The Art of Dying Well: A Jungian Perspective on Death and Dying

…death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greats them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.

Jung (1959)[1]

Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life. … As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.

Jung (1957)[2]

The analysis of older people provides a wealth of dream symbols that psychically prepare the dreams for impending death. It is in fact true, as Jung has emphasized, that the unconscious psyche pays very little attention to the abrupt end of bodily life and behaves as if the psychic life of the individual, that is, the individuation process, will simply continue. … The unconscious “believes” quite obviously in a life after death.

Marie-Louise von Franz (1987)[3]

The title of this essay most likely strikes the modern reader as bizarre, if not obscene. With our American focus on youth, and our medical system regarding death as some sort of “enemy” to be defeated, we do not regard death as either an “art” or something one might try to do “well.” Given the profound materialism of our culture, with its stress on the tangible, the body, and the physical plane, few people indeed give much thought to death, other than to shudder at the prospect.[4]

But Carl Jung was much wiser than contemporary American culture. He recognized that death is inevitable and to think otherwise is to live in denial. More than just denial, it means (as the first quote notes) living against one’s instincts. Rather than ignore or try to deny death, Jung suggests we view it as a goal—the destination of the journey of the second half of life. Just as we gather our things and pack for a trip, so we need to make preparations for our journey into death. What these preparations include, how Jung came to formulate his ideas about this topic, how Jung suggests we regard death, and what a “good” dying entails are the focal points of this essay.

Jung on Myth, or What Preparations for Dying Should Include

In the opening quote above Jung notes that older people should have a myth about death. One of the items Jung felt we must “pack” for our journey into death is a myth about it. Since most Americans hear the word “myth” and think “false story” or “untrue tale,”[5] we need to be clear that this was not at all how Jung defined “myth.” In his discussion of archetypes and the collective unconscious, Jung noted that “Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes. Such allegories would be an idle amusement for an unscientific intellect. Myths, on the contrary, have a vital meaning….”[6]

Myths’ vital meaning derives from the fact that they relate us to the transcendent and the infinite,[7] and help us stay in touch with the archetypal core of our nature.[8] They serve as the bearer of psychic values[9] and “animate images that symbolically replicate energies within us.”[10] Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp defines myth as “An involuntary collective statement based on an unconscious psychic experience.”[11]

“Revelations,” “preconscious,” “involuntary,” “unconscious”—by now you, the reader, might well wonder how you could take up Jung’s advice (in the first quote above) to “have a myth about death.” If “myth” is something we don’t cook up with our rational minds, if it is involuntary and unconscious, how might we go about having a myth about anything?

This is not something we do: it is done to us. We don’t invent our myths—the psyche does[12]—and we then experience them by observing our psychic life, through our dreams, intuitions, flashes of insight and synchronicities (i.e. outer life experiences that appear as meaningful coincidences). Jung’s statement about the task of the second half of life reminds us that, as we age, we need to be more and more attentive to our psychic life, and to the insights it gives us as to our ultimate destination.

From her work with older patients Marie-Louise von Franz came to recognize how the dreams of older people produce these insights.[13] So watching your dreams is a good way to develop a myth around death. Another outer-life way to foster the development of this myth has opened up in recent decades, with the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying,[14] Raymond Moody on the near-death experience,[15] Stephen Levine on conscious dying,[16] and the rise of the hospice movement. The books, articles, advocacy work and workshops by these and other people have legitimized the discussion of what has until recently been a taboo topic in our culture. In addition to the many books on death and dying, there are dozens of accounts in print on near death experiences (NDEs),[17] including Jung’s own in 1944.

Jung’s Personal Experience

When, in the last 4 years of his life,[18] Jung acceded to the wishes of his friends and students to create a memoir, he included a chapter on one of the most momentous experiences of his life: the visions that followed his near-fatal heart attack. As he “hung on the edge of death,”[19] Jung saw himself high up in space, from which perspective he could see the blue globe of Earth and the subcontinent of India. As he floated in space, he noticed a very large granite block also floating in space, which held a temple. Jung approached the steps leading into the temple and then experienced “a strange thing:”

I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me—an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I have ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am….

