Lament of the Dead

The mystery of life begins in death, for if death did not exist, think of all of the things that we would not struggle with and all of the questions we would not have much reason to ask. Imagine too the security and peace we might know without sickness, murder, pain and suffering that comes from both disease and the knowledge of our own death. What would be the reason for curiosity, for love, for needing each other if life was so easy that we could not err or cause harm?

It may well be that an existence that excluded death would be better, more peaceful and ideal. But that is not the world we live in. Perhaps the reason for things to be as they are is because the dayworld of the living that we know is necessary to create something greater than can be seen here. Maybe our purpose here is to use the seemingly separate and mortal lives we each live to bridge a gap between the dayworld of mortality and a world of eternity that we also belong to. Admittedly this is all very speculative.

But doesn’t death need to be wondered about? Isn’t it the primary and essential problem of life? Does not death cause us to err, to struggle and live in fear? Doesn’t it also serve as the weapon of power for those that can garner the most security through technology, political and religious structures, serving as an insulation for an elite group of people who no longer share our common fears? Do not some people use death to threaten weaker beings?

And if that is not convincing enough and you are still reading this, how do we reconcile the angst and guilt we share and witness in the killing necessary for life to sustain itself? But don’t we also sense that there is more to life than what we know and perhaps the mystery of our existence can somehow be reconciled, and so every culture has carried on the search for that reconciliation.

These are some of the thoughts I have about death, along with the question not only of is there life after, or beyond death, but what would the nature of that afterlife be like, how does it relate to this life? Does the reconciliation between birth and death come from knowing that the nature of life is eternal, but through birth we, as Greek, Hindu and other mythologies tell us, forget about the eternal world?

Although we moderns don’t seem to easily discuss the nature of death, I believe its inevitability shades our life – remaining a constant unseen companion we fear if we do not acknowledge that we walk on our own graves. Even though the dead may depart from our dayworld they continue to haunt us when their questions, their sufferings go unacknowledged as belonging to all of us throughout history, our shared past. We live in the shadow of their unanswered questions when they’re connection to us is forgotten.

Many cultures have had a practice of ancestor worship, a way to keep a thread of continuity from those who came before us to those who will carry on after us.

In Lament of the Dead, Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, James Hillman teams up with Sonu Shamdasani, editor of C.G. Jung’s Red Book, for a series of conversations about the book in which Jung chronicles a psychotic period of his life from 1913-17. During that time he experienced visions and a flood of images that became the foundation for most of the ideas he is known for; archetypes, active imagination, typology, theories of the unconscious, individuation and wholeness.


I have not read the Red Book yet, but from reading Hillman and Shamdasani’s dialogue now feel compelled to. The dialogue revolves around Jung’s experience of encountering figures through active imagination and grappling with their questions.

Sonu says:

“What Jung hits upon is a stream of images and he encounters collective memory and fantasy. It’s not personal memory. There is a mnemonic dimension there, but he finds that what is animated, what is critical there, is collective memory. He finds himself having to address debates such as that between the Christian and the pagan and to see then how that reframes his own life. It’s not that his life is subtracted out of it, but the realia, the personalia of his life, isn’t the fundament. It’s the images that frame him.”

Jung came to believe that the figures he engaged in active imagination were not just inside him, but part of the ongoing dialogue taking place in the history of humankind. Sonu suggests:

“A shift occurs immediately when you stop thinking of Jung’s work in terms of the imperative to come to terms with the collective unconscious. If you shift from that language to the confrontation with the dead, accepting the lament of the dead, one’s understanding changes dramatically in that one enters a world and the problems one takes up and is confronted with are not one’s own.

And the issue then is how one adapts oneself, how one situates oneself, to these challenges. One is not dealing simply with an abstraction, the collective unconscious. One is dealing quite specifically with the dead of human history.”

The conversation moves on to the need for cosmology in our lives. Hillman is speaking here:

“Psychology may give you modes of understanding and you think you’re understanding yourself and others. But if you want to understand the world, you have to have a cosmology, you have to have a sense that things fit, that they belong, that there’s a need, a place to be given to it, and that there’s more and more to grasp. It’s the cosmos, and the Greek cosmos was an ordered and aesthetic realm.”

Cosmology moves us beyond our personal lives, although it also includes them, and it also includes the ancestors, their cares and concerns acknowledging the work they did carrying forward our understanding of life and the world we share. It invites us all to share in the continuance and importance of that quest.

