avoided at all costs, and there would need to be a more open approach to discussing death, dying, and the possibility of an afterlife. In addition, new stories and rituals would need to be found or developed that could take into account the fact that the Western world is now one of the most religiously, spiritually, and culturally diverse places on the planet. I believe that if we follow the lead of the mythological psychopomp, we may just find a way.

Next: Chapter 1 - Methodological Background

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