Notes on the Craft of Dying
“She knew how to live rarely well, and she desired to know how to die; and God taught her by an experiment”
The Muse of Death
Seeking inspiration from the muse of death is an old trope. Leonardo and Montaigne, for example, both arrived at the view that learning how to live was really learning how to die. The oldest story in human history, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is about an ancient Sumerian king’s journey in quest of the flower of immortality.
But what of us moderns in the scientific age? What sorts of craft of dying do we practice? What sorts are available? Not very much, it would seem.
“Wonders are there many but none more wonderful than man,” cries the chorus in Sophocles’ play, Antigone. Man is deinoteron—“the most wonderful,” as it’s usually translated (it also means “ingenious, clever.”) The chorus sings of everything clever that man can do—farm the land, trap wild beasts, sail the high seas, battle the elements. The one step on which human cleverness founders is death.
But even that may not be quite so absolute. True to the spirit of the age, even science—on a small scale to be sure—has begun to throw out a few searching queries to Yama the Lord on death. Research on death and dying raises basic questions about life and what it means to be a human being. True, the amount of research is miniscule compared with the mammoth outlays for the physical sciences, for industry, and especially for the arts of war. We are pushing open the frontiers of physical space but neglectful of the equally challenging frontiers of inner space.
Knowledge is expanding exponentially, though great mysteries remain—above all, the mysteries of the mind and conscious existence. But too often the fundamentalists of modern science see no mystery at all; death is the end of life, they assert with confidence. But the word “end” is ambiguous; it could refer to cessation or to a new beginning.
The end of life in the positive sense covers near-death experiences, deathbed visions, reincarnation memories; ecstatic, mystical, out-of-body states; the release of supernormal powers—a wild and great spectrum of human experience. The spectrum is our experimental link to what may be beyond life.
Death, it would seem, is the opposite of life. For this reason, the inner side of it should elude our grasp. It seems like an impassable frontier but there may be a way to explore the fringes of this frontier. The question is how. By stipulating we conceptualize death as an altered state of consciousness.
Near-death researchers study the frontier between the living and the dead. The border condition called near-death, as research shows, is found to reveal an extraordinary pattern of experience, a range of archetypal elements and motifs. This pattern may be an important clue, a kind of foothold to what lies beyond, a way of bringing the mystery of death into clearer focus for study. The border condition provides an experimental wedge into a place normally deemed unknowable and inaccessible, and we may detect signals from the undiscovered country from which some travellers do seem to return.
Once we forge this experimental link between the state of death and a mode of consciousness, new ways of thinking result. As we’ll see, features of near-death experience may be observed in other queer states of consciousness. In short, the inner side of death is, under special conditions, open to human experience before bodily death. There are ways of being in the world that may form a bridge between life and death, enabling us to take some baby steps in Hamlet’s “undiscovered country.”
Grant a connection between dying and altered states of consciousness, the idea of exploring, preparing for death, acquires a new dimension of meaning. With the idea of preparation, we can speak of a craft of dying. Such a craft might supplement what it gleans from science with the wisdom of the spiritual traditions.
A modern craft of dying, like the ancient Platonic one, would devise strategies for altering the state and quality of consciousness. What if death is an altered states of consciousness?
Philosophy as Deathcraft
The classic pagan craft of dying is Plato’s Phaedo, which tells the story of the death of Socrates, a model for heroic, philosophical death. Other philosophers went to death for the sake of their ideas. Bruno died a martyr to the new Renaissance cosmology. When the Inquisition burnt Vanini at the stake for his heresies, he is said to have exclaimed: “Let us die happily for philosophy.”
But in the case of Socrates, the relation between death and philosophy was deeper than Vanini’s accidental heroics. Philosophy itself is defined as the practice of death—the highest wisdom being achieved through departure of the soul from the body, which is none other than death.
At first this may seem morbidly fanciful. How do you go about practicing death? And what’s the point? Aren’t we supposed to practice life? Yes, but what then of the life after death? Everything hinges on the definition of death as the separation of one’s soul from her body. We can practice death by learning how to separate ourselves from our bodies. Such a program may sound a bit schizoid to modern ears, but when we look closely at Plato’s language, the meaning becomes clearer. Chorismos is his word for separation, but he also uses lysis, loosing or freeing, and appallage, which means departure.