When we can find a satisfying way to reconcile the mystery of our living with our dying; a cosmology that gives us enough meaning and sense that perhaps gives us a willingness to endure suffering, by knowing the true nature of ourselves, we may find a way to live in peace with a feeling that we belong here.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Hillman, who laments as I do, the problem we moderns have:

“We’re a very strange culture, our modern, secular Western culture, in which our conversation, yours and mine, is set. We don’t have any ancestor worship, we don’t have any true cult of the dead. Different pieces of the culture do pieces of things, but even the use of the phrase “the dead” is hounded with frightening things— it belongs on the other side. There’s a radical separation in our modern culture between the living and the dead. All the medical work is life against death, to hold off death and prolong life, and at the expense of death, I would say.

So when we talk about the lament of the dead, or anything to do with the dead, we have to realize where we are situated, with its deep, historical prejudices against what has been and what is buried, and what we have done to create a realm of the dead, because it’s not merely those who went before us and died. It’s all the depository of the accumulation of human psychic history, the history of the soul. Somehow, since Jung talks about a lament of the dead, they must feel or have felt abused or neglected or something. The first step would be listening to them, which he did in the Seven Sermons of 1916, this sort of inspired religious document. But what is their lament?”

Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book (Kindle Locations 2237-2238). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

31 thoughts on “Lament of the Dead

  1. Thought provoking – I had to read this twice, and I’m sure more thoughts will come later. For now – you mention “the pain and suffering that comes with knowledge of our own death” and that it may be the “primary and essential problem of life.” From a professional standpoint – working with loss & bereavement, and for many years with hospice – once someone accepts death, they can get on with their life. From a personal standpoint, which actually came from spiritual growth because of my professional work – I have seen many things that cannot be explained that remove the “fear” you speak of that is common for so many people. Birth – coming through the birth canal – seems like the same experience people have described in Near Death Experiences – going through a tunnel toward a bright light. Perhaps one and the same??? As Kahlil Gibran so eloquently says, “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?” I see it as a beautiful release, a liberation, an expanding. [ As an aside: I just bought the Fall 2013 “Lapham’s Quarterly” on Death; once I am able to finish it’s 200+ pages, I may have more to offer on this topic.]


    1. Thank you Theresa for sharing those insights here. Isn’t it curious that it sometimes takes an official diagnosis of a terminal illness for us to accept death?
      I work at a monastery where one of the monks said to me once, “walk with death daily.”
      Reading a lot of personal stories about Near-Death experiences is quite convincing to me that death is not what we think it is, and that it cannot be fully imagined here.
      Please feel free to share here, or I’ll look for your thoughts on your current reading at your blog.


      1. Thank you, Debra. You will find several stories under the category “They Touched My Heart.” Many are from hospitals, from my work there in trauma and the ER. (“Wounded Hearts,” “Of Hospitals, Loss & Love” and “The Last Good-bye” to start.)


  2. Erik Andrulis

    “When we can find a satisfying way to reconcile the mystery of our living with our dying; a cosmology that gives us enough meaning and sense that perhaps gives us a willingness to endure suffering, by knowing the true nature of ourselves, we may find a way to live in peace with a feeling that we belong here.”

    Indeed. When I knew that I was every person alive, that mystery disappeared. And when I knew that I was every person who had ever died, that one did, too.

    But convincing Myself – all the poets, artists, authors, scientists, philosophers, and regular folks that I am – that there is only one I…now that’s a bit of a challenge.

    For if I were able to wake Myself up, well then, then I would know Myself for the first time all over again.

    Good post and glad to see your posts are getting more attention. Well deserved!

    Peace, Ik


    1. Thank you Ik. I am working this out as you might sense from my recent writings.
      It’s a tough pill to swallow and one that I think is scary as we are more or less attached to that very personal sense of our embodied, historical selves. Until recently, I never considered the possibility that both the personal sense of me and the universal sense of I could both be true. I am now considering that.


      1. Erik Andrulis

        Heh, I sense and know that attachment. If a dumb guy from LI like me can get it, a smart lady from LI like me can, too!

