Home > Roy Wilkinson Book > Chapter 5 "Relationships between the living and the dead"

RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD

'All men must die. I am a man. Therefore I must die.' (Aristotle.)

In this classical example of logic is expressed the common fate of mankind. Sooner or later every human being must die. He may witness death in the passing of a parent, relative, friend or stranger, but should he happen to miss such an event, he will certainly not escape the personal experience. Ultimately every human being must face departure from this world. It is one of the inevitable and irrevocable facts of life.

Yet as a subject for discussion it is usually considered indelicate and the general attitude towards death is that it is an unpleasant matter. However, since it is such a natural and important process, there is no real reason why it should not be discussed openly and objectively.

In any case, death has a habit of making itself very obvious. A friend or relative is here today and gone tomorrow. If we reflect for a moment on our personal connections, we shall probably call to mind a great number of people whom we have known but who are no longer on Earth. Acquaintances are suddenly gone, not only those older than ourselves whom one expects to go in the course of nature but also contemporaries and even younger persons. Many will have felt the personal imminence of death in wartime or in illness, even if, in the event, the matter was shelved for a time.

The thought of death is also accompanied by an element of fear and, in one sense, this is perfectly understandable. Here on Earth we gather to ourselves certain material possessions in the course of our life. A feeling of 'this is mine' strengthens the experience of ourselves as individuals. On leaving this world we take nothing with us materially. We can only take those treasures we have laid up in heaven, i.e. what we have made of ourselves. We may well pause to ask whether our spiritual stores are adequate, particularly as we get older and our own day of reckoning comes nearer. Fear also enters the soul at the thought of the unknown. We may have put our worldly affairs in order but do we know what to expect in the beyond — assuming that there is a beyond. Must we take this step in faith or can we acquire knowledge about it while still on Earth? In actual fact a great deal can be learnt about future existences and death need be neither puzzling nor terrifying.

Questions as to the nature of death, life after death, and whether we retain connections with friends and relatives who have passed on lurk in most people's minds, albeit perhaps at a subconscious level. It is not the purpose of this chapter to enter into all these matters but to deal mainly with the relationships between the living and the dead.

Our first consideration must, nevertheless, be concerned with the meaning of death and a short historical survey of changing attitudes may be helpful.

Death as a problem first appears in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch and becomes more real in Greece. In the civilizations preceding these, it was not felt as the barrier that it is today and the idea did not give rise to fear. The fact is that ancient peoples possessed faculties through which they retained their connection with the beyond. To them the two worlds, physical and spiritual, were not so clearly differentiated. They perceived beings that had no physical existence; they walked with the gods. They were aware of the departed souls of men in another world. To them the fact of death simply meant that the soul-spirit was not returning to inhabit the bodily structure it had occupied during its previous life. In the course of history a materially orientated civilization developed and this faculty of perception was lost, being replaced, however, by greater powers of observation and logical thinking.

Even today, in certain countries of the East, generally speaking, death is no great matter. The existence of a spiritual world and the idea of the human being alternating between life there and life in the physical (reincarnation) has been accepted as fact since time immemorial.

In the West, in modern times, men are not so happy at the thought of relinquishing their hold on physical life in spite of the Christian teaching of life after death. In the West, people have 'possessions'. The material world is important. Spiritual vision and an understanding for non-material things have faded.

Nevertheless, many significant Europeans and Americans have given expression within the last two hundred years to their belief in life beyond the grave, some even, to their belief in reincarnation. We could mention Voltaire, Lytton, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Masefield, Lessing, Fichte, Goethe, Emerson, Walt Whitman and Lord Russell. A reporter once asked the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright whether he believed in immortality. The answer was that he did not have to believe, he knew it as an experience.

