Episode 4: Death and the Afterlife

I think death is an interesting subject, because it’s incredibly complex, and it’s one of the things in my life that I really can’t say I have full faith in. I don’t 100% believe in an Afterlife – more like 85%. 85% is enough to keep me saying I believe in it, though, and keep talking like I do.

Here’s what I believe happens.
Step one: the physical body dies. Upon dying, all of the souls exit the body, and are greeted by a psychopomp (guide for the dead) – I personally believe that I would be met by Wepwawet, and that He would meet many people, being Opener of the Ways, but I do believe it’s possible that any number of deities or spirits could take this role. This spirit or deity will sit with the deceased for a time and give them a ‘Your Life In Review’ tour, allowing them to understand things they couldn’t in life, and to get a wider perspective on what they did and what was done to them than mortal vision allows. This is a part of a 70-day ‘journey’, culminating in the trial of the Weighing of the Heart.

In the Weighing of the Heart, the deceased’s life is judged and weighed against the feather of Ma’at. That phrase is kind of ambiguous, in my opinion. Ma’at is a principle of universal justice and accountability, which I’ll get to in a few episodes – but what would it mean to have your life weighed against it? In my understanding, it means to have your life measured for what you did, but also for your intent in all actions, and for remorse for the hurtful things. It’s far more complicated than a simple checklist of pros and cons. It isn’t the “Weighing of the Laundry List of Things Person X Has Done”, but the Weighing of the Heart. I firmly believe that even the most wicked living person can pass this judgment and be justified if, during that 70-day period, they found remorse or understanding that was not available in life.

It’s hard to say exactly what things will cause one to fail the Weighing of the Heart. Keeping with Ma’at, however, and living a just life are pretty good ways to pass. How to keep with Ma’at is another kind of complicated topic but effectively: being kind, compassionate, merciful and just, while taking responsibility for your own actions and the consequences thereof will bring you to a pleasant judgment. There’s a set of 42 purifications that get tossed around as the precursor to the 10 commandments, though while they’re similar in nature they’re intended for a different audience – but they DO give a good picture of what was believed to be just and right in antiquity.

Upon passing judgment, the many parts of the soul disband, I believe. (This is where literature gets really weird, since different things were believed in antiquity – here’s a heavy dose of What Sobeq Believes.) The Ka – the soul that carries our actions, our personality, our family, everything about this life – separates, and becomes an Akh, residing in the Beautiful West with the rest of the dead. It’s a lot like this world, only without a physical body. You work, you rest, you watch out for your living relatives. The Akhu (plural of Akh) hear us honoring them, and do help us out when they can. We can pray to them, and they’ll either personally help us, or get another Akh to help. The Ba – the fundamental part of who we are, which carries most of our power and the very deepest parts of our identity – goes forth into the Unseen, to dwell with the gods, to reincarnate, to hang out in the Beautiful West – who knows. The Ba is the part I’m a little shaky on – it’s in that 15% that I’m really not so certain about, heh.

But what if the deceased fails judgment? They are given over to Ammit, the Soul-Swallower, and they cease to exist. All that they were is devoured, purged from existence. Personally, I believe this means that even the memories of their existence are erased – that any trace of their life is taken away from reality. This is because I believe that the only way to really fail the Weighing of the Heart is to have absolutely no remorse for anything. To rape, kill, steal and believe it is honestly a just and right thing – without finding any remorse on the 70-day journey. People like this  are people the Universe can be purged of. Think of the worst person you can think of. THAT person would probably have passed the Weighing of the Heart (or they’re hanging around as an angry muuet [ghost] but hey, that’s fairly unusual) – because in dying, a lot of things change.

It is the Akhu that we honor when venerating our ancestors; the parts of our beloved dead that live on in the Beautiful West. In a way, I believe that these acts of veneration are food for our ancestors. We give them love, small amounts of food and cool water, and they in return are nourished by our attention and are well in the afterlife. I don’t think that ancestor veneration always needs to be done specifically; I think that respecting your dead and speaking about family who are no longer living with living family members is how most people will participate in ancestor veneration, having not been raised in a tradition where it is considered appropriate. Sharing stories and family history brings the names and lives of the dead in to the hearts of the living, and speaking their names will feed them too. To completely ignore one’s ancestors and one’s history is to starve them, though. Respect and love will keep them well-fed in the Beautiful West.

That’s kind of a really quick glossing over of death, but it’s a good start. The Ancient Egyptians did a lot with death, I think – they weren’t DEATH OBSESSED like some people think, but they did have a pretty good perspective, so there’s a lot to say about it. I’ll save it for later, though, since this episode has become a bit of a wall o’ text.

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