Signifying the death of loved ones by placing their empty shoes in a public place is a very esoteric way of acknowledging their place in life. Rudolf Steiner describes what happens when we die in his many lectures on this subject. He explains that our body disintegrates and its mineral content returns to the earth from which it was built up. Our soul and spirit, no longer connected to our body, expand into the cosmos. Then he says this curious thing; we occupy space except for the area our physical body occupied. So to place shoes ‘in which we once stood’ points to this esoteric fact.
Death is such a mystery for modern consciousness. Because we understand so little about it we fear it. Here are some brief statements from a couple of Steiner’s lectures – read the whole lecture at http://www.rsarchive.org/Lectures/
The privilege of human death
The spirit must abandon the body to death, so that the spirit may raise itself to an ever higher level of perfection. Thus death is the great strengthener of the will for the spiritual life. Unnatural death in any form can indeed also be something which signifies an advance in man’s total destiny. But what the will, in its general nature, would have had to experience in its victory over the bodily nature, remains in a certain sense present as an inner force, and has to follow a different path when man goes through the gate of death in an unnatural way, from the one it would take if he lived to the natural end of his life. DEATH IN MAN, ANIMAL, AND PLANT A lecture given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner 29 February, 1912 Berlin
The difference between animal death and human death
Now imagine that in the beginning the soul did not take up its dwelling in each single one, but that one soul distributed itself as group soul among many. What today dwells in one, then inhabited a whole tribe. Here you must grasp a new concept. Such a group soul does not die. The beautiful, significant side of death is a specific privilege of the individual human soul. If one part of the group soul dies, then it immediately replaces it, like the tentacle you cut from a polypus. Thus the group soul, which does not descend to the physical plane, feels death as the loss of one member, and birth as the growing of a similar one. It has not the privilege of death.
Only when a sense being says “It is I,” death begins to enter individual life. Man struggles for and attains his higher life through death. Unless death were overcome, he could not attain through it to higher life. THE ANIMAL SOUL. Lodge Lecture by Dr. Rudolf Steiner 16 March, 1907 Leipzig,