Edward Carpenter, a writer and lecturer interested in social reform and education, refers also to repeated Earth lives and puts forward an opinion that there are various orders of consciousness. This idea is very much in evidence in the works of Rudolf Steiner who speaks of dormant faculties within every human being which can be awakened to perceive higher worlds. Rudolf Steiner explains that with our ordinary senses in our everyday waking consciousness we perceive the physical world, but this is not the only one. We may see a plant, we may know all the substances within that plant, we are aware of the influence of Sun, earth, air and water, but we do not perceive with our ordinary senses that force which makes the plant grow. Here we approach the borders of a supersensible world. If another consciousness could be developed, we should be aware of it. We see the physical world with the physical eye. To see the spiritual world we need to develop a 'spiritual' eye. This is what the ancient peoples possessed naturally. Originally there existed direct communication with the spiritual world. In the course of history this was lost but a memory of it remained. Then the memory was lost. We are now at the point of evolution where a conscious effort can successfully be made to regain through our own efforts what was formerly there as a gift.

What are the implications of the 'spiritual eye' with regard to death? If the organs for perceiving the spiritual world have been developed, we have a twofold consciousness — one of physical and one of spiritual things. But if we have the consciousness of spiritual things, then we have already crossed the threshold. Thus at the moment of dying there would not be a process of death and reawakening but a continuity of consciousness. Immortality does not mean an endless existence in the flesh but the possibility of conscious transition to the spiritual world. A certain religious body used to proclaim: 'Millions now living will never die.' Interpreted as above this may well be correct. It is a development that may come about in the not too distant future.

In one sense, then, we can say that death is a change of consciousness, but of course it is also a change of state or environment.

In every human being living on the Earth there is some eternal quality, something called the immortal man, or the soul, or the spirit. Here on Earth this supersensible part of man is united with material substance, i.e. the flesh and blood of the body. At death the body is cast off and the spirit enters a spiritual world subject to its own laws. Some comparison can be made between death and sleep. In sleep the spirit also leaves the body but the separation is not permanent. On waking, our awareness of the world of sleep and its contents is lost, just as the spiritual world is forgotten at birth.

The transition from the physical to the spiritual world could also be compared with the emerging of a butterfly from the chrysalis. The chrysalis is like the material body, which serves its purpose for a while but is then cast off. The butterfly of the spirit enters a realm of light and air.

The 'Other' World

In considering spiritual matters, the concepts of time and space are somewhat different from those with which we are familiar. It is difficult to say where the spiritual world is but if we think spatially then we must say that it is all around us, together with its inhabitants, living with us, yet unseen by us. If we are in a room and close our eyes, we do not perceive the objects around us. On opening our eyes, we see again. Similarly our spiritual eyes are usually closed. If they were opened, that is to say, if our state of consciousness were heightened, we should see the objects of the spiritual world, including its inhabitants. Among these are our dead friends and relatives.

Perhaps we should do better to avoid the expression 'dead' or at least qualify its meaning.

We usually think of dead as something lifeless; here we are not discussing the lifeless but something translated to another form of existence. The dead in this sense are not dead. They live but have no material body. They are human beings who have moved into a different sphere. Since the expressions of language are limited, when we use the word 'dead' here in reference to human beings we must bear in mind that the dead are living but they live in a spiritual world.

It is inevitable that death brings pain and sorrow, and a great sense of loss. But it also brings moments of serenity. Standing at a death-bed or a graveside one can feel very near eternity. There is a sense of mystery and another world seems very close.

Those with a philosophical turn of mind might consider that death is not only a very commonplace affair in human existence but that it is in all nature. It is the counterpart of living and all life is a process of dying and becoming. Physical death is not the end of existence but a gateway to another realm.

Those with religious views, whatever their nature, will, no doubt, find comfort in their beliefs. The idea of reincarnation explains many things but it is not a belief universally held by Christians. They do, however, believe in after-life, living in 'Heaven' where they will be united with their loved ones. But it will be a greater comfort to know that relationships between the living and the dead continue even if they are in different worlds and that this relationship can be fostered to mutual advantage.

