The Seduction of Death: Jung’s Thoughts on the End of Life

“All the libido that was tied up in family bonds must be withdrawn from the narrower circle into the larger one,…”[1]

“It frequently happens that when a person with whom one was intimate dies, either one is oneself drawn into the death, so to speak, or else this burden has the opposite effect of a task that has to be fulfilled in real life.”[2]

“Death is a faithful companion of life and follows it like its shadow. We have still to understand how very much wanting to live = wanting to die.”[3]

Such dreams occur at the gateway of death. They interpret the mystery of death. They don’t predict it but they show you the right way to approach the end.[4]

The recent loss of Lynda Schmidt, one of our Jungian Center Advisors, led me to review Jung’s thoughts on death and dying.[5] In this essay I will note some of Jung’s ideas about death, how he personally felt about dying as he got older, and then I will add some suggestions–both Jung’s and my own–on how to prepare for death.

Jung on Death

Mention the word “death” to most people and they are likely to react as if you had spoken an obscenity. It is not a popular word, certainly not something positive. In this, as in many other areas of life, Jung had a very different attitude.

Jung felt it was “desirable to think of death as only a transition, as a part of a life process whose extent and duration are beyond our knowledge.”[6] While Jung recognized that “death is the end of the empirical man,”[7] he also thought of it as “the goal of the spiritual man,”[8] and “the fulfillment of life’s meaning,”[9]As “an integral part of life,”[10] death “is psychologically as important as birth…”[11] and is the word we use to refer to “the moment when consciousness sinks back into the darkness from which it originally emerged,…”.[12] He regarded death as “an accomplishment, a ripe fruit on the tree of life. … a goal that has been unconsciously lived and worked for during half a lifetime.”[13]

Jung’s reference to “half a lifetime” reflects his concept of life as operating along an arc, much as the sun rises and sets each day.[14] From sunrise (our birth) to noon (mid-life) our energy should be directed to engaging with the world, in schooling, work, and creating a family; then, at the apex (c. ages 35-45) we should

“become aware of the fact that soon after the middle of our life the soul begins its secret work, getting ready for the departure.”[15]

as the arc begins to go down. Our orientation then should change from the outward, expansiveness of youth to a more inward, reflective attitude as we age. The setting sun is Jung’s analogy to dying.

How Jung Felt about Dying, Death and an Afterlife

Jung had very different ideas about dying from his ideas about death. Where Jung could speak of death as a “transition,”[16] a “goal”[17] or an “accomplishment,”[18] as a doctor, Jung was less sanguine about the actual process leading up to death. He had had so many bedside experiences witnessing “the final breath leave a body which a moment before was living,”[19] that he knew it can entail suffering. Having buried his father, his mother, his sister, his muse, and his wife,[20] plus many patients, Jung had long experience of watching the process of dying, and he described it as a “torment.”[21]

He wrote of how the aging process, bringing us inexorably closer to the moment of dying, could leave us sleepless:

when one is alone and it is night and so dark and still that one hears nothing and sees nothing but the thoughts which add and subtract the years, and the long row of those disagreeable facts which remorselessly indicate how far the hand of the clock has moved forward, and the slow, irresistible approach of the wall of darkness which will eventually engulf everything I love, possess, wish for, hope for, and strive for, then all our profundities about life slink off to some undiscoverable hiding-place, and fear envelops the sleepless one like a smothering blanket.”[22]

Jung knew dying can be work, hard stuff, “a difficult task, this time the last one,”[23] and for himself, he hoped it would be a quick affair, as he admitted to his friend Father Victor White “I confess I am afraid of a long drawn-out suffering.”[24]

As for Jung’s thoughts on the afterlife, he was often asked if he believed in life after death. He found such questions “not quite easy,”[25] because, as an empiricist, Jung

