The notion that the soul of the deceased does not immediately find
itself in heaven or hell after leaving its body is found in many cultures
worldwide. Rather, the soul must make a transition to its proper realm.
This transition is often symbolized by birds that take the soul to heaven,
by a bridge that the departed must cross, or by a journey through a
tunnel or across a body of water. In many societies, a religious functionary
such as a priest or a shaman performs the role of psychopomp—
one who guides the dead to the otherworld.
One of the more familiar psychopomps of antiquity was Charon,
the ferryman from Greek mythology responsible for transporting the
spirits of the departed across the river Styx and into the realm of the
dead. In the Christian world, it was natural that angels should come to
perform the function of psychopomps, a job with which Michael is
particularly associated. The old gospel tune “Michael Row the Boat
Ashore” is an allusion to his work as a psychopomp. As the imagery of
boat rowing suggests, the archangel Michael is portrayed as a kind of
Christian Charon, ferrying souls from earth to heaven.
In the contemporary period, veterans of near-death experiences
often report encountering “a being of light” whom they often identify
as an angel and who acts as a kind of psychopomp.