What happens when we Die?

What happens when we die? Up until about a century ago, most people knew the answer to this question. They grew up on farms or in rural places where they watched the cycle of life and death in their farm animals and in nature around them. They had a respect and acceptance of birth and death which we have forgotten today. Even 150 years ago, up until the Civil War, families buried and had vigils for the dead, often participating in hundreds of funerals and burials for their townspeople. Now, we rarely have the rich experience of being with a person at their moment of death. In its most natural state due to old age, death is just as beautiful and miraculous as birth. When a person feels safe in the comfort of their own home and can surrender to nature’s process, there is a beauty and truth that becomes evident in the last breaths. Even for those deaths from suicide, trauma, an accident or debilitating illness, death is at the very least a release from pain and suffering.

So what happens just prior to the moment of death? Many hospice workers over recent decades have observed stages in the dying process. For a brief summary of the two weeks prior to death, there is a pamphlet published by Hospice of Santa Cruz County (Quality of Life Publishing Company, Naples FL) entitled “When the Time Comes.”  Briefly, in the one to three months prior there is the “turning inward” toward death, with much less social interaction, communication, and more sleeping.  One to two weeks prior to death there are changes in pulse rate, decreased blood pressure, skin color changes, breathing irregularities, body temperature changes, reduced eating, and fluid intake, and increased sleeping. There is a restlessness with these physical changes.

Most noteworthy is the brief stage called the “Surge of Energy” when a dying person can often, in the days or hours prior to death, exhibit an unexpected but short-lived return of their vital force.  He or she may suddenly want to eat when there was no interest, or get up out of bed when bedridden, or seem well, “like their old self,” in the midst of a degenerative illness. This surge can be dramatic or subtle and can give false hope that the person is miraculously recovering.  In fact, they are gathering their strength for a last full-body experience and preparing for their transition. She or he can appear alert instead of confused, or well instead of sick. Sometimes, a person can have a glimpse of what some call the Afterlife, where family or friends from the “other side” appear to the dying person as if to comfort them and accompany them across the threshold of death.  Many a hospice nurse or doctor has observed this phenomenon, in which the dying person will be sitting up and having a conversation with an invisible relative.

In the final minutes prior to death, there are shallow breaths with long pauses, the mouth will remain open, and the person will be generally unresponsive, sometimes assuming a fetal positioning of their body. Breathing, heart rate, and organ function have begun to shut down.  The moment of death is when both heart rate and breathing stop completely.

Dr.  Kathleen Singh, Ph.D. has, over many years as a hospice psychologist, written about how we are authentically transformed as we die. She refers to Dr. Kubler-Ross’ five stages of dying: Letting go, Grace, Radiance, Reverence, and Silence. She finds that at the moment of death we fully experience the reality of our true self, which has moved beyond our ego and bodily existence into a new “field”  from which we were born. “We leave behind the mind but move into a greater field of Consciousness”.   Dying becomes a “birthing into a new energetic form”, a field of deep inner connection with a new capacity to “merge” with others who have crossed over as well as being among those still living. True empathy, love, and compassion are gifts emerging from death.  Dr. Steiner would have added that the “Dead are among us,” that they continue to heal and evolve using the lessons learned from their life, lessons of empathy and love in particular. They have the capacity to be with us when we call on them, remember them and find gratitude for who they were.

In his latest book, “Walking Each Other Home: Conversations On Loving and Dying”, Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D.) wrote,  “We all sit on the edge of a mystery. We have only known this life, so dying scares us—and we are all dying. But what if dying were perfectly safe? What would it look like if you could approach dying with curiosity and love, in service of other beings? What if death were the ultimate spiritual practice? Numerous religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and others have sects which focus entirely on looking entirely at one’s death and death in the universe.  After impacting millions of people through the years with these teachings, and, now at 86 years old, Ram Dass reminds us, “Everybody you have ever loved is a part of the fabric of your being now,” says Ram Dass. The body may die, but the soul remains. Death is an invitation to a new kind of relationship, in the place where we are all One. ”

Many people who have returned from a near-death experience (NDE), including numerous doctors and scientists, and have described the moment of transition as stepping through a portal or door into a tunnel.  New research from Dr. Raymond Moody, MD, shows through thousands of cases in which there is a “shared crossing” of a family member who accompanies their loved one through this door into the hands of loved ones who have already crossed over.  This surviving person returns to the world, while the deceased continues on through the portal, meeting familiar loved ones, or Jesus, Mohammed, God, or an angel (whomever the dying person has had an experience of love or unconditional love.)