(An objection might be raised that communicating with the dead means trespassing into forbidden fields. In order that there shall be no misunderstanding, let it be said that what is advocated here has nothing to do with so-called spiritualism — a cult whereby the dead appear to speak through a medium. This, taking place through a suppression of consciousness, is a very dubious practice and results are likely to be deceptive.)

It must be remembered that human beings belong to the Earth whether incarnate or otherwise and that their destiny is bound up with the Earth. When they die, they take into the spiritual world a residue of ideas and impulses which mature with the wider knowledge available but which still belongs to Earth activities. They retain, therefore, an interest. While in the spiritual world, however, they have no organs of sense-perception or physical limbs and therefore no means of direct communication or intervention. A living person has to be the intermediary and it is this person who must make the effort at establishing or retaining the connection.

Perhaps we have to get into the habit of thinking not of two worlds but of one, the physical world being a manifestation of the spiritual. The communion of the living with the dead is a form of union of physical and spiritual worlds and leads to a more complete experience as well as mutual advancement. To retain and foster relationships is therefore both right and desirable.

Keeping Contact

In order to keep connections with our departed friends or relatives, a certain basic attitude is essential. We should keep them in mind and cultivate feelings of love and sympathy towards them. The type and content of our own thinking are also important. Our thoughts should be spiritually orientated. Accompanied by feelings of love such thoughts provide sustenance for the departed souls. To quote Rudolf Steiner: 'The living are the granaries and libraries of the dead.'

It must also be said that harm can be done by wrong thinking and feeling. Any thoughts or feelings which harbour negative qualities are destructive just as they are in life. Special efforts by the living should be made to purge the soul of all feelings of blame or resentment. It is not for nothing that we say 'Speak no ill of the dead'.

Neither should we wish them back.

There is a little story of Grimm's which illustrates this very well. A little girl had died and naturally the mother sorrowed over the loss of the child. She wept copious tears and wished the child back. One night, the girl appeared to her in a dream and explained that the tears kept her garment continually wet and made her uncomfortable. Interpreted, this suggests that tears and sorrow hold back the progress of the departed soul. A more positive attitude should be taken. Instead of sorrow at the loss and a wish that the person should still be with us, the feeling to cultivate should be one of joy in having had the friendship.

Since the content of our own thinking is so important, it must be controlled as far as possible. During our normal waking life our minds are full of all sorts of ideas that are concerned with everyday material existence, but only thoughts that concern themselves with spiritual matters will provide the necessary spiritual nourishment. During sleep our thought life is carried over into the spiritual world and those thoughts that have a spiritual content are taken up by the dead as a form of sustenance, but souls can only draw nourishment from persons with whom they have had contact on Earth.

From what has been said it could be inferred that in our materialistic age few thoughts of the right calibre are produced — hence the dead may feel themselves exiled from the physical world and also in a state of starvation.

In bringing our departed friends to mind it is natural that we recall their physical appearance, but this should only be treated as a sort of signpost. A signpost points a direction but it is not the place itself. It is therefore not so much the physical image that should be visualized — this has been cast off in any case and is no longer real — but the spiritual being who has now discarded the outer form. A photograph should not be used.

How the Living Can Help the Dead

A fairly simple way of conveying some form of nourishment to a departed friend or relative is to recall some incident experienced together. We should imagine this in a social setting and try to recall any characteristic look or gesture. This picture we hold in mind and the effect for him or her is similar to the experience we have in contemplating a great work of art or listening to a great symphony. We should try to think our way into the other's being, i.e. how he or she would have felt, or spoken, or acted. The result is something like giving food. Obviously there are many occasions when incidents from the past flash into our minds. We recall a walk taken together or a conversation. These flashes are useful but a conscious calling to mind has more effect.

Further sustenance can be given by reading something suitable. One takes a book of spiritual content, the Bible for instance, and reads an appropriate passage. Dr Steiner cites a particular case where a person who recently died was felt by relatives to be in need of help. They read some of the Gospel of St John to him and his difficulty was resolved.

