Death: The Elephant in the Room

It is the one great certainty in life – the shared inevitability for all humanity, and yet death and dying is rarely discussed. In the west and Christian countries more broadly it’s largely feared, pushed away until the body falls into fragility, the urge to rest becomes overwhelming and we’re no longer bothered. Then death becomes a blessing, a ‘merciful release’ as a dear friend use to say.

Loss and Grief

There has recently been a death in the family. She had been ill with secondary lung cancer for over five years. It was said to be terminal and so it proved. The average life expectancy with that particular brand of death is five years, so it was expected, by friends and family and by her – although not accepted. She leaves a devastated husband, three grown-up children and three grandchildren, as well as a frustrated mother and forlorn father.

Two months or so before she died she was rushed into hospital crying with pain across her shoulders and back – areas harbouring cancerous cells, causing furious speculation that the cancer was active, and death was beckoning. A month later and further painful episodes saw her once again taken into hospital. There is nothing more we can do for you, said the oncologist.

A slight woman, narrow-minded with a fierce grip on life, a fear of death and bitter fury at ‘God’, and what she saw as the injustice of her illness. ‘Why me?’ ‘I’m a good person, it’s not fair,’ she shouted at the beginning and throughout her ordeal. As if anyone anywhere, deserves terminal cancer. God was banned from her funeral – angry to the last.

Her children, according to their grandmother, are shattered some four months on. The husband is back at work, but ‘in pieces’. They were an extremely close family unit, supportive, lives interwoven. All lived in the same rural town, saw one another virtually daily, were dependent, and had not faced the reality of death.

Desperate and determined to stay alive – “well, she’s got so much to live for” ­– she had endured nine courses of chemotherapy. Six is usually all the body can take before the vital organs break down. Hair came and went, immune system collapsed, concentration failed, memory slipped, but not her resolve to live, to beat it. In the end the hand of death gently raised her from her illness and freed her from her pain. Healed at last.

She would not discuss death, what it is, or might be, how to live with it, how best to prepare for it – psychologically and physically. The elephant in the room: talking about it would acknowledge its existence and invite the possibility, which has to be excluded at all costs; certainly she thought so.

Death is generally seen as the opposite of life; something hurtful that will tear us away from loved ones; from her husband and children, grandchildren and comfort. It is seen as separate from life, divorced from the daily process of living, is cast in the role of darkness.

Death and the Soul

Death – physical death, not psychological death – is viewed as the Great Unknown:  well, ‘nobody has ever come back to tell us about it, have they?’ runs the argument in defence of ignorance. Death is routinely feared, thought of as unfamiliar – darkness, total ending for the atheists, or eternal heavenly salvation for the orthodox believer – both images are as vague and abhorrent as one another.

But if, as is stated throughout the ancient and indeed more recent literature emanating largely from the East, it is true that we have lived countless lives (as both a man and a woman), and reincarnation, or the Law of Rebirth as it’s called, is a fact, a basic Law of Life, then the experience of death and the process of dying, whilst not remembered, is far from unknown, or unfamiliar, and need not be viewed with dread.

In order to understand a little of death it is necessary to establish the constitution of the human being, so we can determine who or what it is that dies.

According to a wide range of enlightened teachers and texts from the Upanishads to Maitreya and all points of wisdom in between, mankind is nothing less than a spark of the divine – we are the Self, “an immortal being,” Maitreya states. The Self is pure awareness and reflects itself as the soul. It is the soul, that through an act of service and sacrifice, takes incarnation again and again we are told, until matter is raised up as it were and reflects perfectly the will of the divine.

The nature of the soul is consciousness; the soul brings consciousness to the physical vehicle, which consists of three bodies: a mental body, an emotional body and a two-fold physical – dense physical and etheric physical. Ramana Maharshi describes consciousness as “the screen on which all the pictures come and go. The screen is real, the pictures are mere shadows on it.” The mistake we make is to believe in and identify with the pictures on the screen, whilst failing to recognize the reality of the screen itself. We are immersed in the illusion and suffer as a consequence: trapped in Plato’s cave, even when the shadow play is pointed out as such — as it repeatedly has been — we refuse to give it up. Making fear of death, which will tear us apart from all attachments, inevitable.

The soul comes into incarnation with various plans, which it seeks to work out through the personality. In order to do this, the lower vehicle – the personality of the man or woman in incarnation ­– needs to be negative to the soul, something it fiercely resists. The personality wants dominion over the life, and control has to be taken from it. The process is, as the Bhagavad Gita makes plain, a tremendous battle, and is fought out over aeons.

We identify ourselves with this body, with this particular life, or incarnation, but the soul, which is the divine intermediary, sees any one life simply as an expression of itself at a particular point in time, an expression that is more or less successful in demonstrating its – the soul’s – purpose or plan; a set of primary intentions that are consistent with the plan of evolution as creatively held within the mind of the ensouling deity (or God) of this planet.

What or Who Dies

The soul brings life to matter, animates form, and bestows consciousness. It is the soul that also withdraws life – consciously and deliberately. When this happens the physical vehicle decays and dies. The life, what we think of as our life, in this sense is not ours at all. It is certainly not ours to take; it is the soul’s. The incarnation is the activity of the soul and it is the soul that decides when it will end. Any attempt to intervene and impose our own will is a violation of the natural process of life and death.

The agency of death is generally disease and illness of some kind, together with accidents and violent incidents. These are the result of the action of the Law of Cause and Effect – a benign, non-personal, non-judgmental law, which has nothing to do with man-made notions of reward and punishment. A basic Law of Life, hard to comprehend but fundamental; despite what appears to us to be the injustice of illness and the randomness of tragedy, there is no punishment, nor is there reward; there is simply the inevitable working out of the law, the consequential energetic effects of specific actions or causes. One such effect is death; through the transition that we call death, certain energetic patterns are resolved and the person is free from the particular cause that resulted in, e.g., secondary lung cancer. The healing may well be the death itself.

Every day we experience death, or a mirroring of death, when we sleep. As Alice A. Bailey writes, people “fail to relate death and sleep. Death, after all, is only a longer interval in the life of physical plane functioning; one has only ‘gone abroad’ for a longer period.” Death cannot take life; life cannot be taken, life simply moves from one manifest form to another, from one state of consciousness to another, subtler, more intense state.

Dying is really a process of withdrawal from the physical plane, through the emotional and etheric bodies to the subtler planes of existence – one or other of the astral planes, or one of the mental planes. Then, after a period of rest free from the demands of the physical body, the soul once again is drawn into incarnation and a new life begins. This is repeated until one needs not incarnate anymore, one is free from the pull of matter – one is liberated. This process of incarnating and withdrawing, growing and learning, according to the teachers of mankind has happened to us literally hundreds of thousands of time. As the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2 Verse 27) says, “certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead; therefore over the inevitable thou shouldst not grieve.”

If it were better understood dying would no longer be dreaded as it so often is. Death, Alice A. Bailey relates, “can best be regarded as the experience which frees us from the illusion of form.”

In the end she went quickly and quietly, a minor ailment triggered the final release; all tension and anger subsided, peace enveloped her and fear was washed away.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.