Death of the physical body

From Anthroposophy

This topic page covers the process of physical death and the end of the the life process, and the various aspects such as how the soul experiences this, what happens with the physical body, and the consequences of the different types and causes of death.


  • the corpse after death
    • differences between cremation or decomposition through burial: net effect is the same, differences are in speed and the elements (cremation: fire and air, burial: earth and water)
    • relation between our incarnate I-consciousness and disintegrating corpse (1918-04-09-GA181)
    • the human dust and how it is animated and processed by the etheric forces of the Sun ("quite different of how it animates anything else, either mineral, vegetable or animal dust") (1918-04-16-GA181)
  • Experience of the soul through death of physical body
  • Impact of the cause of death on the process of physical death and how it is experienced
    • Example violent physical death (eg bullet), early death, .. related: euthanasy
    • Note also in regression therapy, one asks 'through where' you left your physical body
  • Experience of the soul at the funeral
    • physical body of the deceased person is a major ritual event, both greeting the body in the funeranium and the funeral ceremony. RS comments on
      • How different types of ceremony are more or less fit, depending on the age of the deceased
      • How the soul of the deceased visits the funeral ceremony (eg Rittelmeyer)
  • The moment of death and the death horoscope (see KU GA174)
  • comparison of the process, experience, meaning of death in animal and human being


Lecture coverage and references


When human beings pass through the portal of death, they first have certain experiences. Their first experience is the feeling that they are growing larger or that they are growing out of their skin. This has the effect of the human being attaining another perception of things than was the case earlier in physical life. Everything in the physical world has its definite place — either here or there — outside the observer, but that is not so in this new world. There, it is as if the human being were inside the objects, extended with or within them, whereas earlier he or she was only a separate object in its own place.


is a lecture titled: 'Death in man, animal and plant'


Natural science of modern times has, as we know, brought man very close to the animal. But we have already declared that what really differentiates men from the animal in the real sense of the word, is not taken into consideration at all by this modern natural science. It draws our attention, for instance, to the forms of the bones in man and in the higher animals and finds a great resemblance between them: it finds a great resemblance in construction, in morphology in general. So far it is certainly right, but it makes no reference to the most important thing. This which I have already pointed out once this winter, and indeed in a public lecture, at first presents itself from such a point of view that one can say:

“He who with the necessary reverence and depth so approaches the observation of human life as to allow himself to be influenced by the great and important contrast between a man living physically here on the Earth and a human corpse, has set up a mystery before his soul in the impression of the contrast between the living man and a corpse.”

What cannot then fail to strike him first of all is that the corpse is claimed by the forces of external Earth-nature, to which it was not subject in the time between conception or birth up to death, and from which it was immune by virtue of the fact that the living soul-element was connected with this combination of substances which confronts us in the corpse.

Let us follow in thought what becomes of a corpse, whether disintegrated quickly by cremation or more slowly through decomposition (the two processes are exactly the same and only differ in rapidity). The substances combined materially in man will be dissolved in a more or less short space of time into the collective substance of our Earth; they pass over into it. Man can in fact follow with his ordinary senses and indeed with his ordinary thoughts all that becomes of the component parts of a corpse.

[relation between our incarnate I-consciousness and disintegrating corpse]

In this respect the spiritually-scientific investigator can go further. He can discover that what is present in the corpse immediately after death gradually passes over into an enormous realm of substance; this process is of course spread over centuries, but it passes into a great enormous realm of substance and dissolves, as it were, into the totality of our visible, outwardly perceptive world.

Now it is interesting to follow up the connection which exists between our I-consciousness here in physical life and this disintegrating corpse. Curiously enough the disintegrating corpse and the I-consciousness are connected in a certain respect. I say the I-consciousness: not of course the real, true I, for that passes of course through the portal of death and continues its life between death and rebirth. But what here in physical life floats before man is a picture of the I — for he has no consciousness of the I, only a picture of it in his consciousness — that is bound to the corpse, and indeed to that combination of substances which is dissolved into the universe after death.