It should be emphasized that this sort of reading is not merely a mechanical act. Two things are essential. One is that those to whom the reading is directed must be conjured up vividly in the mind (remembering the idea of the signpost). The other is that the contents of the book come to life in

the reader's thoughts and stimulate his own interest and feeling.

There is a tradition of saying prayers for the dead and this is beneficial provided we understand what is meant by prayer. Praying often savours of asking for something, perhaps for something we do not deserve, or which would do us no good. We can legitimately pray for insight, for understanding and for strength to meet our tasks. In praying for the dead we are certainly thinking of them positively and lifting our thoughts to them. Such activity can only be helpful, but the greatest help can be given by conscious meditation. This means that one calls to mind the person or persons concerned and directs thoughts and feelings contained in certain words or verses towards them. Rudolf Steiner gave many examples for use in this respect of which the following is one of the best known:

Spirit of his (her) soul,
Watchful Guardian,
May thy wings
Bear the imploring
Love of my soul
To the sphere-human
Committed to thy care,
So that my love
United with thy power
May radiate helpfully
To the soul
Whom it lovingly seeks.

A few words of explanation may be necessary.

In spiritual science we learn about the ranks of beings higher than man, the Hierarchies, mentioned also in the Bible under such names as Principalities and Powers, Seraphim and Cherubim. Others are Angels and Archangels, the former being nearest to man. Every man has his Angel, that is, a higher being specially dedicated to him. This being is also known as the Guardian Angel.

The meditation is addressed to the Guardian Angel of the person concerned. One makes a picture in the mind of this Angel receiving the soul. The words are accompanied by feelings of love and sympathy. The 'sphere' is the human being who now belongs to the spheres, that is, the heavenly regions, in contrast to the earthly or terrestrial regions.

This meditation can also be used in the plural and addressed to a group. It can be used as a collective meditation by a group of people, i.e. a group meditation for a group, with the necessary grammatical alterations.

It may also be helpful to know that these particular words can be used to assist someone who may be in difficulty in this world. One creates the image of the person concerned in one's mind, addresses the Guardian Angel in the same way as above but substitutes 'Earth-human' for 'sphere-human'.

There are also helpful meditations addressed directly to the person concerned. One thinks of the departed friend and addresses the words directly to him or her. It is important that the words be accompanied by feelings of love and warmth.

May the love of my soul
Reach unto thee.
May the strength of my love
Stream unto thee.
May they sustain thee,
May they support thee,
In heights of Hope,
In spheres of Love.

There is another form of help which is useful soon after the actual death.

When an individual crosses the threshold he comes into an unknown world and one of the first experiences is that of having lost his being. It is an old tradition that a funeral oration be given in which something is said about the person concerned. This is based on the understanding that, if a characteristic description of the personality is given, something of this is conveyed to the departed soul which is thus enabled to recognize itself.

Special cases — Materialists and Suicides

There are some souls who experience particular difficulties in the first period of changed circumstances. For instance, an out-and-out materialist would be in a very unenviable position, but all the more in need of special help from this side. Souls of those who, on Earth, denied all spiritual existence find themselves in a condition of which they have not formed the slightest concept and feel more than ever lost. They have now no faculty for acquiring truths and these can only be conveyed to them through the living thoughts of those still on Earth. If their human contacts on Earth are all like-minded people, then they go hungry indeed. They will search for spiritual food from their relatives and friends, who, it is to be hoped, will recognize their needs and make conscious attempts to help.

Other souls may also be in difficulties — those, for instance, who have spent their lives without developing a conscience or feelings of responsibility, or those who have failed to meet their tasks properly. It would be the loving duty of the friends and relatives of such people to make special efforts to assist.

The case is similar with suicides. These are the unfortunates who have not been able to cope with life as it presented itself to them and have therefore ended that phase. They need help and again it would be the special task of the acquaintances still on Earth to make efforts in the direction indicated.

