At the last moment, the whole life is reflected in our memory and emerges from all the forgotten nooks and corners picture after picture, one event after the other. The dying brain dislodges memory with a strong supreme impulse, and memory restores faithfully every impression entrusted to it during the period of the brain's activity. That impression and thought which was the strongest naturally becomes the most vivid and survives so to say all the rest which now vanish and disappear for ever, to reappear but in Deva Chan. No man dies insane or unconscious -- as some physiologists assert. Even a madman, or one in a fit of delirium tremens will have his instant of perfect lucidity at the moment of death, though unable to say so to those present. The man may often appear dead. Yet from the last pulsation, from and between the last throbbing of his heart and the moment when the last spark of animal heat leaves the body -- the brain thinks and the Ego lives over in those few brief seconds his whole life over again. Speak in whispers, ye, who assist at a death-bed and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death. Especially have you to keep quiet just after Death has laid her clammy hand upon the body. Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting on its reflection upon the Veil of the Future. -- The Mahatma Letters, pp. 170-1
The panoramic review usually begins when all the bodily activities and functions have ceased, sometimes indeed before the last heartbeat, and, as a rule, continues after the heart has stopped and the last breath has been expired. It is impossible to state how long this takes, because the length of the review varies so tremendously with the individual. In the case of those of high spirituality, the whole process is completed within a few hours; in that of others, it may be up to twelve hours, possibly longer. Probably six hours on the average is required for this last visioning of the maya of the life just lived. But in all instances the panoramic vision occurs because the brain is suffused with the fleeting scintillations still reaching it from the feathery tendrils of the cord of life, which grows progressively thinner and thinner as the hours pass.
Such a panorama occurs even when a man dies suddenly as the result of some terrible accident, as for instance when the brain is blown to pieces or when the body is burned alive. In these cases, the panorama takes place in the higher parts of the astral brain, which, although it is seriously affected, especially in its more material parts, nevertheless endures as a cohering organ somewhat longer than does the physical brain.
In extreme old age the panorama begins in a vague and tentative manner some days or possibly weeks before physical death, and this is really the cause of the dazed condition that very old people frequently fall into shortly before they die.
Every incident, fact, event, thought, and emotion of a man's life is recorded in the different parts of his being: the emotional events in the kama-manasic part; the mental in the manasic aspect of his constitution; and the spiritual in the buddhi-manasic, etc.; while the linga-sarira and the physical body are themselves permanently marked and often noticeably changed by the experiences undergone throughout the incarnation.
The panorama occurs in all its wondrous detail -- no thought or point of action being omitted -- because it is the result of instinctive action by the human monad, which, almost unconsciously to itself, dislodges from every secret recess of its inner records, imprinted as these are on its own vital substance, all the details of the life just past. Due to the spiritual forces at work, which are strictly harmonic and karmic, consciousness automatically functions in opening up the panorama by beginning with the first incident that memory has recorded in the life last past, and thereafter proceeds in stately pageantry of imagery until the last thought is reached, the last emotion felt, the last intuition had -- and then comes unconsciousness, complete, sudden, and infinitely merciful. This is true death.
Now such a panorama cannot possibly take place in its fullness during the normal lifetime of the man, because his consciousness is so distracted by the manifold events in which he is living, that there is no opportunity for this. What we call memory is merely the ability to read more or less accurately the mental and physiological impressions stamped upon our auric egg, which impressions are carried by the auric flow to the body where they enter the texture of the physical brain and nervous system, and by reaction often make themselves felt as memories of the past.
It is a most marvelous thing that the human consciousness through its body and its various organs not only records with amazing accuracy every mental and emotional event that occurs from day to day, but even photographs on the registers of the inner being an incomprehensibly immense number of sense- and brain- and nerve-impressions of which the everyday consciousness is scarcely aware at all. Yet during the vision every single one of these incidents passes swiftly before the watching eye of the inner man, just preceding his passing from this plane.