The dissolution of the corpse into the Universe is nothing but the external picture of the collective Ego-consciousness; for in truth our Ego-consciousness belongs to the Universe into which our corpse is dissolved. The reason that between birth and death we maintain the opinion — a strange one for the occultist but a comprehensible and obvious one for ordinary man — that we are here, confined within the boundaries of our skin, is only because the substances in our body are held together between birth and death. It is also because of this cohesion that we believe ourselves to be in this content of space which we fill out with our flesh and blood. This is really absurd, we are not there at all. We are really everywhere; and between sleeping and waking we even try to be where the particles of matter and our body will be after death. Only between our birth and death does this Maya-consciousness come to us, of being within that content of space which is limited by our skin. But that is a Maya-consciousness which is produced in us. And death among many other things also disproves this Maya-consciousness concerning the physical material world. It leads the particles of our corpse where in reality our Ego-consciousness always dwells. This is already a very far-reaching concept.

But now you may ask: What is it then that when we are dead really carries our Ego-consciousness and its external image, the particles of substance of our body, out into the wide world? What forces are these?

There are three of these forces, which we can demonstrate somewhat in the following manner. One of these forces manifest during life in that in the very earliest time of our life we “crawl on all fours” and then we lift ourselves upright. While we are transforming ourselves from the crawling child to the man who walks upright, we are following a certain line of force, within which we place ourselves, and with which we identify ourselves. This line of force, from a spiritually-scientific point of view, is very clearly visible in man. From below runs a line which goes from the center of the Earth into the Universe. In olden times this was described simply by saying that a line goes from the center of the Earth into the Universe, which line differs for each human being, and differs indeed in each epoch, but always goes from the middle of the Earth into the Universe. That is one of the important lines of force in man. The way it works in our physical life only continues as long as this life, for the physical force of gravity of our body equalizes this force. The moment this physical force of gravity no longer works as it does in the living body, the moment the living body becomes a corpse, this line of force from the center of the Earth to the Universe discloses itself as that which chiefly pushes and caries our particles of matter. Of course they are always driven on further by their own weight; but if we were to follow up what becomes of them through a long period of time, we should find that they disburse in the direction of this force, even if this takes centuries to achieve.

The second force which here comes into consideration is one which chiefly comes to expression in human speech. We talk, or least we can talk. There is always a certain impulse in articulate speech. A certain centrifugal force lies in the air we breathe out when we speak. The spiritually-scientific investigator sees this force as slung round the first line. It has essentially a spiral form, twining around the vertical force. This force alters somewhat the pure force of repulsion; it brings it into play. Not only is this active, the third force must also be reckoned with, which proceeds from the following. Whereas speech develops a certain centrifugal force in an outward direction, thought, through which man is distinguished from the animal, works against this force which comes to expression and speech. This constitutes the third force. If we wished to draw at, we might do so in the following manner (see diagram). Through these three forces: the vertical force, the force working in speech and the force working in thought — the particles of a human corpse are slowly and gradually carried out in the Universe.


quote A

In the public lecture given yesterday, “The Human Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom,” I alluded among many other things to an idea which one may have concerning the life of the soul and which of course is in no sense hypothetical, but one which directly corresponds to the reality of the soul-life.

I call your attention to the fact that what forms the beginning and end of life in the animal world, and in a sense only comprises two moments: the entrance into physical life and the leaving it, conception and death, stands in such a relation to the animal life that one might say: animal life might be represented as a ladder, at the beginning of which there is conception, and at the end, death.

I called your attention to the fact that these two experiences really run through the whole soul-life of the human being; at every moment the soul-life of man gathers into a whole that which is experienced in the animal kingdom, whilst the Group-Soul — which really never quite descends onto the physical plane — is establishing a reciprocal relation with the physical being through conception. And something like a touch of I-consciousness appears in the animal at the single moment of death. I called your attention yesterday to the fact that one who is able to observe the death of animals can gain an idea of how in reality the I-consciousness, which runs through the whole life of man, is only present in the animal at the moment of passing out of life.