To summarize then, these are the chief ways in which the living consciously bring gifts to the dead:

  1. By recalling memories of common experience.
  2. By reading works of spiritual content with the dead in mind.
  3. By meditation.
  4. Immediately after death by a characterization of the departed personality.

In a general way let it also be remembered that the living sustain the dead by providing a form of nourishment during sleep from thoughts on spiritual matters formed when awake.

Let us also remind ourselves of the statement, 'The living are the granaries and libraries of the dead'. The departed souls need nourishment and sustenance which can be provided by the living. If it is not forthcoming the dead suffer a feeling of rejection or starvation and are unable to play their part in the world.

How the Dead Influence the Living

It was stated earlier that the relationship between the living and the dead is a two-way process. Let us therefore now consider what influence the dead have on the living.

Owing to the development of our materialistic culture it is now much more difficult to make contact than it was in former times. In the earlier periods already mentioned, when men had spiritual vision, it is obvious that direct intercommunication was possible. Now the spiritual doorways, that is to say, the receptive minds, are not so numerous. Let us remind ourselves again that the dead retain a vital interest in matters of the Earth and wish to make contact with the living. Having lived their life on Earth, souls enter the spiritual world again with a certain experience and maturity. Often they are still full of unexpended forces and ideals. They wish to make a contribution but no longer can they work directly in the earthly sphere. Now the impulse must be transmitted through other people.

It is a case of those on Earth developing receptive minds into which the dead can implant ideas.

In this connection the moments of sleeping and waking are important. These are the moments of greatest possible contact. Those ideas that come to us on waking can be direct inspirations from the beings of the higher Hierarchies — but they can also be from the dead. Perhaps we have been confronted by some problem, in particular some decision concerning ourselves. We take the problem with us into sleep. In the morning we wake up with an idea. There may not be an obvious connection, yet the idea may still be the answer, even if it is not immediately recognizable. Sometimes the answer may not come at once but several days later. The important thing is to be careful about the moment of falling asleep. The questions must be imbued with feeling and will, and the relationship must be one of heart and inner interest. One reminds oneself of the impression of the person who is being addressed.

In the forming of the thought or the question a certain technique is also essential. That is, as far as possible, verbs should be used — the activities of objects must be characterized. Nouns are not understood.

Thus one of the ways in which the dead influence the living is by giving them ideas.

There is a special relationship where children are concerned. When parents die before their life is fulfilled, leaving children, their souls hover around the children, conveying desires and hopes. In one sense, that is, of course, a source of inspiration.

It happens sometimes that accidents and tragedies are avoided by some means not immediately appreciated. These are cases of what is sometimes termed 'divine intervention'. Through some trivial incident a person misses a train and the train crashes. It appears accidental and, at the time, annoying, but it could be direct intervention from the other side. Rudolf Steiner cites a particular case. A man was in the habit of standing on his balcony for a while at a certain time of the day. One morning, instead of standing in his usual place, he moved a few yards away and a rock fell on the spot where he normally stood. (This should not be construed, however, that every time something of this nature happens the case is necessarily the same.)

Besides intervention of this sort there are often cases where some sort of a presence is felt. This may be an individual feeling but it can also be experienced in groups, particularly if people are holding serious converse about spiritual matters. This may well be a reality for the simple reason that such conversations would attract the departed, and their presence, although unseen, pervades the immediate surroundings. In this sense then, the dead create an 'atmosphere' for a community.

Another important connection concerns the line of heredity. If one accepts the world of the dead as the spiritual world and also the idea of reincarnation, then the dead are not only those who have just departed but also those about to be born. The unborn souls have an influence on the parents. It is one of the most significant facts of relationship but also one which is most difficult to understand, at least in all its implications.

