My friend Lyn Baylis has kindly consented to writing two further articles shedding light on her work. This subject isn’t always an easy one for people to face but she has written sensitively and compassionately about care of the dying and dead. Without further ado here are her words:
As well as being a Chaplain and Minister, my other duties entail being an End of Life Midwife and Transition guide. This is doing the work of a psychopomp. The primary function of the psychopomp is to help the spirit or soul of an individual cross over to a safe place at the time of death. For many this role is part of who they are and they come to it naturally, others can learn the skill, but it is not as easy as many people will tell you.
Every culture, country, religion, and community has certain behaviours and rituals that govern their actions when a loved one dies. These traditions and death rituals are based upon:
- Religious and spiritual beliefs
- whether they believe there is life after death
- What type of life that is
- What happens to the body and soul after death
- The social status of the person who has died
- The connections between those living and those that have died
- Beliefs about the human connection with nature
- Superstitious beliefs about death
Many people believe that the soul/spirit doesn’t leave the body immediately at death and must either be looked after until it is ready to leave, or sent on its way. Many including some Native American tribes believe that the death ritual is part of the magic that helps the deceased to reach the afterlife, and works to protect them once they are there.
We’ve seen that our ancestors placed food, weapons, jewellery, tools, or pots within the burial site for the use of the deceased in his afterlife, so they clearly believed that the comfort of our dead was important.
So where does magic fit in and how much is it necessary for the rituals around death?
There are three types of magic that occur around the dying and the dead:
- Necromancy – cursing to bring to death.
- Magic to enable the deceased to leave the body.
- Magic to ensure the soul/spirit doesn’t return to haunt us.
Often working with graveyard dust and other symbols of the dead they’re said to create undeads or phantasmas (apparitions). It’s also supposed to attach entities which some people call vampiric magic.
All rituals to cause death, regardless of what people think of them are black magic. There’s one heavy and universal law, you have to pay for your right to use a curse of death, or to work to force the dead to do your will you may pay dearly.
Magic to enable the deceased to leave the body
The second use of Magic is to help the deceased leave their body and start their journey to the next life, the Summerlands, purgatory or to immortality – depending on their beliefs.
Magic to ensure the soul/spirit doesn’t return to haunt us
When we talk about the soul/spirit ordinary language is mostly inadequate. Various ancient spiritual traditions have stories of individuals who have had near-death experiences We can enter this realm through ritual and ceremony by shifting the mindset of the individual. The spirit rises transcending individuality and seeking oneness with the divine or the infinite being.
Once In this state the person no longer dies in fear but reaches a place of peace and love, where should they wish, they can stay conscious for the journey ahead. The first thing to do is to create a peaceful soothing atmosphere that will trigger all the senses and thus help the dying person and all present to get a sense of and to feel close to the Divine.
For maximum effect it’s important to work with all the senses:
Set up an altar/sacred space and arrange spiritually meaningful articles or pictures on it.
Cover unsightly furniture with beautiful cloth.
Arrange for soft lighting or candle light to bring feelings of peace security and safety.
The sight of beauty all around brings solace even to the most troubled mind – working in this area you can see the person start to relax as you transform their space from a hospital/functional space to one that calls to them.
Use scented candles, incense and oils.
Place fragrant flowers in the room.
All these heighten the senses and bring a higher understanding of the divine within, so as the smoke rises the scent calls to the dying person to rise with it to seek the other world. (Make sure they like the odours selected, and if possible that they have meaning to them).
Prayers in keeping with the dying person’s tradition are there to remind them of the love that surrounds them and the infinite love that awaits.
Reading of much loved books or poetry.
Recitation of psalms and reading of scriptures. In Islam the Qur’an is read.
A guided meditation to take the person to the place they wish to be.
Gentle chanting, and soft and evocative vocals.
Other music or sounds that will sooth and inspire.
All these are chosen by the family and the Elder/Shaman whose words call on the old magic; using good memories and words of love to encourage the spirit to transcend the mundane.
Guided by holy words or the love of those who care deeply, they call on the dying person to surrender, so that their pain will end. This enables each person to experience the ecstasy that comes with release from the temporal body and the joy of the peaceful state. (Hearing is the last sense to go and loud, high frequencies may make the person uncomfortable and distressed. So, best avoided).
In this liminal place silence is often more important than sound, so it’s good to remember the value and necessity of simply sitting in silence with the dying person. After having assured them that it’s fine for them to go (an important statement often forgotten), you then allow them to make the journey at their own speed.
Water, as in “holy water” or “spirit water” is often sprinkled on the dying person to prepare them for death, in some traditions even a baptism is performed. Oil also is sometimes used to anoint the person and to make them ready for the transition. Some people will at this point close the chakra points along the length of the body, leaving the head chakra open to allow the spirit or soul to escape. Personally I wait until I am anointing the body after death.
The Sprits of our Ancestors are often called by the Elder or Shaman at the point of death to guide the spirit onward into the continuing journey.
The most important thing to remember is that this time is for the person dying.
If rituals are created with that in mind, and rooted in love and compassion, then there is no right way or wrong way to do things. Be aware that rituals can bring things to the surface. They may help us see things more clearly as they bring to the fore feelings that’ve have been buried in our unconscious. Be mindful that these may trigger emotional outbursts in friends and relatives.
Part 2 deals with rituals undertaken post death. These will be elaborated upon in the next post.