The death process follows a general pattern, although some stages can be abbreviated to the point of imperceptibility, while others can be extended considerably:
1. In the terminally ill, prana (life force) becomes debilitated and begins to withdraw from the physical body. In most persons, this gradual retreat of prana is accomplished in an orderly fashion, with the life force withdrawing in set ways: from the periphery to the center; from less vital to more vital organs; and from the lower torso towards the head. Once prana has retreated from the physical body, the faculties of action are inoperative.
2. The second stage consists of the withdrawal of prana into the mind and intelligence. When prana retreats from the faculties of perception, the person loses awareness of the external environment and sinks into unconsciousness.
3. In the third stage, prana withdraws into the causal body, consisting of ego and the consciousness-basis-of-all (alaya vijnana). Because the ego is incapable of exerting its organizing influence over the physical body through the medium of prana, the four elemental states of matter (solid, liquid, radiant, and gaseous) begin to disintegrate. (The fifth state, space, is the field in which the other four states manifest, and thus cannot disintegrate.)
Bodily tissues in the solid state lose cohesion, and the dying person experiences a corresponding loss of body consciousness. Then the tissues in the liquid state disperse, causing the mucous membranes to desiccate. As the tissues in the radiant state disintegrate, the body loses warmth, and rigor starts to set in. Finally, the tissues in the gaseous state dissolve, and the person expires. It is after this moment that the consciousness leaves the heart, and is carried away with the mindstream.
Dharma practitioners aware of this orderly process can be immensely helpful to dying persons and their families, assuaging their fears and reassuring them of the continuation of the mindstream, even in the midst of this experience. Recitation of mantras and prayers, scriptural readings, and the performance of other religious rites (according to the faith of the dying person) constitute an integral part of the care of dying persons.