But the important thing is this: that the two moments, which in animal life are really only “two moments,” are gathered together into one, in a synthesis as it were, and go through human life in such a way that the human head, the peculiar kind of organization which I have described, can develop a continuous becoming-pregnant and dying, gently reminding one of the fact that this human soul-life continuously proceeds from the interweaving of conception and death. Such is the life of the human soul, and this gives rise to the justifiable thought of human immortality.

In addition I said: Every time that we have a thought, the thought is born of the will; and every time we will, the thought fades into the will. I said that Schopenhauer represented this in a very one-sided manner, for he represented the will alone as something real. He did not see that “will” is only one side of the matter, that in a certain sense it is simply dying thought, whereas the thought is the will being brought to birth. To describe as Schopenhauer does is like describing a human life only from the thirthy-fifth year to the end, whereas every man who reaches the age of 35 must have attained some other age before this, for the time from birth up to the 35th year must also be taken into account. Schopenhauer only depicts the will, he considers thought or the idea as an illusion. That however is only the other side of the question: the thought of the will which strives to be born; whereas the thought is the expiring will.

And through the fact that in our soul-life we have a continual interweaving of thought and will, we thus have birth, which refers back to conception (for perception is conception) — and death.

quote B

What does it mean to present-day science when men die, purely as physical beings?

No notice is taken of this by science. On the other hand sciences is constantly studying the dead because it cannot get at the living, but it takes no notice of the fact of dying. An example of this was given to me only yesterday. In the year 1889 Hammerling was temporarily entombed in Graz. Later on he was transferred to another vault. The gentleman who made the discovery told me only yesterday that during the transference of the body from the temporary vault, the skull disappeared. He investigated the matter and found out that in the University-Museum a plaster cast had been taken of the skull. The skull, wrapped in newspaper, had been left somewhere and was only restored to the rest of the body in its grave because the matter was then discovered.

Thus we concern ourselves with the death, but not with the fact of death. Yet this fact of death likewise leads to the perception of important things. I have already pointed to the fact, in one of my last lectures that this human dust takes quite a particular course. I pointed out that it really tries to take an upward path.

The dust that comes from human beings, unlike other dust, would be disbursed into the whole Cosmos — no matter whether the corpse is cremated or decays — were it not taken possession of by the power of the Sun, by the forces which are the Sun. In fact that force, which shines from the surface of a brilliant stone, or which we see in the colors of the plants, is only one of the Sun forces, it is that force which Julian the Apostate called the ‘visible sun.’ We also have the ‘invisible Sun’ which lies at the back of the visible one, as does the soul behind the outer physical human body. This force, which of course does not come down with streams of physical ether but only lives again in it, animates the human dust in quite a special way; quite distinct from the way it animates anything else, either mineral, vegetable or animal dust. A continuous interaction takes place after death between what remains of the purely external, physical man and the forces which streamed down from the Sun — they encounter each other. The forces which streamed down to act upon the human dust are indeed those forces which the dead man, now become a soul-and-spirit individuality, himself discovers after death. Whereas we, when we are incarnated in the physical body, see the physical Sun, the dead man, when he has passed through the gate of death, discovers the Sun first as the Cosmic Being Who animates human dust on the Earth below. This is one discovery among the many others which the dead man makes after death. He learns of the interweaving of the Sun-force, the spiritual Sun-force, and the human dust. When he learns to know this web composed of human dust and Sun-force, he first really becomes acquainted with the secret of reincarnation; seen from the other side, the next incarnation is being prepared and woven out of the Cosmos. Besides this he learns to know from the other side certain facts upon which the secret of reincarnation depends, and of which we will also speak in the near future.

This enables us to grasp the concept of how very different the ideas of the inner life of the human soul are when the soul has passed through the gate of death, as compared with the experiences which it has here. After death these are quite different in the whole configuration of the soul. Just as here on Earth we alternate between sleeping and waking, so does the dead man alternate between different states of consciousness. I have already called your attention to this in these lectures, but I will once more characterize it briefly from another point of view.