Though most of us don’t remember our births, the phenomenologist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner described like no one else has described death as a re-birth. Through his observations of being with many meditators in the European  Anthroposophic community a century ago, he perceived in those who were dying  a “most exultative and wonderful release into overwhelming love and intense solar light.” Regardless of our race, religion, or belief (even atheism or agnosticism) Steiner observed that all humans pass through a universal portal toward loved ones who have already crossed over. Whatever the cause of death, the dead person is immersed in unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion.  Many others who have died and returned to life write about a similar experience of feeling immense love, so much so that if we remembered it we would not want to return to earth with its many challenges.  Yet, it is what Ram Dass called this “grist for the mill”, the challenges we have in life, that build the Consciousness that culminates in our deepest inner work after death.

The body after death

Over the next three days following death, and during a memorial,  vigil or Celebration of life, the deceased person then begins a Life Review, in reverse from death to their birth according to Steiner.   In many spiritual and religious traditions, during this ‘Kamalocha” or life review, the surviving family and friends may keep the person’s body at home for the wake or vigil. This is the time for grief and saying goodbye.   Each culture has their natural expressions of grief and healthy expressions of love for the body and spirit.   In hot weather countries in which it is difficult to keep a deceased body cool enough to slow the dissolution processes, the dead were cremated or given a one-day vigil prior to green burial.  This time allowed the family to move through the grief process naturally, toward acceptance and the reality of death with a funeral, religious rites of passage, and burial.  The natural deathcare process is a sacred reverence for the body and gift of life, as well as for the living to be supported in this essential process.

The Three Days Following Death

In the three days following the death, there is a 72 hour period in which it is legal in all fifty States  to gather family and friends in a home funeral or vigil.  The Jewish and Muslim traditions hold a one-day vigil, while in European traditions, and in cooler weather, the body was held at home for 3 days.

The benefits are many:

  • The 1-3 day vigil provides a refuge for friends and family to share in celebration, grief and processing toward acceptance in a safe home or home-like setting. Often there is candlelight round the clock for family and community members to share in a peaceful and vulnerable release of feelings.
  • Provides a healing catalyst for sudden losses, such as the loss of an infant or child, accidents, suicide loss, trauma or epidemics of contagious disease.
  • A “golden glow” is often observed in the unembalmed body.
  • The face of the loved one can sometimes take on an expression of relaxation, peacefulness, or even a look of contentment.
  • The vigil helps prepare and “ground” the family for the Memorial, a process of receiving much-needed community support for moving back into their daily lives and sharing their memories and appreciations in a public setting.
  • It allows loved ones to physically “hold” the body, to have a choice in participating in the cleansing, dressing and finding physical closure with the body. Experiencing a real understanding that love lives on through each other, even though the body is going “back to the earth” in burial or dispersal.
  • A deepening “silence” can be felt around the body during this 72 hour period.  The vigil allows the family to “guard” this silence of the body as the departed one moves through their journey across the threshold.  The family can come together to surround the body with love, hope, and understanding.
  • Playing music can be a way that loved ones can express their connection with the one who has died. Some families decorate the casket with flowers, artwork, and personal gestures of healing expressions.
  • The Vigil can provide a space and time for the realization that love lives on and is “coalesced” at death to provide us with a deeper understanding of the eternity of love.

Following the vigil or funeral, green burial can bring the family and friends together in transporting the body in the casket or digging directly into the ground, and finding new support systems among family and friends to move back in their daily lives with greater ease. This is an essential step in the grief process and gives a deeper experience of the preciousness of life.

Once buried, the body typically takes several years to decades to decompose naturally. In a green burial, new life is created into seedlings or nurturing soil for a tree. For a brief explanation of the decomposition process, see http://www.memorialpages.co.uk/articles/decomposition.php.  To summarize: “There are many factors that affect the rate of decomposition… humidity, heat, cold, soil type, water level, depth of burial, the availability of oxygen, accessible by [microbes], body size and weight, clothing, the surface on which a body rests – all determine how fast a fresh body will skeletonize or mummify. A basic guide for the effect of environment on decomposition is given as ‘Casper’s Law’ which determined that where there is free access of air a body decomposes twice as fast than if immersed in water and eight times faster than if buried in the earth.” Studies from the University of South Carolina, show that decomposition can take as little as months when given ideal conditions. New life in the form of flora can emerge quickly with composted liquid solutions poured over the soil, to allow enrichment of the soil biome immediately.

Understanding these ancient approaches to death, including being present at the moment of death, the home funerals and vigils, natural grieving within the community, and green burials are all ways we can move toward a more meaningful, more natural and universal way of deathcare and dying.