A psychopomp is a conductor of the soul of the dead and mythology pictures it/they as an animal or even a bird. In our hill community, Aunt Mae was a midwife for birth and death. When Georgia, my sister and I were small, we called it a ‘sick-pump’. Most of us still walked to the spring to get a pail of water on the farms, but we could imagine a sick-pump. Aunt Mae roared with laughter.
“I just want you to be ready, so you won’t be scared when you see your first dead person come back. Just treat them real polite and tell them to go to the light.”
“Are they ghosts?” Georgie whispered.
“No, no, girly. They’re just confused at first. Maybe don’t want to leave their people behind. The main thing is we have to keep loving those who pass. It comforts them and gets them pointed in the right direction.”
“What is heaven like?” Georgie.
“Oooh,” Mae sighed. “It’s just whatever you’d like it to be.” She was smiling to herself and her hands were raised to her mouth like prayer steeples.
“Is there hell?” Georgie asked.
“Only here. Only here on earth,” she sighed deeply. “In heaven, there is no judgement.”
“That’s not what the Bible says,” I said, not defensively, just curious.
“Can’t help what some ignorant old ancient wrote. Those old coots surely got a lot wrong. Not the part about Jesus’s love though,” and she was chortling again.
So your country community didn’t have a designated psychopomp? Probably didn’t have gowns with hoods either. You let those burdens fall on your minister/pastor/priest – whatever.
As a child, having no playmates, I explored the corners of the fields and the big rock piles that had been cleared from the hay field. I saw fairies there and small brown creatures in the woods, so I was not alarmed when the odd dead person turned up and sat in the rocking chair. For a while, when I was an adult, I could count on the family dead showing up at least once. Now they seem more likely to visit Georgia. One sat in the middle of her couch for two days, in December. Curiously, I was able to describe what she was wearing, although I hadn’t been there. She wanted to know who had killed her. And she wasn’t even a relative. Georgia had worked out who had done the deed, but she was too tactful to say. It seems as though eventually the departed one figured it out as well and simply vanished.
When people started dying of Covid, I felt their great sorrow and loneliness at being ‘abandoned’. The greater the number of the dead on any given day, the heavier the weight. As I extended my love to them, I knew that many thousands of others like me were doing the same psychopomp work and I could imagine the hosts of angels guiding them home.
I had been following the Auschwitz Memorial Site on Twitter and I began to understand that had happened then as well.
There is a whole theory of how to die, which Robert Thurman or the Tibetan Book of the Dead can teach you. I have read these, but, try as I may, I cannot memorize the stages you pass through: mirage, smokiness, fireflies in the sky, clear candle flame, clear moonlit sky, clear pitch darkness and the clear light of the clear predawn sky. (p. 42.Thurman. Tibetan The Book of the Dead.) I get discouraged. Then as I experience others dying, I know that unenlightened and miserably angry as they might have been at last glimpse, they sailed through to that clear light like Tibetan gurus.
I’m sure it is love that gets them there and I know that this love doesn’t have to be sitting at the death bed. It can emanate from someone thousands of miles away as Blake’s daughter’s did when he passed on.
My first requirement for my own good death is leaving in a timely fashion. I know lucid dreaming is possible. I have stopped a dream before and rearranged things, given myself a weapon or an ally, so I meditate on a lucid death. I very much do not want to stay making my survivors miserable and broke.
I believe a good death is also one with a certain amount of insight. Not still blaming mom and dad for everything. I believe we choose our path and so if my father wronged me terribly, I chose him knowing that possibility. One way or another he made me what I am and I do not want to regret that. Did I add to the world, make somebody’s life better by being here? Was my heart able to open to more than my immediate family? Has humanity taken even a tiny step forward because of some excellence I achieved, however momentarily? Did I create an individual self that demonstrated divinity? Did God see godness through me?
And, of course, can I let go of judgement of myself and others? A toddler trips and falls. No blame.
Next: a reflection of Roy Scranton’s book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene