Recently a good friend sent me a site on the Vedic approach to death. I wasn’t born into the culture in this life so I don’t follow the rituals much. However, there are useful points we can draw from that understanding to support ourselves and others through this process.
It’s useful to create a settled environment for the dying. Prayers and meditation are more supportive than expressions of grief. This can come later. Assume that the departing is still conscious even if they’re not responsive. Just as hearing is present subtly in deep sleep, so too it’s the last to go in dying.
You want to reassure and support the dying, not distract them and create regrets. Save the old stories also as they can enliven attachments. Focus on their needs, not your own. Sometimes they need silence.
It’s also not the time to work your stuff out with them. That time has passed. Assure them it’s all right to let go when they’re ready. Head to the light and we’ll be OK.
We live on after death. First, we withdraw from the body. Then after adjusting and saying our goodbyes, we pull back out of the emotional body, then lower mind. Our form and identity fall away.
All the rest of “you” remains, including your soul (point value in consciousness), your causal nature, your intellect, and your higher mind.
“These bodies are known to have an end; the dweller in the body is eternal, imperishable, infinite. This truth has been known by those great seers, who see life’s essence.”
– Bhagavad Gita 2:16
The Fear of Death
We fear death because the ego fears losing control. How attached we are to this form determines how difficult the transition is. Many of the elderly do a lot of letting go in their last years. Spiritual progress is also very beneficial for letting go of attachments.
“In this (yoga) there is no loss of effort. Even a little of this dharma protects one from great fear…”
– Bhagavad Gita 2:40
Another thing that may create fear is a previous traumatic dying. While death itself is liberation from the limitations of the physical body, dying can create strong impressions.
“There never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these others. Nor will there ever be a time when all of us shall cease to be.”
– Bhagavad Gita 2:12
At death, what is unresolved comes to the surface. The desire to fulfill what is unresolved leads us on into the next lifetime and can flavour it. For example, we remain angry about how we were treated. The next life may then be about experiencing the results of that anger or of experiencing the power to mistreat others. Or to do what we couldn’t. Or marry who we didn’t. What arises is to heal what is unresolved in the context of the whole. Through this process, we learn how to be.
“Whatever object one remembers at the time of death, when one gives up the body, O Son of Kunti, that very same object one attains.”
– Bhagavad Gita 8:6
I’ve seen this play out for a few friends who passed. Their regrets, for example, guiding their next steps. Again, this points to the value of healing to resolve what is unresolved and clear the path. Then the end of life is not driven by regret, a difficult transition, and a difficult next life.
The Vedic funeral site suggests one reason Indians name their children after gods. If you think of your child at death, then you will have invoked that god. However, any god could see the difference between a thought of a child and a thought of them. I don’t recommend you try to trick death. 🙂
There is a great advantage to having a conscious death. It helps us move smoothly through the process and avoids some of the above. But we can’t expect to control our thoughts at the end any more than we did in life. If we’ve made a bed of anger or whatever, that will rise to the surface. Again, this is an advantage of spiritual practice – to be more conscious in the process and to have resolved more of our backlog.
From the Yoga Sutra:
3:16: From Samyama on the three transformations (characteristic, temporal quality, and state) comes knowledge of the past and future.
3:18 From perception of impressions (samskaras) comes knowledge of previous births.
3:22 Karma returns both quickly and slowly. From Samyama on that, or from premonitions, comes knowledge of death.
Death after awakening
For someone who is awake, a conscious death is almost a given. Yet it is our degree of sattva that has a greater influence on what unfolds next. If there are still anger issues, for example, it may be necessary to come back again for a final round with an easy awakening to clean that up. If we’re done, there are various options described in the texts. We sometimes call death the final enlightenment and the end of ignorance but I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the road.
“Out of bliss these beings are born, In bliss they are sustained, And to bliss they go and merge again.”
– Taittiriya Upanishad 3.6.1
The deceased hang around for a few days or weeks, letting go emotionally and saying their goodbyes. It’s good to remain respectful and recognize they may try to contact us. One friend, in front of many friends, had a bald eagle swoop low and up the glass window behind where they used to play the piano.
Support the Living
Always have a will. This allows your executor to follow your wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets. Without a will, the government takes over and decides, much delaying the process. Who will pay the rent to store your stuff in the meantime?
If the topic interests you, there is much more on the Vedic Funeral site.