“Death is the center of a long life.” This old druid saying continues to intrigue, even haunt, our consciousness. From the earliest Paleolithic graves with their elaborate grave goods and ritual lay-outs of corpses, it appears that humans have always had some sense that not everything ends with the death of the body. Over the centuries various cultures and religious systems have worked out different explanations and descriptions of what happens after death, and I like to think that the rich diversity of opinions reflects the fact that there just very well may be diverse experiences awaiting us. In other words, whatever fate awaits us on the other side will not be the same for us all. Collectively human beings have had intimations of immortality that cannot be described as one-size-fits-all. Certainly life on Earth is a unique experience for each of us; we are not all leading the same kinds of lives except in certain broad strokes. Maybe life after death will be a unique experience for each of us as well, even though there may be some general similarities in format or structure just as earthly life has.
But in spite of the differences, there seems to be remarkable agreement that something awaits us, that death is truly the center of some larger life experience. If so, each of us incarnates a life force which extends back before our most recent births and outward after our present bodies succumb to old age, disease, or a lethal accident.
Another way to think about this is to consider the fact that so many people have recognized a certain incompleteness in human life which results in spiritual longing and questing. Even when we live a full and happy life, we can feel that something is missing, even though we are not sure just what that is. Life feels like a quest, and we are searchers in the terrain of earthly existence for something we can’t quite name. Dying then is a kind of un-creating in order to be re-created somewhere else and perhaps as something else to continue or complete the quest. Existence may be a kind of shapeshifting experience for us all. Perhaps we are meant to be much more than human beings, just as shamans realize when they shapeshift in non-ordinary reality.
When people have near death experiences they often look down on their physical bodies which seem to grow diaphanous, foggy, gaseous, or misty. They look like what the living often describe as ghosts. The body seems to fade or disappear. We’ve heard this idea before in fairy tales and legends in which a person or animal “vanishes in the mist.” But what if what is actually happening is that the physical body turns into mist because the gaseous state is a type of betwixt-and-between state where the energy or life force of the body is being purified, rarified, cleansed. When this happens in fairy tales it often indicates the beginning of a journey into the Otherworld. When it happens in a near-death experience, it may also presage a passing into another world.
The shamanic journey is a method for exploring the realms that lie beyond our physical existence. Shamans relate what they see and hear in those realms and in so doing create patterns or structures for that Otherworld that make it familiar and acceptable to our imaginations. Journeys reassure us that the tendencies of life and death that we see in this world are turnings of the tides in which neither life nor death wins.
When Wordsworth titled one of his odes “Intimations of Immortality,” he was right in step with the course of human history. We have always had those intimations, those hints, those intriguing glimpses through the misted veil that another world or possibly many worlds await us. And it has been an equally human characteristic to have a yearning to know what those worlds are like.
Druids sang about these realms even though their songs have been lost. But as the Roman writer Lucan said of the druids, “Your songs tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and if your songs are true, death is but the mid-point of a long life.”