The freedom of the soul depends on readiness for departure, on looseness, flexibility, ease of movement. The essence of the soul, of life as the Greek philosophers understood it, was self-movement, autonomy of personal energy. The highest life—the life that is godlike—as Aristotle explained in the Nichomachean Ethics, is marked by autarkia: autonomy, freedom from servitude to the body and its inordinate needs.
Normally, we live deeply identified with the anxieties and demands of our bodies. We not only have bodily experiences, we attach inordinate importance to them. We become imprisoned by our body-egos, engrossed by our needs for comfort, security and pleasure.
Plato says we can break the bonds of this hypnotic state and learn to anticipate the great “departure” that is death. (Be cheerful readers, good things are coming.) This “loosening” of the soul requires a special way of life, a spiritual discipline. Freedom from mindless immersion in bodily existence is the way to freedom from the fear of death, the basis of courage in wisdom and self-knowledge.
A soul consciously detached from the body, Plato tells us in the Phaedo, “is not likely to feel that it will be torn asunder at its departure from the body and will vanish into nothingness, blown apart by the winds, and be no longer anywhere.”
The Platonic craft helps us to anticipate the divorce of our self from the body in different ways. For instance, pain and pleasure are said to “nail” the soul to the body. Violent emotions increase our bondage and delusions. “The evil is that the soul of every man, when it is greatly pleased or pained by anything, is compelled to believe that the object which caused the emotions is very distinct and very true; but it is not. These objects are mostly the visible ones . . .”
Plato makes the interesting observation here that worldviews, or metaphysical biases, are state-bound. If we identify ourselves with everyday sensory modes of being, we tend to think of them as the only reality— i.e., as “very distinct and very true.”
Materialism would thus tend to be the by-product of a materialist, sense-locked habit of being conscious. A person who broke that habit, who experienced states going beyond the ordinary sensory mode, would feel less bound to materialism as a doctrine. The battle between worldviews is a battle between different kinds of experiences.
In line with this state-driven epistemology, Plato recommends abstention from unnecessary indulgence in bodily pleasure. I know that rings of the unpleasantly puritanical, but it might also ring a bell for people who would like to walk more lightly in the world. Even so, Plato’s rhetoric sometimes seems to encourage unwholesome repression; on the other hand, it could be said that Plato was touting the classical Greek virtue, encrateia, or self-mastery. A virtue to admire, it belongs in any good mythology of transcendence.
A modern craft of dying should remain true to the needs of the body without succumbing to the delusions of state-bound materialism. An ignorant and sometimes malicious neglect of the body is a fault of the earlier deathcrafts. By condemning the body as an inferior vehicle, we become enemies of a big part of ourselves. Anything that validates the repression of the body also serves to validate the general repression of life.
When the soul separates itself from the body in the practice of death, it does so for the sake of its own integrity. The integrated soul orders itself in tune with the cosmos: the “ornament” or pattern of the universe. In the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the universe itself is said to be a “single animal comprehending in itself all other animals, mortal and immortal.”
Science, according to Plato, teaches us to imitate, not dominate, the cosmic pattern. The goal lies in “learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe.” Intellect, our divine part, strives to “assimilate” these harmonies which afford the model for “the best life which the gods have set before mankind.” To the extent that one succeeds in this assimilation, one already shares in the realm of the “deathless.” The whole enterprise of science is given to harmonizing individual life with cosmic life.
The Platonic deathcraft, based on the separation of soul from body, is guided by the ideal of harmony with the “divine animal” of nature as a whole. The practice is about living in harmony with the natural world while preparing to depart from it.
The Medieval Ars Moriendi
The late Middle Ages of Western Christendom created a different kind of deathcraft, based on the liturgical office De Visitate Infirmorum. The generic title Ars Moriendi (art of dying) refers to two basic texts. One is a block book version consisting of eleven woodcuts depicting the death-bed drama of Moriens (the dying person).
The other, a longer version, had an English exemplar commonly referred to as the Crafte of Dyinge. Both versions were extraordinarily popular. The artistic climax of the tradition was Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying of 1651.