When an individuality is to reincarnate, it needs a certain environment. It needs parents who can supply certain qualities; it needs a suitable physical body. The incarnating spiritual entity and the body must in some measure be in harmony and obviously one line of heredity will provide different characteristics from another. The incarnating being, therefore, seeks to draw people together whose qualities are essential for itself and it hovers until its requirements are approximately met. There can never be complete harmony. Were this limited to the actual parents, it would not be too difficult to comprehend. But the individual soul has a long journey to make, and hundreds of years before it actually returns to Earth it begins to seek out its line of ancestry, that is, to influence people to come together to form this particular line of descent. Thus impulses uniting parents come from individualities wishing to incarnate. The factors which draw men and women together are not necessarily of their own making.

We can see here how characteristics are inherited. Children inherit traits from their parents but only because they have sought out the parentage that could give them these.

It is possible that with population control, abortion and other disturbing factors, these arrangements fail and chaos ensues. An individuality may be prevented from entering the chosen vehicle at the right moment and then, as it were, choose the next best.

The result might be to be born at the wrong time, in a wrong nation and among the wrong people. This means a terrific striving towards adjustment on Earth and may well be a contributory cause of modern unrest.

These then are the ways in which the dead work into the world of the living:

  1. Implanting ideas.
  2. Direct intervention.
  3. Creating 'atmosphere'.
  4. Influencing the line of descent.

It must be repeated that their influence can only become effective if the living cultivate awareness. The dead can only work indirectly into the physical world. The dead are more experienced and more mature and see things in a more comprehensive setting. They are, therefore, a tremendous potential of good influence, but the living must be active and receptive and cultivate a special attitude in order to receive inspirations. In a general sense a positive frame of mind is always helpful. The more the living improve their awareness and moral stature, the greater their receptivity. The soul becomes a finer instrument by practising such virtues as thankfulness, sympathy and sociability.

The Path of Knowledge to Spiritual Awareness

The ability to penetrate into spiritual worlds is not generally possessed by modern man. It can, however, be acquired, and detailed instructions are given by Rudolf Steiner. In his Book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. How is it Achieved?, he speaks of dormant faculties within every human being which, when awakened, lead to perception of higher worlds. It is a matter of self-development. In actual fact the recommendations given for developing the organs of spiritual perception are the same as those for cultivating receptivity to the dead. Special exercises are suggested and the reader should refer to the book for details. Here a few matters of a more general nature may be emphasized.

Attitude is important. Gratitude has already been mentioned but we also have to have the ability to be grateful even for reverses or for blows of fate. These enrich our experience. Another essential is to keep an open mind, for only by having an open mind do we learn. A third asset is to be able to appreciate the laws of karma, i.e. to understand that, although we are units in the world, we are also connected with everything and everybody. We affect everything and are affected by everything. We are responsible. In a certain sense we live at the expense of others and we should be able to transpose ourselves into the situations of other people, into their thoughts and actions.

Furthermore, it is important to foster a feeling of unity with the world. Through our physical organism we are related to the physical world; through our etheric body we are related to the plant; through our astral body to the animal; through our higher members to the Gods. Man is the microcosm within the macrocosm and is related to all things. All things are related to one another and nothing is complete without the other.

Confidence in life is another required attribute. That means having or finding the ability to face life's problems, to accept that there are difficulties but to go forward in the sure conviction that there is a goal.

To this could be added joy in new experience. Every new experience that is a joy has a rejuvenating effect. In education in particular there is the possibility of fostering this feeling, or otherwise. A dry, intellectual education has a stifling effect. If the mind is fed with a preponderance of materialistic concepts, the imagination is suffocated and, as the years advance, a mental arterio-sclerosis accompanies the physical one. Thus it may be that the dead can no longer inspire people of mature years as they have grown too far away from the spiritual and have little remaining capacity for helping themselves. Capacities which may have been apparent in younger years are undeveloped and the promise of youth is not fulfilled. However, at any age it cannot be ruled that one is too old to learn.

To achieve conscious spiritual awareness is perhaps too remote an ambition at the moment but we can take steps along the path and, in the meantime, can foster relationships with the dead according to our knowledge and ability.

Page top | Chapter 6

Rudolf Steiner. An Introduction to his Spiritual World-View, Anthroposophy. © Roy Wilkinson 1998