Those around the dying often hear them muttering faintly of the events of early childhood, but not understanding this have supposed that it is a vision of heaven, or something of the kind. It is merely the mouth repeating what the brain sees -- memories passing in review; and back, behind, stands the seeing Self and judges the past life, and its judgment is infallibly true. It sees the record of things done or undone, the thoughts had, the emotions followed, the temptations conquered or succumbed to; and when the end of the panorama is reached, it sees the justice of it all. In view of its vision of past karma it knows what is coming in the next life.*
[*To make a practice of reviewing the incidents of the day when one is preparing for sleep, is exceedingly important. Its effect is that of accustoming the mind to consider one's life as a field of action involving responsibility in conduct, giving one the opportunity to draw lessons therefrom. It likewise has the effect on the mind of initiating a habit of panoramic visioning, thus making the self-conscious realization of the events passing before the mind's eye at the moment of death far easier, quicker, and more complete. This habit has also the highly beneficial result of shortening the second panoramic review preceding the second death.
Such ethical or moral examination of the day's events is one of the best possible aids in inducing wisdom in meeting life's problems, and bringing about through reflection, even if more or less unconsciously performed, a spirit of kindliness and understanding for others. A great deal of unnecessary friction and trouble in the world arises out of the mechanical way in which we live in our minds, without adequate self-examination, with little or no analysis of our daily actions and of the thoughts and emotions which bring these actions about. Of course I do not here refer to unwholesome or morbid introspection, but rather to the careful, honest practice of reviewing impartially and critically, as an observer, one's thoughts and deeds. It is a great help in strengthening our moral intuitions.]
There is a similar panoramic visioning of the past life, but in less vivid and complete degree, at what is called the second death in the kama-loka. But this is not all, for there is a third recurrence of such a panorama before rebirth, i.e. just before the human monad leaves its devachanic dreaming and becomes again unself-conscious preceding reimbodiment in the human womb. The completeness and accuracy in detail in each case depend upon the type of the ego, for there is no ironclad rule which applies to everyone. There are variations of quality and intensity in all these visionings, depending upon the degree of evolution attained by the human ego.
In the case of individuals of unusual spiritual status, the panorama preceding death (and equally the one which takes place before leaving devachan) often contains glimpses into the second or third preceding lives and possibly into a more distant period in the human ego's past. The ability to see panoramically into the near or distant past of the human ego is proportionate to the degree of spirituality that has been unfolded: the more spiritual the ego, the greater is the power to look into the past; and, indeed, in high chelas or mahatmas this ability becomes active even during imbodied life. Just how far into the remote past the mahatma can delve -- if he should want to -- depends not only upon his evolved ability, but upon his will to do so; for most of them dislike peering into their former lives (cf. The Mahatma Letters, p. 145).
Even the average man at rare intervals has glimpses not only into a past life or lives, but likewise prophetically into the future. However, he is so slightly trained to recognize these visions for what they actually are -- records stamped in the fabric of his own auric egg or on the astral light -- that he usually looks upon them as mere dreaming or phantasy. Since he is not evolved enough either to understand what he might see or to discriminate with any degree of accuracy between imagination and the actual auric records, it is downright dangerous for him to attempt to see into the past or future. At the same time it is not to be overlooked that sometimes in disease, or in a trance often brought about by disease, the sufferer may have distorted visions or pictures of the records in the astral light or in his auric egg, but in these cases, being so different from the true panorama occurring at death, the visioning is confused and distorted, and sometimes of so horrible a character as to leave the unfortunate sufferer in a cold sweat of helpless terror.
Those unfortunate people who want to see their past lives simply do not know what they are asking for. Could they do so and realize what the records would include, along with the obvious good that they had done, the likelihood is that they would do everything in their power utterly to erase the pictures from their memory. What normal man would like to look back into all the weak, heartless and ignoble thoughts and deeds recorded by him on nature's picture gallery during lives lived long ago? (Such a stage of remembrance of the details of our past incarnations, so far as the normal man is concerned, will not take place until our earth is inhabited by a race of far more gloriously evolved beings than we are; and this is very fortunate. The exceptions to this rule, as said, are the masters and some of the high chelas, not those who may lay claim to this so-called faculty or power.)