Among other things we live here in the inner thoughts of our soul. The dead man enters a world of reality. This reality consists of what to us are merely thoughts. Whereas in physical life we perceive the external, mineral, vegetable and animal worlds, and have our physical world besides, that of which we only experience the shadowy reflection in our thoughts is immediately present to the dead man when he has passed through the gate of death. The world he then enters really bears the same relation to the physical world as do objects to their shadows here. In our thoughts we have only the shadow of what the dead experience; but they experience it differently from the way we experience our thoughts. They learn something more concerning thoughts from what man on earth does, at least in our present-day epoch. For we usually dream in respects to our thoughts. But the dead man experiences that while he thinks, he lives in his thoughts as in realities; he grows, he expands, he flourishes; but to the extent to which she ceases to think and no longer lives in thought, he declines, becomes thinner and sparer. Even coming into being and passing away are, after death, connected with living in thought and living outside thought. If it were the case here that men who did not wish to thank became thinner, a remarkable world might be seen. But we only experience the ineffectual shadows of thought, which have no real results. The dead man experiences thoughts as realities; which neither nourish nor devour him in his existence as soul and spirit. The time in which the thoughts either nourish or devour him is at the same time that in which he develops his super-sensible life of perception. He sees how thoughts stream into him and pass out again. It is not such a perception as we have in our ordinary consciousness, where we have only finished perceptions; but a passing stream of thought life, which always connects itself with his own being. No matter how many things a human being on earth can see, yet, when he has seen everything, he is still exactly the same as before: except that afterwards he generally knows something of what he was before, but at least his organization has not altered to any considerable extent. With the dead man it is different; he sees himself in continuous interchange with that which he perceives. That is one of his conditions; the perception of the flowing-in and the continuous flowing-out of a living stream of thought. The other is that this ceases, and a quiet recollection of what has flowed through him comes about; an intense and far-reaching memory, not our abstract memory, but one connected with the whole of the Universe. These two conditions alternate. For that reason the dead are really only receptive to thoughts such as those brought to them from Spiritual Science, or from a spiritual point of view. The thought-organization usually possessed by men of today does not really reach the dead; and the kind of thought which does penetrate to the dead is not much appreciated by the men of today. They like thoughts which they can gather in some way from the outer world. But thoughts which we can only have by working upon them inwardly, which inwardly and spiritually have already a trace of that which thoughts have after death — this mobility and life is not liked by men. It is far too difficult for the men of today. Therefore they are nicely seated in their laboratory, and are able to have a microscope and to study the cells under the microscope, they can make the necessary incision with a knife; they can study the incision and are able to work out other observations in some way or other. They can then write remarkable books such as Oskar Hertwig's “Birth of Organisms.” But the moment they begin to think, they can write senseless books such as those of the present Oskar Hertwig. The only difference is that for such a book as his second one, even “thought corpses” would not have been necessary. For natural-scientific books, thought corpses are necessary; but for books like the second one, living thoughts would have been necessary, and these he has not got! It is necessary really to love such thoughts and to be able to live them.

The moment a man left behind on Earth wishes to build a bridge to the friend who has passed through the gate of death, with whom he is linked by karma, he needs at least a disposition of mind which inclines towards life of thought. If we have this disposition of mind our thoughts are really quite a considerable addition to the life of our dead friends, and make a great difference to the existence of those stand between death and rebirth. But if a vague feeling lives in men's souls about everything which the dead consider should be different on the Earth from what it is, the living have but little satisfaction in this thought. Such vague feelings exist; men fear that the opinion of the dead might prevail over much that men think, feel and do in physical life. They are not conscious of this fear; but it holds them chained to materialism. For the unconscious, though we may not be aware of it, is still active. With the courage of the thinker we must not only put soul into the conscious life of idea, but also into the profoundest depth of the human being. This must be said again and again, if Spiritual Science is to be taken in full earnest. The question is not that we should accept some sentence or other which someone or other finds interesting or important for himself, but that just as an organism moulds itself together out of many units, so all the units should form together in man a whole attitude of soul, which for our time can only be characterized from the most varied points of view, as I have attempted to do. It is absolutely necessary that there should be some people at the present day who know how to take Spiritual Science seriously from this point of view, realizing that it gives to our time and active, living thought-life; so that one person does not fall out with another when they are both really quite in agreement; that there is therefore no reason for us to adopt the tendency of crying out when someone says something about the horoscope. That is not looking at the matter properly.