“could not say that I believe in it, since I have not the gift of belief. I only can say whether I know something or not. I do know that the psyche possesses certain qualities transcending the confinement in time and space. Or you might say, the psyche can make those categories as if elastic, i.e., a hundred miles can be reduced to one yard and a year to a few seconds. This is a fact for which we have all the necessary proofs. There are moreover certain post-mortal phenomena which I am unable to reduce to subjective illusions. Thus I know that the psyche is capable of functioning unhampered by the categories of time and space. Ergo it is in itself an equally transcendental being and therefore relatively non-spatial and “eternal.”[26]

Based on his decades in medical practice, Jung had observed, from dreams (his own and those of his patients)[27] how the psyche can anticipate the future, carry us back in a dream to a time or place long past, and take us out of our narrow world. Because it transcends the limits of our physical space, Jung would support the idea that it is “eternal.”[28]

In more private moments, Jung shared his own personal experience with his students. When word reached him that his student Kristine Mann was dying of cancer, Jung wrote her a long letter revealing the event that led him not to believe but know there was something beyond the grave:

“On the whole my illness proved to be a most valuable experience, which gave me the inestimable opportunity of a glimpse behind the veil…. When you can give up the crazy will to live and when you seemingly fall into a bottomless mist, then the truly real life begins with everything which you were meant to be and never reached. It is something ineffably grand. I was free, completely free and whole, as I never felt before. I found myself 15,000 km from the earth and I saw it as an immense globe resplendent in an inexpressibly beautiful blue light. I was on a point exactly above the southern end of India, which shone in a bluish silvery light with Ceylon like a shimmering opal in the deep blue sea. I was in the universe, where there was a big solitary rock containing a temple. I saw its entrance illuminated by a thousand small flames of coconut oil. I knew I was to enter the temple and I would reach full knowledge. But at this moment a messenger from the world (which by then was a very insignificant corner of the universe) arrived and said that I was not allowed to depart and at this moment the whole vision collapsed completely. But from then on for three weeks I slept, and was wakeful each night in the universe and experienced the complete vision. Not I was united with somebody or something – it was united, it was the hierosgamos, the mystic Agnus. It was a silent invisible festival permeated by an incomparable, indescribable feeling of eternal bliss, such as I never could have imagined as being within reach of human experience. Death is the hardest thing from the outside and as long as we are outside of it. But once inside you taste of such completeness and peace and fulfillment that you don’t want to return. As a matter of fact, during the first month after my first vision I suffered from black depressions because I felt that I was recovering. It was like dying. I did not want to live and to return to this fragmentary, restricted, narrow, almost mechanical life, where you were subject to the laws of gravity and cohesion, imprisoned in a system of three dimensions and whirled along with other bodies in the turbulent stream of time. There was fullness, meaning fulfillment, eternal movement (not movement in time)…. “[29]

From this experience of being “inside” death–what we would today call a Near Death Experience–Jung became convinced that we have more to look forward to after we die.

At his own end, Jung got his wish to be spared “long drawn-out suffering.” By March of 1961, his close associates could see a change in Jung: it was no longer important for him to be at his usual retreat, Bollingen. Where he would usually stay there for a month or more, his was shorter. When he got back to Küsnacht, he had a checkup in the hospital (he disliked hospitals) and was there only two or three days. By early May it was obvious that his physical health was declining. “About three weeks before his death, he had a slight stroke which blurred his speech a little, but did not otherwise lame him in any way.”[30] Several days before his death, he asked visitors if people knew he was dying, reflecting his concern to spare people the shock of the news without warning. He had another slight stroke a week before his death, after which he took to his bed. He died on June 6th, at 3:45 in the afternoon, conscious to the end.[31]

Some Suggestions on Preparing for Death

In both his life and his writings Jung gives us numerous suggestions on how to prepare for dying and death. He would have us live every day as if we would live forever[32]–savoring the moments of beauty, joy, and fulfillment that are possible in daily life–even as we hold the awareness that at any moment death could be imminent.[33]

Jung suggested that we die “in exactly the same way as [we] should have lived…”,[34] i.e. if we go through life living as if we were dying, then we become able to face death with equanimity, as the goal the psyche was aiming for.

