Shall We Gather at the River
Death doulas? Deathwalkers? Psychopomps and Angels of Death? Once we open the door to the realm of death and dying, we discover a whole new world. Only some of it is a human world, the rest is a mysterious phantasmagoria yet to be fully revealed to us on this side of the veil. It might sound frightening; but it is, in fact, profoundly reassuring.
Sarah Kerr is a Death Doula and a Ritual Healing Practitioner. She works with people who are dying and with their loved ones, attending to the process of leaving this world. It is akin to the role assumed by midwives (doula, from the Greek, means midwife) who attend to the process of entering this world. She refers to herself as "clergy for the unchurched," providing pastoral care, guidance, and rituals that help both the dying and the living face that ultimate journey of the soul.
Rooted in what she calls "nature-based spirituality," Sarah draws from a wide range of cultural and religious resources in her work. But mainly, she draws inspiration from the natural world that, in many ways, teaches us how to die. The modern world, she says, moves in a linear fashion, where things are presumed to have no end. We remove resources from the earth as if they are limitless. We expand financial horizons as if they go on forever. But nature teaches us that life is cyclical, that things do end, and that there is great wisdom in accepting death rather than fighting it, and welcoming it when it comes.
Sarah's guiding image of death is a boat leaving one shore to cross a body of water for the opposite shore. From this side, we can prepare ourselves for the journey by asking what goes in our boat with us, and what gets left behind. Our loved ones can assist us too, when the time comes, sometimes ritually pushing the boat into the water, which will be met on the other side by those waiting to receive it. I used to have mourners at funeral services extend a hand toward their loved one--represented by their casket or their ashes or perhaps by a picture--as we said the words of commendation, effectively sending them on their way. Sarah suspects that such rituals help not only those who mourn but also the departed, to let go.
But most moderns have to be guided to think this way. I have known people on their deathbed who deny their fate right up to the last possible minute, talking about anything other than what is happening to them. I have seen family members reassert their belief that their loved one is not dying (if they can bring themselves to say the word at all), but only suffering a setback from which they will surely rebound.
Facing death is an enormous challenge to the way we usually walk upon this earth, where we often believe that what we don't face can't harm us. But death can be seen, not as the termination of life, but as its transformation into something even more wondrous. Sarah Kerr sees life, essentially, as energy, as supported by scientific investigations into the nature of the material world. Death is a transfer of energy, away from the physical into a realm we can only describe as the metaphysical, transcending the world as we know it.
In that realm, all things are possible, including reunification with our ancestors, ongoing growth for our souls, and the very real possibility of maintaining a connection with those we love on earth. But it's a strange new reality for most of us, requiring that we open our minds. A death doula (or "deathwalker") can help. But so can spiritual guides from the other side, who often make an appearance at the time of death--being the ancestors or the angelic beings (known as psychopomps, also from Greek, meaning soul guides) who come to take us home.
This may all seem too "woo-woo," or perhaps too morbid, for us to talk about. But the truth is, we're all going to be there some day, where the boat shoves off from the shore, and our journey both ends and begins. So it might be worth our while reflecting upon it before that day actually comes. It may not be the worst day of our lives, after all; it may even prove to be the best.
This week on The Mystic Cave podcast: Shall We Gather at the River: A Conversation with Sarah Kerr