The psychopomp (from the Greek, pompos, meaning conductor or guide and psyche meaning breath, life, soul or mind) is literally a guide for the soul. The psychopomp's primary function is to escort the dying to their place in the afterlife. They take many forms from animals and angels to humans and mythological creatures, and most of the world's religious texts and sacred narratives, as well as the mythological tales of countless cultures, contain stories of the psychopomp at work. Previously deceased loved ones have also been known to act as psychopomps, arriving at the side of a dying person to lovingly guide them to the other side at the moment of death. A modern day death midwife is someone who helps to assist a person in dying without fear by calmly and gently facilitating their passing, while a modern day psychopomp can communicate with spirit and is able to meet with the soul of the person dying while in an altered state of consciousness and then accompany that soul on its natural journey back to its spiritual home. This is also one of the (many) traditional roles of the sacred shaman.
The shaman bridges the earthly and spiritual realms and travels effortlessly within both. They're not only psychopomps in that they guide the souls of the deceased on their final otherworldly journeys, but they also rescue trapped or fractured souls from the spirit realm. In doing this the shaman heals a human body for whom a portion of its soul has left it for one reason or another and was not able of its own accord to return intact, thus healing body, mind and spirit. The shaman also serves as the communicator between the living and the dead, rather like a sacred medium.
The psychopomp is never judgmental. Their role is simply to serve as the mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms. The Grim Reaper is a psychopomp as well, but to be honest, I think I'd much rather see my father waiting to guide me home, or even Anubis, Hecate or Freyja. And of course, there's always the belief that the Grim Reaper form of the Angel of Death can be bribed or outwitted, thus prolonging one's life. But that's another thought for another day.
Photo courtesy of Jack of Nothing on flickr.