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Death and the Elements

Our approach to death is shaped by the ways we experience the sacred in life…. The great powers of life and death can never be wholly known, defined or controlled. Acknowledging the mystery lets us approach the world with wonder, and humility….
Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

It's odd to write about death, about mystery. If I were looking for answers, I'd find a dedication to death pretty unsatisfying. But I'm drawn to study death and mystery for the same reasons I'm drawn to ritual, trance, myth and archetype. Through these things, I don't find answers  — but I do find possibility. I uncover what may not yet exist, but what could exist. And I uncover the ways that I might step into that possibility.

I think many of us long to step into mystery, but it is the very nature of mystery to be unknown, unexplainable  — so how do we step into it? Although some of those I've loved have died, I have no memory of dying, myself. So how do I find a doorway into this work?

As Starhawk says, "Our approach to death is shaped by the ways we experience the sacred in life." I know life's patterns, rhythms, and motifs  — the seasons, the elements — and those experiences of the sacred give me a way to enter into the unknown.

Coming at What I Don't Know and Can't Understand
In the book Dreaming Beyond Death, authors Bulkeley and Bulkley note that those who are dying often dream of their own impending deaths, and almost always in terms of what they know. The dying sailor may dream of a ship sailing into dark waters, driven by a fast wind; the gardener will dream of a tree reaching for stars in a cobalt sky.

We come at the unknown through what we do know, and "our approach to death is shaped by the way we experience the sacred in life," as Starhawk says. So those of us who work with the elements may find it useful to think of death and dying in terms of earth, air, fire, and water — of how we know them, what they mean to us, and what it would mean to say goodbye to them.

We Bid the Elements Goodbye
Imminent death can be an invitation to say goodbye. Goodbye to our dreams, our homes and pets; to jobs not finished, to old quarrels not mended. To friends, and the friends we might have made, but now will not — goodbye, goodbye.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a guide for the dead between the states of death and rebirth. It suggests that the elements, those energies many of us have lived with and learned so much from in this life, leave the body one by one, each dissolving into the next, and are the last things we say goodbye to on this plane.

Deathworkers like Joan Halifax confirm what I've observed at the side of those who are dying: We can perceive the changes as the dying person says goodbye to the elements — to earth, water, fire and, lastly, air.

The element of earth is the first whose power leaves us. As earth departs, the dying person's body loses its strength and becomes thin and heavy. She may feel she is falling or sinking. Her skin begins to pale. She grows drowsy and finds it harder and harder to open her eyes. art piece, the four seasons with gatewayEarth is losing its ability to provide a base for consciousness, and dissolves into the element of water, bringing an image of shimmering, of a mirage.

As water leaves her, the skin, lips and eyes feel dry. She thirsts, as the waters of the body recede, and emotions move beyond her grasp. Bodily sensations dwindle, alternating between heat and cold, and she senses she is being swept away, as though by very fast water. Water is no longer able to support consciousness, and fire is taking over, bringing a vision of haze and smoke.

As the fire element burns out, she perceives the world as hot, while her skin and breath grow colder. In this phase, those close and familiar to her become unreachable. Perception is dissipating, and sight and sound become confused. The dying person has visions of sparks and fireflies as fire dissolves into air.

Finally, air loses its power, and she has more and more trouble breathing. The inbreaths become short and labored, while the outbreaths become longer. She is totally still and unaware of the outside world. Her last feeling of contact with the physical environment is slipping away; the ten winds move into her heart, inhalation and exhalation cease, and she is no longer mindful of this world.

At this point, all the elements have dissolved into the ether — the dying person is at center, and anger, illusion and ignorance cease.

I find comfort and a greater understanding of death by thinking of it — of the great unknown and unknowable — in terms of what I know. I think of the hundreds of times I've called to the elements, to air, fire, water, earth and center, and asked them to join me, both in ritual and in solitary study and work. They are the very substance of my life, so I like the Bardo Thodol's suggestion that, at the end of life, I will say goodbye to them one by one, and let them go.

For some of you, the few minutes you've spent reading this article may represent the longest interaction with death in your life so far. For others, the process may be as familiar as daylight — yet the mystery remains.

Bibliography

  • Bulkeley, Kelly, and Patricia Bulkley. Dreaming Beyond Death, Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
  • Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and the Reclaiming Collective, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper, 1997.
  • Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey, eds. San Francisco: Harper, 1998.

Graphics Credits

  • Temperance from Tarot of the Crone, © 2002, Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. All rights reserved.
  • seasons, © Gretchen Small. All rights reserved.
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