He urged people to respect the natural rhythm of life,[35] which he likened to the sun’s daily transit, in his concept of the arc of life: shift away from expansion and Extraversion once we are past mid-life, turn within and strive to know all we can about ourselves when in conspectus mortis.[36]

To Kristine Mann, Jung’s former student and analyst in New York, who was dying of cancer, Jung suggested that

“Whatever you do, if you do it sincerely, will eventually become the bridge to your wholeness, a good ship that carries you through the darkness of your second birth, which seems to be death to the outside. I will not last too long any more. I am marked. But life has fortunately become provisional. It has become a transitory prejudice, a working hypothesis for the time being, but not existence itself. Be patient and regard it as another difficult task, this time the last one.”[37]

As an analyst Jung had trained, he knew that Mann had dealt with “difficult tasks” in the past, and so she could take comfort in knowing the work of dying would be her last such task.

To those grieving the recent death of a loved one, Jung had several cautions. He knew that death is an archetype and, as such, it has numinosity[38]–like all primordial images, it can have a fascinating and seductive quality.

It frequently happens that when a person with whom one was intimate dies, either one is oneself drawn into the death, so to speak, or else this burden has the opposite effect of a task that has to be fulfilled in real life. One could say figuratively that a bit of life has passed over from the dead to the living and compels him toward its realization….[39]

Jung wants us to be aware of the “magnetism”[40] that death can have, lest we get sucked in by the power of the bond we had with the loved one.[41] We must also be mindful of how such engagement can activate “the still undifferentiated side of oneself and consequently calls up the inferior function.”[42] Result? We can act gauche, lose our bearings, or get out of sync with our normal life.

I resonate with Jung’s caution, as having lost my father, mother, fiancé, and now Lynda, I am aware of how the death of a person we hold dear can have a curiously seductive quality, throwing up all sorts of questions–Where is he? What is she doing? What is it like on the other side? In my most amazing experience of this seduction, twelve total strangers got explicit answers to such questions when they (unknowingly) pooled their dream recall in the “Dream Helper’s Ceremony” during my training at an A.R.E. conference.[43]

It is prudent to be mindful of this “magnetic” quality of death, lest things get morbid. Jung was explicit in warning a pastor who had a “conversation” with his brother who had died:

“… this [post-mortem contact] is likely to be possible only as long as the feeling of the presence of the dead continues. But it should not be experimented with because of the danger of a disintegration of consciousness. To be on the safe side, one must be content with spontaneous experiences. Experimenting with this contact regularly leads either to the so-called communications becoming more and more stupid or to a dangerous dissociation of consciousness. All the signs indicate that your conversation with your brother is a genuine experience which cannot be “psychologized.”… There are experiences which show that the dead entangle themselves, so to speak, in the physiology (sympathetic nervous system) of the living. This would probably result in states of possession.”[44]

*****

Jung offers us advice in this regard from his deep wisdom and personal experience of dealing with patients, their psyches and their dyings. I would like to offer much more mundane advice, which comes from my serving as an executor of three estates. One of the most thoughtful, helpful and kind things a person can do toward preparing for death is to mitigate all the hassles that settling his/ner estate can entail for those left behind.

The person whose estate was the first I had to handle had done little more than made a will. That was better than nothing, but barely. He had no Advance Directive, no guidance as to how/where/what to do with his remains–burial? cremation? disposition of his property? The result was probate, nearly two years trying to locate all his relatives and get their responses, and then further hassles paying for storage and other costs of closing the estate.

After this nightmare, I knew what to do before my relatives passed: We got lawyers to draw up inter vivos trusts, power of attorney statements, Advance Directives registered with the state, will (regular and living); we poured all the assets into the trusts (entailing retitling houses and cars), and we got written statements about wishes for the funeral, location of the cemetery, lists of all the key people with their names, addresses and role (e.g. brokers, doctors, accountants, tradesmen, if repairs became necessary before the house was sold), lists of wishes for the disposition of small items (e.g. jewelry, knick-knacks etc.). I even got my relatives to tell me what they wanted in their obituary, and where it was to be published. With such careful planning settling these estates was almost effortless, amounting to little more than sending numerous death certificates around to the various banks, brokerages, town and motor vehicle offices, etc.