Also many people have periods of reminiscence when there seems to be an inflow of the events of early childhood, which memories later subside. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation which occurs at death, nor even in seeing one's past lives, but happens simply because the nervous system and brain are at the time in vibrational harmony with the records in one's auric egg, and the brain thus automatically registers these vague and transitory pictures of memory, enabling one to live for a while in the returned consciousness of former years. These cases are fairly common. Commenting upon the subject of memory at the moment of death, H.P.B. says in one of her articles:
The fact is that the human brain is simply the canal between two planes -- the psycho-spiritual and the material -- through which every abstract and metaphysical idea filters from the Manasic down to the lower human consciousness. Therefore, the ideas about the infinite and the absolute are not, nor can they be, within our brain capacities. They can be faithfully mirrored only by our Spiritual consciousness, thence to be more or less faintly projected on to the tables of our perceptions on this plane. Thus while the records of even important events are often obliterated from our memory, not the most trifling action of our lives can disappear from the "Soul's" memory, because it is no MEMORY for it, but an ever present reality on the plane which lies outside our conceptions of space and time. . . . while physical memory in a healthy living man is often obscured, one fact crowding out another weaker one, at the moment of the great change that man calls death -- that which we call "memory" seems to return to us in all its vigour and freshness.
May this not be due as just said, simply to the fact that, for a few seconds at least, our two memories (or rather the two states, the highest and the lowest state, of consciousness) blend together, thus forming one, and that the dying being finds himself on a plane wherein there is neither past nor future, but all is one present? Memory, as we all know, is strongest with regard to its early associations, then when the future man is only a child, and more of a soul than of a body; and if memory is a part of our Soul, then, as Thackeray has somewhere said, it must be of necessity eternal. -- "Memory in the Dying," Lucifer, Oct. 1889, pp. 128-9
These wonderful processes of the consciousness whereby the man sees the entirety of the life just ended, and realizes the utter justice of all that he has suffered or enjoyed, are in no sense an effort of the will of the reimbodying ego, but are automatic procedures of the functioning of its own substance. The soul-consciousness of the ego, watching this life-review, is for the time being entirely oblivious of everything else except this panoramic vision. The ego receives an indelible impression which remains with it throughout the devachanic interlude and aids in guiding it to the proper environment for its next physical rebirth.
To recapitulate: every human being who is 'average' -- neither highly spiritual and far advanced, nor extremely gross and materialistic -- has three panoramic visions: the first, just preceding complete death of the physical body; the second, just prior to and at the time of the second death in the higher kama-lokic planes, meaning the dropping of the kama-rupa and the beginning of the entrance into the devachan; the third, after leaving the devachan and before the subsequent unconsciousness begins immediately preceding entrance of the egoic ray into the womb. This third panoramic vision likewise has something of a prophetic quality about it, for the human ego, thus preparing for the gestation preceding the birth into the physical body, not only sees its past but also has glimpses into the future, and recognizes the justice and the karmic need of the kind of physical environment and body it is entering into.
Now those human beings who are exceedingly gross and materialistic have no devachan, and consequently no true second death, and therefore practically no second panoramic vision; hence they are almost immediately attracted to reincarnation on earth again. They have the first panoramic vision, an adumbration of the second, but no third vision preceding rebirth. Others, such as lost souls and sorcerers of low grade have in every case the panoramic vision at death, always accordant with their psycho-intellectual power, but they can have no devachan. In the cases of congenital idiots and infants who die, these have no panoramic vision whatsoever because they have nothing in the life on earth just closed self-consciously to recollect or to review, the manasic faculty being either 'dormant,' or not yet awakened within them.
Of course, those highly spiritual beings who have not yet learned to live self-consciously after death, have all three panoramic visions.