The Forms and Value of Death

My definitions and usage of various terms in the following essay (e.g. “waking up,” “leap-frogging,” “The Force”) are found in the initial essays in this blog collection. See the entries posted as Front Matter and Introduction, Waking Up and Leap-Frogging.



The Forms and Value of Death


            The Second Wave mind-set would regard the title of this essay as bizarre because, to the Second Wave world, death is an obscenity, something to be feared, denied, and postponed with all the herculean measures allopathic medicine can muster. In this, as in so much else, the conventional view is very confused and mistaken, as well as impoverished in its understanding.

            By “impoverished,” I refer to the one-dimensional sense given to “death” in Western society, with its materialistic bias. Death, from this perspective, is extinction.[1] It blots out life, ending all personal existence. “Life,” in this view, is tied to having a physical body.

            A Third Wave view is much richer, in part because “death” is recognized as having many forms and meanings. There is Death, the archetypal experience found in all cultures and experienced by all life forms. Imagistically, this form is often depicted as a skeleton in black, with a scythe: the “Grim Reaper.” Then there is death as transition, the form recognized in the ancient wisdom of many cultures (Egyptian, Tibetan, the kabbalah of Jewish mysticism, etc.). This is the form of death that the dictionary defines as “any ending that is like dying.”[2] And there is the death that is part of the process of living. This death, with its multiple stages, has been well described and delineated by medieval alchemists.

            In the Third Wave mind-set, death is not an unmitigated disaster to be denied, avoided or resisted. It is recognized as natural, inevitable and frequent. That is, everyone dies multiple times (and I don’t imply here a belief in reincarnation). I’m talking about this life you have now. Each of us dies many times, and part of waking up is getting wise to when we are going through another death, what it is about and how we can realize the potential in the process.[3]

            In this essay I am going to examine the archetypal and alchemical stages of death, and then consider the transitional meanings of death. The goal is to demystify the concept, and to illustrate how death is central to living and growing.

Death as Archetype

            Archetypes are timeless, universal symbols that “live” in human beings. Jung believed that there are as many archetypes as there are experiences we can have. “Father,” “Mother,” “child,” “sun,” “birth,” “suffering”—all are examples of archetypes. Since the experience of death is common to all cultures, death is also an archetype.[4]

            Halloween has made most of us familiar with the images, colors and accessories associated with the archetype of Death: the skeleton (loss of embodiment depicted as lack of flesh); the color black; a tool of harvest (e.g. scythe) representing the sense of Death collecting the energy of the no-longer-living; cemeteries; and midnight (the cusp time, when one day’s allotment of time has run out, parallel to the depletion of the time given to one life). Feeling associations run all to the negative: fear, grief, terror, anxiety, powerlessness.

            But archetypes are purposive. That is, they arose for some purpose or serve some universal need. What could be the purpose of death?

            To the Second Wave thinker, this is an idiotic or obscene question. Death being the enemy, it has no good or purpose about it. But Second Wave thinking is wrong, as we can see from the ancient wisdom of other cultures.

Death as Seen through the Lens of History and Eastern Cultures

            Western people have not been as confused and mistaken about death as we are these days. The ancient Egyptians, for example recognized death as part of life. From their “Book of the Dead” to their elaborate funerary arrangements brought to light by archeology, we can see just how much thought, time and energy the ancient Egyptians gave to the process of dying and the care of the physical remains.[5] To them, death was no obscenity, but the gateway to another life.

            Ancient Greeks had no qualms about facing death. They thought of death as the twin brother of sleep.[6] Just as we experience sleep on a regular basis, so we experience death. The mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world also addressed the forms and processes of death, and understood it as one of the great “mysteries” of reality.

            After the fall of Rome, the subject of death was taken up in Western Europe by two groups. One, the medieval alchemists, we will consider later. The other, the Roman Catholic Church, developed elaborate rituals and teachings, in part because of the prevalence of death in this time when good hygiene was generally lacking and no one knew about germs as the cause of disease. In certain periods, like the time of the Black Death of the 14th century, pandemics led to death being uppermost in the minds of most people, as up to half of the population succumbed in some regions of Europe.

            With such death rates, the experience of death was unavoidable, so the medieval church developed a set of spiritual exercises and rituals known as the ars boni moriendi, “the art of dying well.” Using the “memento mori,” e.g. a human skull, and other visual aids, the church encouraged people to contemplate death, and in particular, their own coming death. People kept watch over corpses (a residual legacy of which lingers now in the phenomenon of the “wake”) and watched dead bodies decay. Through such exercises (which strike most modern Western people as ghoulish), medieval men and women became acquainted with the process of dying and deadness in vivid ways—ways that helped them to dis-identify with their bodies.[7]

            Unlike most 21st century Westerners, medieval people did not assume they were only their bodies. The belief in the soul was almost universal. The “art of dying well” prepared the mind for the moment when it would separate from the body, and the soul would be free to return to God. Being Platonists at heart, medieval theologians regarded this as a liberation of the soul.