You see, we must also take into consideration this second form of human interaction. We can say of it that it is more from the aspect of cognition. What we have considered so far, namely, the manner in which the human being brings about the threefold social organism, was more from the will aspect. Now we turn more to the cognitive side, and consider what kind of impressions arise when man's environment reacts in turn on him. Then, observation shows that the spiritual sphere reacts upon the human physical body, although only to a very slight degree in the present incarnation. To be sure, it can to some extent be noted that the human being, as he develops within a certain relationship to his environment, adopts something from his environment insofar as it is the cultural sphere. If a person grows up in an artistic atmosphere, one who is sensitive to this will note it in his physiognomy. A prosaic environment will, likewise, be noticeable. However, this is only a matter of a most delicate nuance of life.

For the most part, we can say that in regard to the way it is formed in this earth life, man's physical body-does not exhibit a strong influence from the spiritual environment. All the stronger is this influence in regard to the following earth lives. It is true that in our subsequent incarnations our physiognomy will bear the marked result of our spiritual environment in this life. The way we look today, the kind of physiognomy we now possess, is essentially due to the influence of the spiritual environment in which we spent our previous earth life. If one has a feeling for this — although this is possible, I might say, only in a certain general sense — one can, indeed, see in the face of a person the sort of environment in which he lived in previous earth lives. Certain discrepancies also arise from matters such as these which, at times, confront us quite emphatically in human life.

Imagine, let us say, that in regard to his former incarnation a person descends from a cultured family; he now grows up in an uncultured family. His face then bears that subtle nuance of life that I spoke of before, although, perhaps to a trifling degree. Perhaps, in his face, he strongly reveals what he brought over from his former earth life. Often, it is only in this context that one understands how it is possible that a crude fellow can sometimes have quite delicate features. The things in human life are related, indeed, in decidedly complicated ways.

Now we can say: Yes, but the human being does not take along his physical body into his next earth incarnation; after all, he discards it. This is true of the physical substance, but I should like to repeat what I said some time ago (drawing).

What you actually behold as the physical body in its form is not the physical organism of man; it is the form (see drawing). Into this form, matter is merely inserted. It is absorbed by the form. The form is something absolutely spiritual, and I refer to this form when I speak of the effect of the spiritual sphere upon the physical body. What is discarded are only the material particles that are built into the form. The form man possesses is not laid aside; on the contrary, it sends it effects into the next life, especially what is developed through the agility and nimbleness of the limbs, hands and arms, feet and legs. This comes to expression in the shape of the head in the next incarnation.

... (drawing)

The physical organism, then, decidedly bears its traces into the next earth life, carrying them into it in accordance with the provision of the cultural sphere that surrounds it in this life.

The rights sphere, on the other hand, reacts upon the etheric body (see drawing below). After death, while the physical body — its material substance, not the form — is delivered over to the earth, the etheric body is surrendered to the cosmos and dissolves into it. What is present and active as forces in it, however, is borne across into the next earth life, or at least affects it. Actually, however, through spiritual science we can know empirically that it does so only to a very slight degree. Whereas the form of the physical body powerfully transmits its effect into the next earth incarnation and, along with it, all that it has gained from the cultural sphere surrounding the physical body, what now comes from the rights sphere in the etheric body works, first of all, upon the cosmos. This is a most important discovery made by the science of initiation.

Further references

Maximilian Rebholz answers a question on the physical body after death in

Studienhefte für Anthroposophie – 3. Jg., Nr. 9 (Dez. 1949)

and with his answer gives the following references

1921-07-17 .. the archangels feed from the human form that continues to live in them

1916-02-16 .. the human substance transforms into warmth

1919-09-14 .. human substance is the animating and sustaining factor for the earth, without which it would have long since become numb.

GA181 lectures 11 and 12:

1918-04-09-GA181 .. human dust is experienced by the sun power

1918-04-16-GA181 .. human dust is spread in the cosmos through the powers of uprightness, speaking and thinking


Related pages

References and further reading