        Peace, Ik


      2. Aw shucks Ik, that’s a very huge compliment coming from someone I think is incredibly smart, even if you are a dumb guy from LI. Someone’s gotta be from LI! 🙂


  3. Thank you for introducing this complex topic for contemplation and discussion, I first read your post yesterday but needed some time before commenting. It is very interesting that as we live longer and increase in population, the West becomes more and more removed from dying. Lack of family structures, increased mobility, lack of transition rituals from birth to adolescence and so on, and less exposure to death all impact this separation. One exception is the acceptance of home hospice care. Have you seen the film Zardoz? It features a future society where people cannot die and it is quite fascinating. How would we live if there was no exit? Would fear be eliminated or replaced with a new brand of fear?

    thank you Debra for making me think 🙂


    1. Thanks Linda! It is complex, and I feel the confusion and conflict as much as anyone. I think that is why I write about it and read to make sense of what feels like a very unstable, yet comfortable existence.
      Good question, “How would we live life if there were no exit?”
      Have not seen Zardoz. I’ll look for it though. I would guess that if we could not die, we’d be more prone to doing evil, but it’s hard to say because I can only think of it in terms of the world we know now.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here and now giving me something to think about!
      Totally unrelated, but have you seen The Impossible? I just watched it the other night and am still absorbing just how moving the movie was. It is based on a true story of a family that is vacationing in Thailand during the Tsunami. The movie is very imagistic, amazingly produced and shows an immense amount of suffering but alongside some very touching moments of love and compassion.


      1. now you just gave me mooore to consider, regarding if we would be more prone towards evil actions.

        I have not seen the movie, but have wanted to because it is based on a true story. I have waited because such films effect me very deeply and I have to be ready to absorb such a tragic reenactment.


      2. Yes, I am like that too with movies, very picky and very sensitive. I despise gratuitous violence.
        The movie is intense, but nothing about it was gross for the sake of being gross as many movies today are.
        I cried watching it, but the scenes that made me emotional were compassionate ones, ones in which people genuinely do the most amazing things in the most trying of circumstances.
        I will probably watch it again and maybe write about it.
        I also enjoyed Life of Pi, but that movie was much more intense and hard to watch at times, but I appreciated the underlying message and it also grapples with the difficult issues in life, especially the reality of life feeding on other life for survival.


      3. I recently saw Life of Pi and did not watch intently, When it was near the end and I realized that the story was metaphorical, I began to feel horrified. It was an amazing story, but I prefer to get my lessons more subtly. 🙂


      4. Yes, good way to put it! It was hard to watch, but again, it brings up that oh so difficult subject of death.
        I remember as a child my dad telling me he had to kill a chicken because that’s what people did back then. I was horrified! Maybe that explains why it is very easy for me to eat a vegan diet?


      5. I recently saw Life of Pi and did not watch intently, When it was near the end and I realized that the story was metaphorical, I began to feel horrified. It was an amazing story, but I prefer to get my lessons more subtly. 🙂


  4. Don

    I’ve often wondered to what extent we in the West have placed so much emphasis on the concept of our individual separateness and our disconnectedness with everything around us ( a kind of a superior unattached observer in everything) that we find it hard to grasp or create a cosmology that will give to us a sense of oneness, completeness and meaning in life. How much of our angst has come out of this difficulty?


    1. Yes, so true Don! A great topic to pursue all by itself. Perhaps, jealousy, envy and the feeling that I am not complete is amplified by intensifying the feeling of separation and that is just as much of a burden as our mortality.
      Thank you for sharing that here!


  5. Great post! This fear of death and refusal to look at it head on does seem so very problematic in our culture. Your description of our modern way of viewing death definitely rings a bell with me. It has been interesting that as I have been trying to reestablish a connection to intuition and imagination – through dream work and work with folk tales, learning tarot, etc. that death has become less scary – it seems more natural, more necessary, even….good at times. I find that very interesting. Your post raises some really great questions that we all need to be thinking about. Thank you!


    1. Oh, that would be a bit creepy eh? I think you and I made the connection awhile back, yes? I thought we both shared a Long Island, NY connection.
      Anna was my great, great aunt Bunny.
      Btw, I was born in 1958 🙂


  6. Outstanding post. I agree with you that the inevitable end of our earthly existence is the overarching, but often unsaid, subject of our existence. You raise very interesting points about the modern and post-modern West. I believe part of that is attributable to the fact that we have been so successful in pushing death to the margins. Until the last 100 years, death was part of daily existence. There was high childhood mortality, diseases and overall lack of modern health care. It was rare for someone to live to an old age and so they were often revered both during their life and after. Today, we push the elderly into nursing homes.

    You provide a lot of reflect on, as well as some great resources to dive into!


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