            Medieval thinkers were not the only ones stressing the importance of death and the potential it held out for salvation or liberation. Eastern cultures like those of Buddhist Tibet and Japan also put a premium on conscious preparation for death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (especially in its modern translations)[8] is quite explicit about the passage of the soul through the various stages of the Bardo, and how careful attention—learning, inner work, study under a master, etc.—can help the soul recognize what is really going on during the death process, and thus make the correct choices that will assure its liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.

Alchemy and the Stages of Death

            Just as Buddhism recognizes many stages of death in the Bardo state, so medieval alchemists worked out a series of stages, or forms of death that occur while we are still embodied. Before getting into the particulars here, I should note that alchemy is not some bogus precursor of chemistry, as most Second Wave people think. This became clear to Carl Jung, who discovered in the works of the medieval alchemists a very insightful science of psychic change and development.[9] In this science, death plays a central role.

            As students of how the soul evolves, the alchemists recognized that “life” (the process of taking on embodiment) is inevitably subject to corruption (echoing The Buddha’s teaching that “all compounded things decay”).[10] The alchemists recognized that this corruption took various forms and they gave it various names, depending on the way the body/mind suffered.

            Rather than lament this process of corruption, the alchemists welcomed it, because they understood that it made growth possible. By the “putrefying” of the old, the new was born. And the product of these stages of decay is a conscious connection to the Self, our Divine core.[11] We die (i.e. experience the decaying of life’s outworn forms) so as to savor true life (knowing the Self). The medieval alchemists were very clear that, without death, there would be no change, no growth, no development during the time of embodiment that we call “life.”

            Many generations of alchemists studied the phases and forms of death. In a very simplified presentation of their complex and subtle ideas, I will describe some of these forms below.[12] Understand that this is not some old historical curiosity, but rather a description of what is going on within us now. All of these forms (and others not included here) are going on throughout our lives, showing up in different combinations in different people at different times. Part of becoming awake is getting wise to which ones you are experiencing at the moment.

            In no particular order, these forms of death are:

_the mortificatio. Source of our English words “mortification” and “mortify,” this term comes from Latin mors and facio, literally “to make death.” Our sense of “mortify,” with all the embarrassment it implies, suggests the assault to the ego that is involved when we move through the mortificatio stage. The process takes us on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. It is never something we choose; rather, it is imposed on us by life. Associated with darkness, defeat, torture and mutilation, mortificatio is not a happy time. We feel frustrated, especially in our demands for power and pleasure: We experience impotency, helplessness, and painful agony—all of it designed to achieve the core soul work of this stage: the slaying of egocentricity. Yet, as with all the stages of death, there is a gift here: In this time of black mourning we are brought to self-knowledge. This was the stage Jesus referred to when he said “Blessed are those that mourn.”[13] Mourning in mortificatio brings blessing because it confers the “comfort” of self-awareness and an acceptance of the reality of death.[14]

_the putrefactio. Source of our English words “putrefaction” and “putrid,” this term comes from the Latin putris and facio, literally “to make rotten.” The stinky, disgusting rottenness of decay makes possible the generation of every new form. When we undergo the putrefactio, we are brought (under duress, to be sure) to recognize those aspects of our lives that are worn out, outmoded, no longer serving our welfare. With disgust and resentment, we begin the slow, evolutionary process of dying that leads us to give up the old and move into the new.[15]

_the solutio. Source of our English words “solution” and “dissolve,” this term comes from the Latin solutio, a “loosening.” What gets loosened? The structures of our lives, especially anything that we have been holding on to tightly. Associated with tears, water, and the free flow of feelings, this stage of death brings us to formlessness. For those (few) souls who live rather formless lives, this is not a difficult time. But it tends to be especially difficult for “rigid” types with highly structured lifestyles, fixed routines, and a love of order. The death stage of solutio melts these structures as readily as a sugar cube dissolves in hot coffee. As you might imagine, this melting of life’s structures can cause intense discomfort, anxiety and insecurity, all designed, of course, to develop a deeper, more valid sense of inner peace and safety.

_the calcinatio. The death work here is the burning up of our desire nature. Marked by intense frustration, we experience the death of what we most desire. Our ego will is thwarted at every turn, all for the purpose of encouraging the development of an attitude of openness to Divine direction (i.e. “allow mode”). Calcinatio work is what is meant when the Bible speaks of the “refiner’s fire.”[16] We come through this death phase tempered, toughened and “refined” (i.e. purified). Where the solutio was especially hard for rigid types, this stage is particularly difficult for two types: those with strong desire natures (hot-blooded passionate types used to getting what they want); and those who are Thinking types (in the Myers-Briggs typology),[17] for whom the desire nature is in the shadow or unconscious. The Thinker, as a type, tends to have a very strong, but primitive desire nature, and so finds this stage hard because it forces him or her into the inner depths. As difficult as this is, it holds more potential for becoming conscious than is true for those who began with more awareness of their desire nature.

