“The greatest of emotions is fear, and the greatest fear is fear of the unknown,”(Lovecraft, 2003). So said the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft who knew quite a lot about what frightens mankind. Indeed the fear of the unknown is inflated onto the fear of death,(Nichols,1980). What happens after death is something that is utterly unknown to the psyche of man,(Jung,1958). Metaphysics is something that we all ponder, in particular the topics of the afterlife. On a subjective level, we all have notions of death and what it means for us. Not only is death something that we think about and consider, but symbols around the world represent death and the afterlife,(Nichols,1980). Psychologically, death can be understood in three ways. The first being the natural/physiological context of every day death and dying; also it can be understood by the symbolism created by the psyche as well as those motifs seen in scripture/folklore.
The natural cognitive and social understanding of death and dying was something that was best researched by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Her research indicated that there are stages that a person goes through when faced with the idea that they will die. Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance are the names of the stages she gave to those who are dealing with the experience of dying,(Kubler-Ross, 1969). She also documented society’s fear of death but also the hope one gains from going through the process of dying,(Kubler-Ross,1969). Kubler-Ross dealt with death and dying in terms of helping patients go through the cognitive-behavioral process of acceptance and even taught society at large on how to view the subject with less fear and misunderstanding. However her approach via consciousness is not the only way we can understand death and dying.
Carl Jung was of the opinion that death and the idea that there is something beyond life is a psychological fact. He was not sure how life might go on, but by observing patients in old age, death was simply the next stage in the journey of psychological existence (Jung,1977). Jung also observed that his patients, through series of dreams, could indicate approaching death,(Jung,1960). The unconscious appears to care more about, how one would die, as opposed to death itself (Jung, 1960). “Dying, therefore, has its onset long before actual death. Moreover, this often shows itself in peculiar changes of personality which may precede death by quite a long time,”(Jung, 1960). It would seem that on a personal subjective level death is something that the psyche takes very seriously and it is indeed very real. However we know that death is not only a physiological objective fact, but it is represented by collective symbolism.
Death is something that has been discussed and symbolized in every culture around the world. Every religion, scripture and mythological canon deals with the journey of death, that is depicted in the underworld motifs of the Greeks with the ferryman Charon across the river Styks(Nichols, 1980). This motif is repeated in the myth of the Egyptians, with the sun god rising from the darkness, sailing across the sky, and then sinking back into the abyss to fight the demon snake Apep(Jung, 1958). The Book of the Dead, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the Quran all depict death as a journey.
This journey is one that is experienced by everyone on a psychological level,(Nichols,1980). The motifs of Jesus Christ, Odin and Horus’ death and resurrection are symbols of the process of change within the individual psyche,(Frazer,1996). The symbol can be understood, “psychologically as a transformative process which divides up an original unconscious content for purposes of conscious assimilation,”(Nichols, 1980). These motifs and psychic content, I would argue, are the reason for the symbols associated with the scriptures that depict the afterlife. If, as Jung argues, the psyche gives individuals a sense that life goes on past physical death, then these symbols are directly linked.
Death is something that has held our species in a state of awe, fear and wonder. Kubler-Ross understood death as something that patients and their loved ones can come to accept and understand through a series of steps and process’,(Kubler-Ross,1969). Carl Jung felt that the unconscious played a vital role in expressing the psyche’s understanding of death for the individual as well as the symbols of natural transformation,(Jung,1958). Finally, even beyond psychological theorizing and understanding, cultures around the world have expressed the mystery of death in art, literature, folklore, mythology and religious scripture,(Nichols,1980). It would seem that death is a journey that is both personal and collective. As Peter Pan remarked to Captain Hook: “To die must be an awfully big adventure,”(Nichols, 1980).
1. Lovecraft, H.P.(2003). Waking up screaming. Random House Inc. New York. 2. Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth.(1969). On death and dying. Macmillian Publishing, New York, NY. 3. Frazer, James. (1996). The Golden Bough. Penguin Books, London England. 4. Nichols, Sallie. (1980). Jung and Tarot-An Archetypal Journey. Red Wheel, Boston MA. 5. Jung, Carl. (1960). The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Bolligen Foundation, New York, N.Y. 6. McGuire and Hull. (1977). C.G.Jung Speaking-Interviews and Encounters. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.