            This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived. At first the sense of annihilation predominated, or having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence. Everything seemed to be past;…There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything.

            … as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand… what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know… why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing….

            … From below, from the direction of Europe, an image floated up. It was my doctor,…As he stood before me, a mute exchange of thought took place between us. Dr. H. had been delegated by the earth to deliver a message to me, to tell me that there was a protest against my going away. I had no right to leave the earth and must return. The moment I heard that, my vision ceased….[20]

As is common in NDEs Jung felt acute disappointment at not being allowed to continue on, to cross over into the afterlife. He hovered between life and death for 3 weeks before making up his mind to live again. Compared to the freedom he felt in his vision, living felt like prison, returning to the physical plane like being in the “box system.”[21] By day Jung was depressed, by night he was swept up in ecstasy, ineffable bliss, within visions that gave him the experience of “the odor of sanctity,… a pneuma of inexpressible sanctity in the room, whose manifestation was the mysterium coniunctionis….”[22] As he healed, the visions grew fainter until they finally ceased altogether.

Years later Jung could look back and declare these visions “were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced…. not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”[23]

They also were life-transforming, which is another common feature of NDEs.[24] In Jung’s case, the transformation took several forms. With regard to his work, he no longer tried to put across his own opinions but “surrendered” himself “… to the current of my thoughts.”[25] No longer did Jung try to conform his writings to what people might easily understand. Now his works would conform to the psyche’s formulations. The result was what most people consider Jung’s master works,[26] rich, meaty material, but not very accessible. More generally, he experienced a shift in his attitude, from one of self-blame for his accident and heart attack, toward an attitude of “affirmation of things as they are: an unconditional ‘yes’ to that which is, without subjective protests–… acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be….”[27]

Thirteen years after his near-death experience Jung wrote a chapter in his memoirs “On Life after Death.”[28] Ever the empiricist, Jung drew on his personal experiences in formulating his opinions, and so it was here. He states forthrightly, in the beginning of the chapter, that no one can know for certain about the afterlife, as it is one of those things “which pass our understanding.”[29] Jung recognized that his NDE left him with unforgettable experiences, but not irrefutable proof of life after life. So Jung turned to story—mythologizing—an activity that, Jung admitted, “scientific man” finds mere “futile speculation,” but which serves as “a healing and valid activity” for our emotional nature.[30]

In creating his story about life after death, Jung drew on his recollections of his time out-of-body in 1944, but also on the “hints sent …from the unconscious,”[31] e.g. in dreams and in the “mythic traditions” that have come down to us from many different cultures over thousands of years. What sort of story did Jung create? What image did he offer us?

How Jung Suggests We View Death

First, as noted above, Jung admits death is a mystery, something we cannot completely understand, describe, explain or image. Death throws up a question that we cannot answer. But, for all the frustration that implies, we must try to grapple with it. Why? Jung replies: “Not to have done so is a vital loss. For the question … is the age-old heritage of humanity: an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole.”[32]

Death is an archetype, one of the experiences we all have, like birth, growing, creating, aging. As an archetype it has intent, i.e. it wants something from us. It seeks to generate behaviors.[33] Like what? Reflection, introspection, a turning within, tending to our soul, appreciating things psychic, like dreams and intuitions, and a deepening of our love of mystery. Death asks us to integrate within ourselves more of reality, including that aspect of ourselves that exists outside space and time. In this way it strives to enrich individual life and make it more whole.[34]

Death also prompts us to become more self-aware, to create more consciousness. Death wants us to use it as a goad to developing more of our potential.[35] Jung experienced this in his near-death experience, when he saw what he had been and what he had lived, and it all was a fait accompli. And he had no regrets.[36]

As the essay on the concept of the enantiodromia noted,[37] Jung stressed the need to hold the tension of opposites. Opposites are found everywhere, in both consciousness and in the unconscious. So, if we have life, we must also have its opposite, death. One of the criticisms Jung would have about our contemporary American culture is its one-sidedness about this pair of opposites, with our almost complete focus on life, and denial of death. We must evolve a culture that can view death as one half of the soul’s experience, every bit as much a part of living as physical existence is.