_the separatio. Source of the English term “separation,” this stage is a time of dismemberment, when we experience an intense dis-integration that is very painful.[18] Life feels chaotic, disordered, depressing. The point of this death stage is to free us from attachments. Krishnamurti, the 20th century Indian sage, recognized the value of this stage when he said that “Each day I die a little.”[19] Separatio can be a daily action, if we are fully awake and intent on fostering the growth of our soul. Most of us are not at Krishnamurti’s level of consciousness; we find it a hard slog. Separatio can be especially difficult for “oral” types who unconsciously seek out dependency relationships.[20] During this stage, such relationships are usually destroyed, and, in the experience of separation, we have to find our own way, live our own life, take up the life tasks and responsibilities that unconsciously we projected on to others (who, in all likelihood, are now no longer available to us). This is a stage of taking back projections and developing self-reliance. It holds the potential to give birth to independence and a greater ability to access and hone our inner strength.

            All these stages are forms of death holding the potential for birth. That is the whole point: birth is not possible without death. We cannot grow if aspects of ourselves do not first die. We are always in transition, and one face of this transition is what we call “death.”

Death as Transition

            Ancient wisdom regarded death as a transition. The thirteenth card of the Tarot (one version of archetypal wisdom) is called Death, and in some versions of the deck the card is labeled “Transition.”[21] We are constantly in transition because the essence of life is change. We could then also say that we are constantly dying to the old of us, and birthing the new.

            “Transition” embodies this process of constant change. It comes from two Latin roots (trans and ire, lit: “to go/be between”) that reflect the fact that we are always in between. Life is not stasis but movement, and in order to navigate these moves properly, we have to be able and willing to give up (relinquish attachment to) the old, move into the between, and then take up the new. The between is where we experience death, just as The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes in great detail.

            Think about all the major transitions you have lived: infancy to toddler stage, child to adolescent, teenager to adult, perhaps adult to elder. Eventually we will all experience the transition from incarnate state to dis-incarnate state. We also experience transition daily, as we move from sleep to wakefulness, stupor to alertness, ego to Self, attachment to non-attachment, daydreaming to mental focus. Living and dying are processes of constant transition.

How This Relates to Waking Up and Leap-frogging

            Those who are awake know how to die. They regard death as a normal part of the process of living, a transition time. They also know how to die well: They consciously prepare for death, taking up the various forms of death consciously and working with them to realize their potential for growth and greater consciousness.

            This might seem very theoretical, so let me give a concrete example from my own life. This is an example of the calcinatio stage. Not coincidentally (since we live in a holographic Universe, in which the Law of Correspondence[22] operates, so that the placement of the planets reflects inner psychic reality quite closely),[23] this stage occurred for me when Pluto came to an exact transit in square to my Venus. Venus is the planet representing our desire nature, especially with regard to love, romance and relationships. Pluto is the planet of deepest drives, regeneration and implacable change. Put these two together, in a square (i.e. difficult) contact, and the stage was set for a most painful time of “frustration of the desire nature.” How this showed up in my life was in the death of my fiancé quite agonizingly (from a stroke that left him a “vegetable,” whom the M.D.s then euthanized). The whole process (being a transit of Pluto, the slowest moving of all the planets) took months, and I experienced not only the death of the man I loved, but the death of my dreams for romantic happiness (for this man, my beloved Hubie, had been the epitome of the man of my dreams). I knew that this was a death stage, and that meant I had lots of work to do, inner work, work with my dreams and imageries. Clearly, I was meant to learn and grow, but initially I had no stomach for it (and, in fact, I spent the better part of every day for a while throwing up—purging my system of what had to leave, I suppose). As time passed (weeks into months), I began to get some clarity about the illusions I had had about myself and my life that had to die. I had to do lots of work taking back what I had projected—on to Hubie, on to my mother, on to other people. What was birthed in this process was a whole new world within that I had not previously recognized in myself. I came to realize that no death is without a subsequent birth (both metaphorically, for me in my life, and literally, for Hubie, in his new life, as he came to me in dreams to tell me about his life on the other side). Death opens the portal for the new. We need death to open us to life.