Historical factors paved the way for the Ars Moriendi. The fourteenth century witnessed a rise of virtual necromania. The obsession with death and transience was due in part to the ravages of the bubonic plague in Europe, to war, political upheaval and to widespread apocalyptic expectations. Preaching styles, especially in late-medieval England, savagely stressed the perils of hell and purgatory. The earlier, more primitive Crafte made ample use of such tactics to subjugate the wayward conscience of the populace. Churchmen of the day exploited the gruesome side of death to combat the new wave of secularism. As one scholar wrote: Hence the Last Things easily became emotional bludgeons with which to combat ignorance, individualism, immorality. Closing ranks against these common foes, all the religious orders found that skulls, worms, fire, and brimstone were, in one way or another, singularly useful weapons in the battle for God and the Church.
In the wake of the gruesome Middle Ages, it’s no surprise that we moderns are eager to bury the idea of death. A modern craft of dying, while refusing to coddle the impulse toward denial, would avoid the macabre obsessiveness of the medieval Ars Moriendi.
Jeremy Taylor’s devotional masterpiece on holy dying gets past the shortcomings of the earlier tractates. Taylor would have us meditate calmly on the universal doom of death, meanwhile cultivating a cool detachment from the world. He iterates the common (admittedly dismal) wisdom of the ages: “As our life is very short, so it is very miserable, and therefore it is well it is short.” His tone is somber, not fanatical.
The omnipresence of death is a favorite theme in Taylor’s craft. Death penetrates to the core of life. Here we find no amiable talk of the “joy of living.” Taylor would set us straight with the rhythms of his prose:
Death meets us everywhere, and is procured by every instrument, and in all chances, and enters in at many doors; by violence and secret influence, by the aspect of a star and the stink of a mist, by the emissions of a cloud and the meeting of a vapor, by the fall of a chariot and the stumbling at a stone, by a full meal or an empty stomach, by watching at the wine, or by watching at prayers, by the sun or the moon, by a heat or a cold, by water frozen into the hardness and sharpness of a dagger, or water thawed into the floods of a river, by a hair or a raisin, by violent motion or sitting . . ..
Language is used to effect in Taylor’s Ars Moriendi. The point of this “word magic” was not to eject the idea of death from awareness but to focus on it. And yet the prose has a way of lulling one into an almost erotic surrender. Our more rational minds, stripped of metaphor and sounding power, may chafe uncomfortably at this performance. Taylor’s relentless realism sharply differs from modern evasiveness.
Although Taylor’s deathcraft is otherworldly, it offers “hints” on the art of living. For example, he alludes to a technique of recollection that dates back to the ancient Pythagorean brotherhood. “He that will die well and happily,” we read, “must dress his soul by a diligent and frequent scrutiny; he must perfectly understand and watch the state of his soul; he must set his house in order before he be fit to die.”
The daily practice of self-observation prevents one from falling into the habit of sin. Recollection is a form of behavior modification. According to Taylor, anyone who dies in good conscience— properly self-recollected—dies well.
In some ways, daily recollection anticipates the hour of death. It is now known, for instance, that persons near death often report having a kind of panoramic memory of their lives. The practice of daily recollection, urged by Taylor, would be a rehearsal of near-death recollection. The near-death experiencer gets a new lease on life as a result of the play-back experience, a chance to “set his house in order.” Taylor and the Pythagoreans of old make self-recollection piecemeal, a gradual, daily process.
The lesson of Taylor’s deathcraft comes to this: if we hope to make dying a more conscious process, we should begin by living more consciously. Daily self-recollection is a simple exercise to that end.
The general drift of Taylor’s holy dying is to devalue worldly existence. “Since we stay not here, being people of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly, and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country.” It would seem that “holy,” as used by the great Anglican preacher, is less than “holistic” in the modern sense. It is a one-sided “holiness” that celebrates the hereafter at the expense of the here and now. This one-sidedness is the counterpart to the modern secular fixation on present-centeredness.
“Notes on the Craft of Dying” is an extract from The Final Choice: Death or Transcendence? by Michael Grosso published by White Crow Books.
You can watch interviews with Michael on New Thinking Allowed.