In undertaking this cultural evolution, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can draw on the millennia-long experience of focusing on the soul that occurred during the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 CE), when society was attuned more to things intangible than to the world of matter. A premium was put on soul-tending and, as one part of this process, a whole body of literature arose describing how to prepare for death.

Components of the Ars Boni Moriendi

One of the classic texts in this genre was Ars Boni Moriendi, The Art of Dying Well. Written in c. 1415-1450,[38] it evolved out of the horrendous experience of the Black Plague, which killed three-eighths of the population of Europe between 1348 and 1349.[39] By the early 15th century death was an omnipresent feature of life, and foolish indeed was the person who denied, avoided or ignored it.

Such a person risked his or her immortal soul, in the eyes of the Church. To stave off eternal damnation, an anonymous cleric drew up a statement of the protocols and procedures of a “good” death, according to the Church’s precepts. The first of these is very similar to Jung’s thought: Ars Boni Moriendi acknowledges that death has a good side, and is not something to be afraid of.[40]

The other components reflect the Christian teaching of the time: how to avoid the temptations of despair, impatience, spiritual pride, avarice and lack of faith; calling the dying person to remember the consolation available through the redemptive power of Christ’s love; urging the living person contemplating his/her demise to live in imitation of Christ’s life; and offering rules of comportment for behavior at the bedside of the dying.[41] Several of these components have parallels in Jung’s thought.

For example, Jung recognizes the value of pistis, which generally in the New Testament is translated as “faith,” but Jung knew the Greek actually means “trust.”[42] In Jung’s thought, it is essential for a person over the course of his/her life to develop trust in the psyche. That we will face numerous instances in life when this trust will be tested—when we will be tempted by the very real powers of evil—was a reality Jung experienced himself and saw in the lives of his patients.

Jung was aware of the medieval works “de imitatione Christi,” on how to imitate Christ’s life.[43] To the people of the Middle Ages, imitating Christ took the form of trying to copy how Christ lived, to be like him and his actions. Jung had a different take on this. In his “Psychological Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation” he wrote: “… the psyche contains riches enough without having to be primed from outside, and … we [are] capable of evolving out of ourselves with or without divine grace.”[44] If we really want to “imitate” Jesus, to follow him (as he was constantly asking his disciples to do), we must recognize, accept and act upon our individual uniqueness and individuate, rather than try to ape or imitate anyone else, including Jesus. Jung recognized that Jesus never imitated anyone else; he was his own person and he lived out his destiny courageously. To Jung “following” Jesus does not mean trying to be like him but trying to realize as fully as we can our own unique potential.

How to Have a Good Death

Jung felt that, in the normal course of things, the task of preparing for death would arise only after mid-life, when the trajectory of life begins to turn down and the goal of life turns from growth and development toward senescence and decline. For those from c. 40 years and older, Jung suggested a variety of activities to prepare for the end of life.

First and foremost: become more consciousness, via paying attention to dreams. No other activity is more useful in gleaning psychic insights than working with one’s dreams. Beyond providing information on the psyche, its activities and directions, a disciplined, consistent practice of dream tending can give us clues to the myth we are living, which Jung felt was one of the most important things we can know about ourselves. Dream work also fosters psychological maturity and the development of a relationship with the Self.[45]

Another activity that fosters the ego-Self relationship is the practice of holding the tension of opposites until the “third thing,” or transcendent function emerges.[46] This is never easy, nor is it ever quick enough to satisfy the impatient ego. But the practice of waiting for the resolution of inner conflict builds both trust in the Self and an appreciation of the wisdom of the psyche’s timing.