            Much as I would rather not experience such dyings, I know they are an essential part of life. As long as we limp along at our current (low) level of consciousness, we have little choice about such things. Our realm of choice lies in how we respond to what Destiny puts on our plate. I can’t say my experience of the calcinatio was pleasant. Hardly! But I can say now (years later) that it was positive, important, meaningful, and necessary to my development. I can also see that it birthed a compassion and groundedness that I had never known before, and those gifts are very important and precious to me.

            Now, back to the topic of relevancy. How do the forms of death relate to leap-frogging? Leap-froggers are change agents. They must know how to change, and all change involves transitions, that is, deaths. Part of what leap-frogging entails is welcoming change, welcoming death. So the “art of dying well” is a good skill for leap-froggers to have.

Some Questions for Reflection

If it were possible for you to know when you were going to die, would you want to know?

It has been said that the most omnipresent fear human beings have is about their own death. What is your greatest fear about death?

Envision the final days of your life. What would you want this time to look like?

Are you familiar with the Tibetan notion that we can consciously prepare for death in ways that help the soul transit through the after-death state? Are you interested in doing this?

Imagine that you could read the obituary written about your life. What would you want it to say?

Have you ever had an experience that convinced you, beyond any shadow of doubt, that life goes on after death? If so, how did this affect your attitude toward death?


For Further Reading

Connolly, Eileen (1990), Tarot: A New Handbook for the Apprentice. North Hollywood CA: Newcastle Pub. Co.

Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1960), The Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, Bruce (1997), Peaceful Transition: The Art of Conscious Dying and the Liberation of the Soul. St. Paul: Llewellyn Pubs.

Greene, Liz (1976), Saturn: A New Look at an Old Devil. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

________ (1984), The Astrology of Fate. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

Greene, Liz & Howard Sasportas (1987), The Development of the Personality. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

Hitchcock, John (1991), The Web of the Universe: Jung, the “New Physics” and Human Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press.

________ (1988), Dynamics of the Unconscious. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

Jung, Carl (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” Collected Works, 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

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

Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Lidell, H.G. & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Lowen, Alexander (1975), Bioenergetics. New York: Penguin.

Myers, Isabel Briggs, with Peter Myers (1980), Gifts Differing. Palo Alto CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

National Gallery of Art et al. (1976), Treasures of Tutankhamun. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nichols, Sallie (1980), Jung & Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

Pierrakos, John C. (1987), Core Energetics: Developing the Capacity to Love and Heal. Mendocino CA: LifeRhythms.

Smith, Huston (1991), The World’s Religions. San Francisco: Harper.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1993), The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper.

Stevens, Anthony (1983), Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self. New York: Quill.

Thurman, Robert (1994), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation through Understanding in the Between. New York: Bantam Books.

White, John (1980), A Practical Guide to Death and Dying. Wheaton IL: Quest Books.



[1] This is one synonym given in the World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 510.

[2] Ibid.

[3] On the necessity for constant death, see Hitchcock (1991), 176.

[4] Stevens (1983), 45, 150-1, 164, 168.

[5] See, e.g. the elaborate funerary materials in the grave of Tutankhamun; National Galley (1976).

[6] Liddell & Scott (1978), 358.

[7] Edinger (1985), 168.

[8] Cf. Sogyal Sogyal (1993) and Thurman (1994). Evans-Wentz (1960) is an older translation, to be recommended for the “Psychological Commentary” by Carl Jung that precedes the text.

[9] Jung (1965), 204.

[10] This phrase is part of the Buddha’s deathbed valedictory to his followers; quoted in Smith (1991), 88.

[11] Edinger (1985), 163.

[12] For much richer examinations of alchemy, cf. Edinger (1985) and Jung (1953).

[13] Matt. 5:4.

[14] Edinger (1985), 147-154, 172; Nichols (1980), 227-237.

[15] Edinger (1985), 148.

[16] Malachi 3:2.

[17] For descriptions of this typological system, cf. Myers (1980) and Keirsey & Bates (1984).

[18] Edinger (1985), 170.

[19] Quoted in Nichols (1980), 237.

[20] Cf. Lowen (1975), 155-158; and Pierakos (1987), 94-95.

[21] E.g. Connolly (1990), 190.

[22] This law states “As within, so without; as without, so within; as above, so below; as below, so above.” See the section on Universal Law in this collection for this and other laws. In the context of my calcinatio experience, the transit of Pluto reflected the experience of frustrated desire that I was living through. The “without” were the events in physical reality; the “within,” the energies I was experiencing in my dream life. The “above” were the patterns (called “aspects” in astrology) made by Pluto and Venus; and the “below” were the activities I was living through on earth.

[23] While Pluto transits usually time calcinatio work, Neptune transits mark solutio work. Other phases of alchemical change are associated with other of the slow-moving planets. See the works of Jungian analyst and astrologer Liz Greene for more on this: Greene (1976), Greene (1984), Greene & Sasportas (1987) (1988).