Fear of death? Not at all – I’ve had my life

By Günther Dellbrügger, November 2012

People’s view of birth and death in the course of history clearly reflects their basic attitude to life. Throughout their development, human beings have increasingly lost their connection with the hereafter – to the extent of completely losing the spiritual dimension.

© Sven Jungtow

A reversal seems to be underway these days. The thought of continuing life after death is increasingly being taken for granted by more and more people. Adding the idea of pre-existence (life before birth) to the thought of continued life after death is an important cultural impulse of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education. The gates of birth and death are beginning to open again. The life of human beings can be experienced like a comet: appearing out of invisibility, it remains visible for a while before disappearing from view again. If I look at the child or adolescent with such eyes, I encounter him or her with the quiet question: “Where do you come from? Where are you going?”. From that the task arises to assist the young person to realise his or her intentions, what he or she wishes to make manifest between birth and death – whatever it may be. What do we mean by “birth and death” when viewed from such a broad perspective? 

Physical birth and death

In Grimm’s fairy tale “Godfather Death”, death appears as the helper of human beings. In a poor, suffering family, he becomes godfather to a thirteenth child that is born. As the child grows up, his godfather gives him his real godparent’s gift, a medicinal herb which will make him a world-famous doctor. Death explains to the boy: when, as a doctor, he gets called to the bedside of a sick person, he, Death, will also be present. If Death stands at the head of the patient, he can use the herb to heal him, but if Death stands at the patient’s feet, all help is in vain. And it works! The youth becomes a world- famous doctor.

Here we have an image of the fact that two basic processes exist in human beings at the same time and work together. In the head and the senses it is the death processes which predominate, enabling perception and consciousness, alert thinking. That is where death is in the right place! But if these processes predominate in the metabolic organs and limbs, they lead to the death of the person.

Physiologists even refer to a “healthy death”! Because even in the life of the individual cells which make up our organs, muscles and the whole organism, death is our helper. Physiologists speak of “apoptosis”, “programmed cell death” (Holt­mann), without which we could not exist. The orderly death of cells allows the organism to get rid of defective or simply surplus cells. An adult has 25,000,000,000,000 red blood cells. But he or she forms 160,000,000 new ones in the bone marrow each minute! If we did not remove the same number of red blood cells we would burst. Apoptosis turns out to be a life-giving process: the dying cells are taken in by the organism, digested and thereby made harmless. In contrast to apoptosis, the “good death” (Novalis: “You are death, who at last makes us well”), physiologists refer to necrosis as a pathological form of cell death. It is caused when cells are injured. The cells swell and rupture, harmful substances are released, cannot be digested, lead to inflammatory processes and damage the organism. We can see: at the physical level there are productive and destructive processes of mortality.

Images of life and death

If we move to the level of soul and spirit, we find something completely different. Here there are no constants such as are at work in every human organism but there is constant transformation. Let us take some examples from cultural history to illustrate how people in earlier cultures thought and felt about birth, life and death.

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita, a famous Indian scripture, has been passed down from ancient human civilisation. In the wise language of its verses, it says about birth and death that they are only transitions, that the human being exists before birth and continues to live beyond death. The writer of the Bhagavad Gita puts his experience into the following image: “Just as a person will throw away his old clothes and take a different set of new ones, so what is incarnated in the body throws off its worn coverings and enters other new ones.” In contrast to our fear of and taboo about death today, these words reflect great serenity and calmness. What does it matter if my clothes are worn, my body used up and dying. As a human being I am eternal and continue on my journey. We find expressed here that human beings know about physical mortality and can at the same time be assured for their spiritual immortality.

Egyptian Book of the Dead

In Egyptian culture, life is experienced as a gift of the sun god traversing the sky from morning to evening, dying at night and arising again in the morning. From this mythical view of the world the unity of life and death was experienced in the real symbol of the sun. But in and after death the weakening human consciousness requires help and support. That is the reason for the mummification of the dead. The deceased soul was to awaken using its body like a mirror to experience itself as a self without a body. The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the path of the soul after death in the form of images. Many images present the start of this path as the heart of the just deceased person being placed by higher beings on a set of scales. Whether it has the correct weight, the correct inner value, decides on the path of the human soul after death. For the Egyptian, the human heart is weighted in death.


In the Greek period at the time of Homer (eighth century BC), it becomes clear that human beings feel increasingly isolated from the divine world. In other words, paths of initiation are required to obtain the right to enter the divine world. One such path of initiation is the Odyssey. An initiation process is hidden behind the description of an external journey. Odysseus already had a death experience during life. Book 11 of the Odyssey describes his journey to the realm of the dead. The light of the spirit appears to have been extinguished there. The souls experience themselves as shades and are aware of the wraith-like nature of existence after death. When Odysseus tries to comfort Achilles, the great hero on earth, the latter responds: “Don’t comfort me by praising death, glorious Odysseus. I would rather serve another wretched man with few possessions as a day labourer than be ruler here of all the deceased souls.”