Over the years, tending dreams, acting on their guidance, noting and valuing intuitions and synchronicities, and holding the tension of opposites all serve to shift the direction of life. The ego concedes its inferiority and falls under the direction of the Self. A Self-directed life recognizes the unique potentials of the individual and strives to realize them; it individuates and so gains a confidence in life that translates into a confidence in the face of death. Introversion, inner work, Self-directed activities—these are the elements of the amalgam that make up the “art” of dying well, from a Jungian perspective. Since none of us will get out of life alive, this art is one we would do well to cultivate.


“Ars moriendi,” (n.d.) URL:

Atkinson, David W. (n.d.), “The English ars moriendi: its Protestant Transformation;” URL:

Brinton, Crane, John Christopher & Robert Wolff (1960), A History of Civilization, I. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Eadie, Betty (1992), Embraced by the Light. Placerville CA: Gold Leaf Press.

Grubbs, Geri (2004), Bereavement Dreaming and the Individuating Soul. Berwick ME: Nicolas-Hays.

Hollis, James (1995), Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth (1969), On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.

Levine, Stephen (1989), A Gradual Awakening. New York: Random House.

________ (1997), A Year to Live. New York: Three Rivers Press.

________ & Ondrea Levine (1982), Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. New York: Random House.

Lief, Judith (2001), Making Friends with Death. Boston: Shambhala.

Malz, Betty (1978), My Glimpse of Eternity. Carmel NY: Guideposts.

Moody, Raymond (1975), Life After Life and Reflections on Life After Life. Carmel NY: Guideposts.

Morse, Melvin, with Paul Perry (1992), Transformed by the Light. New York: Villard Books.

Ritchie, George, with Elizabeth Sherrill (1978), Return from Tomorrow. Carmel NY: Guideposts.

Sharp, Daryl (1991), C.G. Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Toronto: Inner City Books.

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[1] Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 306

[2] Collected Works 13, ¶68. As has been the convention in these blog essays, Collected Works will hereafter be abbreviated CW.

[3] von Franz (1987), ix.

[4] Kübler-Ross (1969), 2.

[5] Hollis (1995), 8.

[6] CW 9i, ¶261.

[7] Hollis (1995), 8,15.

[8] Ibid., 7-9.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Sharp (1991), 87.

[12] CW 9i, ¶261.

[13] von Franz (1987), ix.

[14] Kübler-Ross (1969).

[15] Moody (1975).

[16] Levine (1989), Levine (1997) and Levine & Levine (1982); cf. Lief (2001) and Grubbs (2004).

[17] E.g. Morse (1992), Eadie (1992), Malz (1978) and Ritchie (1978).

[18] I.e. 1957-1961.

[19] Jung (1965), 289.

[20] Ibid., 289-292.

[21] Ibid., 292.

[22] Ibid., 295.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Moody (1975), 160; Morse (1992), 25-28; Malz (1978), 91-99.

[25] Jung (1965), 297.

[26] “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12; “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13; “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14; and “Aion,” CW 9ii.

[27] Jung (1965), 297.

[28] Ibid., 299-326.

[29] Ibid., 300.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 301.

[32] Ibid., 302.

[33] On the features of archetypes, including their intentionality and generativity, see Stevens (2003), and my essay “Jung and the Archetype of the Apocalypse,” archived on this blog site.

[34] Jung (1965), 302 & 305.

[35] Ibid., 308-309.

[36] Someone once told me that, after death, we come to regret not what we did, but what we left undone. At the time I didn’t understand this, but, as I have gotten older, and look back on various events in my life, I realize the truth of that statement: Opportunities we fail to seize, experiences we turn from, relationships we refuse to nurture—these potentials are what we mourn.

[37] “Jung on the Enantiodromia,” archived on this blog site.

[38] Atkinson (n.d.), 1.

[39] Brinton, Christopher & Wolff (1960), I, 403.

[40] “Ars moriendi,” (n.d.)

[41] Ibid.

[42] CW 11, ¶9.

[43] He cites this numerous times; cf. CW 6, ¶531; CW ii, ¶413,446,717,762,773; CW 12, ¶25,37,41,417; CW 14, ¶27,283, 492; CW 18, ¶271, 1553.

[44] CW 11, ¶773.

[45] von Franz (1987), 64.

[46] Ibid., 23.