Tag: death

Do you have the map?

It’s funny that the afterlife is the subject of so many jokes. I’m tempted to say that if I had a dollar for every New Yorker cartoon that ever dealt with heaven or hell, I’d have enough money to buy the magazine as its publisher. Hell never seems too bad in those cartoons, nor heaven too much fun. And jokes about three people arriving at the gates of heaven simultaneously and not having the experience they expected are as numerous as the curious phenomenon that people seem to die in threes.

21st-century American culture doesn’t seem to take death very seriously. It doesn’t think about the people dying overseas thanks to its drones and bombers, or the black men and women shot by police on the flimsiest pretexts, or the elders dying alone in overheated apartments or bland nursing home rooms, or the citizens suffering from cancer, AIDS, depression, PTSD, and all the other ailments mortal flesh can acquire and unable to get adequate health care because they can’t pay for it. We don’t want to think about unpleasant things like that. If a certain type of fundamentalist Christian is convinced that everyone except their fellow churchgoers is headed for hell, a certain type of liberal Christian is convinced that Jesus’ teachings were all about living a good life right now, using your wealth wisely, treating people well, being grateful for your blessings.

The fact is that religion has always been about what happens when you die. It’s also about living well while you’re alive, maintaining good relationships with the gods and spirits, doing well by your neighbors, cultivating virtue, but the afterlife is never far out of sight. A number of religions have bequeathed to us manuals for navigating the experience of death, starting with the Egyptians. They buried texts with their honored dead and painted pictures of the afterlife on the walls of tombs; we call their instructions The Book of the Dead, but they called the process Coming Forth by Day. If you were properly mummified and entombed with the proper instructions, you could pass through the dangers of the afterlife and experience a happy ever after.

Tibetan Buddhism produced a text that Westerners also call the Book of the Dead, but its editors called Instructions on Hearing in the Between. Tibetan Buddhism regards death as a process which is by no means over when the heart has apparently ceased to beat and the breath to move. Instructions for navigating the confusing, frightening appearances of the bardo, the space between life and rebirth into another life, can be read to the dead and dying to help them through it into a good rebirth, favorable to attaining enlightenment.

The Orphic tablets of ancient Greece amount to much the same thing, a map of the post-mortem territory marked with what to avoid and which roads to take. You must make sure to drink of the right spring, not the one that will wipe out your memory of the life left behind. People flocked to Eleusis year after year because they wanted the advantage the Mysteries gave them, a pre-mortem introduction to the Queen of the Dead and the process of eternal life.

When my father-in-law died, I read appropriate prayers from the Book of Common Prayer but also selections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I sang at his funeral and toward the end, as we performed the Kontakion for the Dead from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, I felt his transition away from us. He passed through the gates that the “In Paradisum” mentions, and they closed behind him. He was no longer in this world.

We all die. We probably do not all have the same destination after death. But most religions say we have some sort of continued existence, whether rebirth into another life, happiness in the company of a deity, punishment for heinous transgressions, or just shadows drifting, half-remembering and half-forgetting the lives we led. If you want to be sure of what’s coming, live well now, and learn the mysteries as soon as you can–get the map, the keys, the passwords to the afterlife in your tradition. I think my father-in-law is with Jesus. I’d like to join Antinous on his Boat of Millions of Years. It has a sort of Star Trek resonance: We’ll boldly go where mortals cannot go alone.

Sacred Nights: Antinous in the Underworld

I don’t have any music to offer you today, not yet. Unfortunately, when I think of death, funerals, the afterlife, my musical associations come from my Anglo-Catholic background; I think of the traditional Requiem Mass texts, and of musical settings from Gregorian chant to Faure to compositions by my ex-husband and by a friend of ours. If I could, I would offer you my friend’s setting of the Offertory, inspired by traditional Irish music as well as plainsong; these words with his music echo in my mind:

libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de poenis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,

“Deliver the souls of all the faithful departed/ from the pains of hell/ and from the deep lake./ Deliver them from the lion’s mouth,/ let them not sink into Tartarus/ nor fall into obscurity,/ but let St. Michael the standard-bearer/ lead them into the holy light….”

I have been thinking a lot lately about the afterlife, and about the descriptions of our mortal fate across various cultures and traditions. What strikes me is that there is actually a certain amount of commonality, a broad pattern. In most traditions, the dead may go to a place of peace and happiness, or to a place of punishment for ill deeds, or to a place where they are forgotten. Dante, for example, gives us vividly the heavens and the empyrean Rose, the horrors of hell, and the noble but sterile peace of Limbo, where Virgil and the other virtuous pagans go. His purgatory leads on to the experience of heaven, and the dead there are not forgotten, though they fear to be; they continually bid him to pray for them and promise to pray for the living.

What has struck me recently, though, is the idea that in most traditions prior to Christianity, the destiny of most human beings is neither beatification nor punishment, but oblivion, forgetting and being forgotten. Without performing certain rites, the dead forget who they are and all they have known; without being honored by their descendants, they dry up and blow away like old leaves. The human being breaks down not just into body and soul, but a body composed of the elements and a soul of multiple parts. Some parts of the soul are re-absorbed into the cosmos; some reincarnate; some experience an afterlife in which the earthly ego and personal history may or may not be maintained.

It seems to be possible to control what one’s post-mortem fate will be, and not merely by choosing to act virtuously and eschew evil. The ancient Egyptians relied on the rites of mummification and the instructions of Coming Forth by Day, known to us now as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Tibetan Buddhists have their own “Book of the Dead”, the Instructions for Hearing in the Bardo, as a guide for the ordinary practitioner; the advanced yogin becomes capable of choosing the place, time, and circumstances of rebirth, as do the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and the other tulkus.  For the Greeks, and to some extent the Romans (being influenced by the Greeks), death was oblivion for most. An exceptional person, a hero, might go to the Elysian fields; a person who had committed vile acts would be tormented in Tartaros. Someone who was neither, however, might escape the fate of forgetting by entering the Mysteries at Eleusis.

Antinous was an initiate at Eleusis, as was Hadrian. This day commemorates his passage into the land of the dead as one who had Seen, who had already met Persephone and was known to her. Yesterday’s sense of tragedy and loss is muted a little by our knowledge that he is not lost; he will not fall into shadows, nor sink into Tartaros, but the great caduceus-bearer Hermes will lead him to the Queen of the Underworld.

The words of the Offertory in the Roman Catholic Requiem are very old, probably older than the better-known Dies Irae and its fear of the last judgment. Michael the standard-bearer, the signifer, is perhaps not so different from Hermes the Psychopomp, leading souls with his caduceus. I hope to enter the Mysteries of Antinous, that after my death, I may be led into the presence of the Beautiful God, the Bithynian Boy, who will recognize me as one of his own, and I will neither forget nor be forgotten.