The gradually strengthening ties with the earth deprived the soul of its inborn light of divine origin. Life after death became increasingly unsubstantial, without joy or fulfilment. Tellingly, it is the blind seer Tiresias who can see among the dead and shines through his own spirituality! He is depicted with a golden staff, an image of divinely filled power of the self: Persephone granted him reason even in death. He alone thinks, the others are vague shadows. The seer Ti­resias participated in the light which could only any longer be reached through the old mysteries. The new mystery is the incarnation of Christ and his victory over death.

The time of Christ

The mystery of Golgotha lies before all religion, including the Christian religion. It is a deed of light for human beings, for humanity. A stream has flowed out of this new life from which the different Christian religions and confessions have formed, but which has also mysteriously changed and transformed already existing religions.

Rudolf Steiner did not tire of referring to this archetypal event in human history as the fact which preceded all confessions and which opened a completely new chapter in human history in the book of “life and death”.

Middle Ages

A good thousand years ago, at the time of the early Middle Ages, people speak about “tame death” which is anticipated in a mixture of resignation and mystical trust. The ideal way to die is the calm expectation of death in a ritual which is led by the dying person himself as a public ceremony. The resting places of the dead are integrated into everyday life, the living and dead coexist. Death is part of life and is practiced as “ars moriendi” (the art of dying).

The beginnings of a new perspective

This historical overview of the changing attitudes of people to life and death can stimulate us to discover our own attitude in a more conscious way and to live in a time in which everything is possible but nothing comes by itself any longer either. We cannot get past the fact of death, the only question is how we react to it as human beings. Life and death are the basic givens of our humanity. And yet we have great difficulty in defining them in concrete terms. Does life start with conception or birth, the first breath? And does life end with death? Conclusively? With nothing to follow? Or does it continue, just in a different way?

In stark contrast to the Middle Ages, the depersonalisation of death in hospitals (birth, too, is treated increasingly as a disease), the passivity of the dying person and the divestment of the deceased from society has become the rule in the twentieth century. A growing counter-impulse has developed in the hospice movement which has established facilities – including day-patient ones – in which ill and dying people are enabled to have a life in dignity to the end. Here the view is not just of the body of the human being but of the whole human being who is respected as an individual. Patients are treated by the nurses with respect, warmth and interest. That inner attitude to care is expressed in the principle formulated by the founder of the modern hospice movement, Cicely Saun­ders: “You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.“

Related in spirit, palliative medicine has developed in recent decades which applies individually adapted pain therapy (from Latin palliare, to cloak). Such therapy allows the patient to cope better with pain and thus to gain some inner space. A pioneer of palliative medicine in Germany is Gian Domenico Borasio who holds the view that people are well equipped by nature for the processes of birth and death. That is why we should disrupt these processes as little as possible but instead help everyone to find their individual path in them. Cicely Saunders called the first home she founded for dying people in 1967 “St Christopher’s Hospice” after the legend of the soldier Offerus who becomes Christ-Offerus, the bearer of Christ. The name expresses that she understood her own work to be in the service of the Christ impulse.

The spirit of the Waldorf school

In the same sense Rudolf Steiner referred to the “spirit of Christianity”, indeed, the “spirit of Christ” which he hoped would live in all education. He founded the Waldorf school for the future ideals of all humanity. Steiner put it in the following words at the end of the first school year of the Stuttgart Waldorf school:

“There is something else I would like to say today ... It is what I would like to call the spirit of the Waldorf school! It should educate to produce true devoutness. It is basically the spirit of Christianity which blows through our rooms, which, starting from each teacher, goes towards each child. This spirit is infused with love, with true human kindness.”

These words are couched in language unusual for today and yet they contain a new perspective and a new contribution to humanity’s eternal question about life and death. They clearly express a hope which people today all over the world and in diverse cultures bear within themselves: that life and all of civilisation might be carried and formed in a new way by the great human and, in an interdenominational sense, Christian ideals. Out of this spirit Rudolf Steiner, in the above address, thanked the pupils (!) “in the name of the spirit of humanity which we try to cultivate in our whole spiritual movement”. He expressed gratitude for everything “you have achieved for the future ideals of humanity”.

Life and death, birth and dying, appear in a new light with such thoughts. Saint-Exupéry expressed it in his own way like this: “‘Are you afraid of death,’ the little prince asked the rose. ‘But of course not,’ she answered. I’ve had my life , I have flowered and used my vigour to the best of my ability. And love, given freely a thousandfold, returns to the one who gave it. So I will wait for a new life and die without fear or despondency.’”

About the author: Dr. Günther Dellbrügger is a priest of the Christian Community in Munich. He offers seminars on the subject “Do we have words for our dead? – Our relationship with death and the deceased” together with the biographical counsellor Gabriele Endlich. Dates: 25-27.01.2013, 01-03.11.2013, 31.01-02.02.2014; www.HausFreudenberg.de, Tel. +49 (0)81 51/1 23 79