I know few people like to contemplate their demise, but, if we took Jung’s advice to live each day as if we were dying, perhaps there would be more motivation to tend not only to our soul’s desires, but also to the mundane aspects of dying, as a gift to the person who is your executor.

Bibliography

Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung, His Life and Work. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Jung, C.G. (1970), Psychiatric Studies. Collected Works, 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1973), Experimental Researches. Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease, Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1961), Freud and Psychoanalysis. Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956), Symbols of Transformation. Collected Works, 5. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works, 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), Civilization in Transition. Collected Works, 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), Alchemical Studies. Collected Works, 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1966), The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature. Collected Works, 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), The Practice of Psychotherapy. Collected Works, 16. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

­­­________ (1954), The Development of Personality. Collected Works, 17. Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress.

________ (1976), The Symbolic Life. Collected Works, 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1979), General Index to the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Collected Works, 20, complied by Barbara Forryan & Janet Glover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Mehrtens, Susan (2021), Living Alchemy. Waterbury VT: The Jungian Center.

Wheelwright, Jane Hollisterr (1987), “Old Age and Death,” Betwixt & Between, ed. Louise Mahdi, Steven Foster & Meredith Little. LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

[1] Collected Works 5 ¶644. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 1 ¶239.

[3] “Letter to Alphonse Maeder,” 26 February 1918; Letters I, 34.

[4] CW 2 ¶146.

[5] See CW 20, pp. 202-203 for the three columns of citations to “death.”

[6] CW 8 ¶792.

[7] Ibid. ¶807.

[8] CW 10 ¶695.

[9] CW 8 ¶807.

[10] CW 13 ¶68.

[11] Ibid.

[12] CW 9i ¶256.

[13] CW 18 ¶1706.

[14] Cf. CW 4 ¶263-266 & CW 8 ¶778, 780-781.

[15] CW 18 ¶1707.

[16] CW 8 ¶792.

[17] Ibid. ¶797.

[18] CW 18 ¶1706.

[19] CW 8 ¶796.

[20] His father died in 1896, his mother in 1923, his sister in 1935, his muse (Toni Wolff) in 1953, and his wife in 1955; Bair (2003).

[21] “Letter to Aniela Jaffé,” 4 January 1958; Letters, II, 408.

[22] CW 8 ¶796.

[23] “Letter to Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters, I, 359.

[24] “Letter to Dr Victor White,” 18 December 1946; ibid., 450.

[25] CW 2 ¶333.

[26] Ibid.

[27] On Jung’s own dreams, see CW 3 ¶123-133, CW 7 ¶189-190, CW 9i ¶334-338 & 654, CW 16 ¶549-551, CW 18 ¶336, 463, 478-479, 484-491, 635 & 1077, and Jung (1965), passim; on his patients’ dreams, see CW 20, pp. 226-232.

[28] CW 2 ¶333.

[29] “Letter to Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters, I, 357-358.

[30] Hannah (1976), 346.

[31] Ibid., 348.

[32] Wheelwright (1987), 394.

[33] “Letter to Dr Victor White,” 18 December 1946; ibid., 450

[34] “Letter to J. Allen Gilbert,” 20 April 1946; Letters, I, 423.

[35] CW 8 ¶778.

[36] “Letter to Aniela Jaffé,” 29 May 1953; Letters, II, 119. The Latin means “with death on the horizon.”

[37] “Letter to Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters, I, 358-359.

[38] CW 5 ¶225.

[39] “Letter to J. Heider,” 1 December 1937; Letters, I, 239.

[40] CW 8 ¶850.

[41] CW 5 ¶644.

[42] “Letter to J. Heider,” 1 December 1937; Letters, I, 239.

[43] I describe this amazing experience in detail in chapter 12 of my Living Alchemy, on the separatio archetype of change, pp.131-133.

[44] “Letter to Pastor Fritz Pfäfflin,” 10 January 1939; Letters, I, 258.