Aside the idea of physical death and eventual afterlife, death is the center of a vast network of symbols.
George Gurdjieff explained that one must first awake, then die and only then can one be born. This is akin to the Christian idea of dying to the world in order to be born in the spirit. The significant emphasis is that one must be awake. The Gospels speak of wakefulness also, but Gurdjieff makes this the centerpiece of his teaching.
Carlos Castaneda, who in many things echoes Gurdjieff, although the cultural context is quite different, speaks extensively of death. The warrior lives so that he may perform his last dance in the face of death. Death is a sort of adviser that may be consulted to bring immediacy and focus to life. Gurdjieff also speaks of the last hour of life in terms which may well have been picked up by Castaneda.
The last hour is described by Gurdjieff as follows, excerpted from a lecture by him:
Freedom is worth a million times more than liberation. The free man, even in slavery, remains a master of himself.
[…] From the moment of conception we are living on borrowed time. Living in this world you have to feel death each second, so settle all your life affairs, even in your last hour. But how can anyone know exactly his last hour? For the sense of security make up your things with nature and yourself in every hour given to you, then you will never be met unprepared.
[…] Ask yourself who will be in difficulty if you die like a dog. At the moment of death you have to be wholly aware of yourself and feel that you have done everything possible to use all, within your abilities, in this life which was given to you.
[…] A real man is one who could take from life everything that was valuable in it, and say :'And now I can die'. We have to try to live your lives so that we could say any day :'Today I can die and not be sorry about anything'.
[…] When I was young I learned to prepare fragrances. I learned to extract from life it's essence, its most subtle qualities. Search in everything the most valuable, learn to separate the fine from the coarse. One who has learned how to extract the essence, the most important from each moment of life, has reached a sense on quality.
He is able to do with the world something that can not be done by just anybody.
[…] It could be that in the last moments of your life you will not have the choice where and with whom to be, but you will have a choice to decide how fully you will live them. The ability to take the valuable from life - is the same as to take from the food, air and the impressions the substances needed to build up your higher bodies. If you want to take from your life the most valuable for yourself, it has to be for the good of the higher; for yourself it is enough to leave just a little. To work on yourself for the good of others is a smart way to receive the best from life for yourself. If you will not be satisfied with the last hour of your life, you will not be happy about the whole of your life. To die means to come through something which is impossible to repeat again. To spend your precious time in nothing means to deprive yourself the opportunity to extract from life the most valuable.
We note that the above encourages consciousness and knowing life first hand, not somber contemplation of life's futility or longing for abandoning life. "To work on yourself for the good of others is a smart way to receive the best from life" closely parallels the Cassiopaean formulation of the principle of service to others:
A: STO is balance because you serve self through others. […] STO flows outward and touches all including point of origin, STS flows inward and touches only origin point.
The contrast provided by death is needed for giving the catalyst of life its intensity. Maybe for this reason neither Gurdjieff nor Castaneda place any great emphasis on a teaching about afterlife or reincarnation.
Generally, some form of teaching on reincarnation is nearly universal in esoteric culture, both Western and Eastern.
Figuratively, death and subsequent new birth symbolize a major transition or passage. This is found from the tarot to Masonic rituals and is next to ubiquitous symbolism.