By Stephen Levine: Today, approximately 200,000 people died. Some died by accident. Others by murder. Some by overeating. Others from starvation. Some died while still in the womb. Others of old age. Some died of thirst. Others of drowning. Each died their death as they must. Some died in surrender with their minds open and their hearts at peace. Others died in confusion, suffering from a life that remained unlived, from a death they could not accept.
It is as Lewis Thomas wrote in The Lives of a Cell:
“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements, but we get no grasp from this of the enormity of the scale. There are 3 billion of us on the earth and all 3 billion must be dead, on a schedule, within this lifetime. The vast mortality, involving something over 50 million of us each year, takes place in relative secrecy… (Updated figures show that now there are nearly 4 1/2 billion of us, and the annual mortality rate is about 70 million.)
Less than half a century from now, our replacements will have more than doubled the numbers. It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret with such multitudes doing the dying. We will have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange. We will need to learn more about the cycling of life in the rest of the system, and about our connection to the process. Everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell.”
We live in a society conditioned to deny death. It may be for this reason that many, at the time of their dying feel so confused and guilty. Like sex, death has been whispered about behind closed doors. We feel guilty for dying, not knowing how to live. The ways of a lifetime are focused in our death.
Those who live in what are called “material societies,” whose technology has allowed the acquirement of goods and less effort for survival, who have measured self-value by wealth, perhaps have a somewhat stronger tendency to identify themselves with the body. Our society spends billions of dollars each year on cosmetics, girdles, toupees, face lifts and hair dyes, pushing away the lessons that the decay of the body would have us comprehend. Indeed, in a world where starvation is one of its greatest agonies, this country spends more than four hundred million dollars a year just to lose weight.
Observing the body’s decay, the change in metabolism as we age, the middle-age paunch, the lowering of energy, the graying at the temples, the lessening of muscle tone, the loss of hair, how can we deny the inevitability of the falling away of the body. Experiencing the loss of loved ones, seeing that all we have ever known is in constant change, that we are the stuff of history, how can we disregard death?
How often, for instance, is one encouraged to contemplate the aches and pains of the flu as a preparation for death, as a means of melting the resistance to life? Struggling for satisfaction from moment to moment, we think of ourselves as either fortunate or unfortunate, little realizing the teachings of impermanence.
We seldom use illness as an opportunity to investigate our relationship to life or to explore our fear of death. Illness is considered bad fortune. We hold to models of good health and Pepsi-Cola vitality. We only think we are O.K. if we are healthy. But how, in this fixed idea of the acceptable, do we learn to open to the impossible? How do we allow ourselves to come into the unknown with an openheartedness and courage that allow life its fullness.
In the funeral home we put rouge on death. Even in the casket we deny our transiency.
At home in our favorite easy chair, we read in the newspaper of five dying in a hotel fire in Cleveland, of ten killed in a bus accident on the freeway. Of three thousand crushed in an earthquake in Italy. Of the death of Nobel laureates in their laboratories. And of murderers in the electric chair. We partake of the “survivor’s news,” reinforcing the idea that “everyone dies but me.” Sitting there, reading of the death of others, reassures us of our survivorship, of our immortality. The misfortune of others makes up a large percentage of the front page, creating the illusion of our good fortune. Seldom do we use the news of another’s death as a recognition of the impermanence of all things, that all changes as it will.
And yet the acknowledgment of impermanence holds within it the key to life itself. The confrontation with death tunes us deeply to the life we imagine we will lose with the extinction of the body. But what is the truth of this sense of presence we experience, of timeless being, which seems to have no beginning, in which we sense no end? We image we will die only because we believe we were born. We don’t trust that sense of endlessness, of edgelessness within.
Our suffering is caused by holding to how things might have been, should have been, could have been. Grief is part of our daily existence. But we seldom recognize that pain in our heart that one fellow called “a deep weeping, a mourning for everything we have left behind.”
A friend, reflecting on the time her cancer had been diagnosed as terminal, said, “Being terminal just meant that at last I acknowledged that death was real. It did not mean that I would die in six months or even die before the doctor who had just given me the prognosis. It simply meant that I acknowledged that I would die at all.” In a society based on material gain, which imagines itself to be the body, which holds health so precious and fears death so much, it is often hard to understand that death is natural, even necessary for the continuance of life, both inner and outer.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, there are long narratives that tell about the spirit of the deceased descending into the underworld where it is met by the Great Judge who weighs the heart against a feather. It is the feather of truth. And one wonders whose heart is light enough to be measured against the truth.
Seventy-five per cent of the population take their last breath in a convalescent home or hospital. Most die in institutions where death is considered the enemy. I have seen many approach death in physical and spiritual isolation, seldom encouraged to open past their imaginings and fears, cut off in heart and mind from the loved ones who might share this precious moment. Unable to trust their inner nature, removed from life itself, they enter with painful insecurity and confusion into another realm of being.
I have watched many cling desperately to a rapidly degenerating body, hoping for some incredible miracle, anguished by a deep longing for fulfillment never found in life. I have also met those whose death was an inspiration to all about them. Who died with so much love and compassion that all were left filled with an unnamed joy for weeks afterward.
Few participate in their life so fully that death is not a threat, is not the the grim reaper stalking just beyond the dark windowpane. Most fight death as they fought life, struggling for a foothold, for some control over the incessant flow of change that exemplifies this piece of existence. Few die in wholeness. Most live a life of partiality and confusion. Most think they own the body. Few recognize it as just a temporarily rented domicile from which they must eventually be evicted. Those who see themselves as passengers in the body are more able to let go lightly.
In this culture we look at life as though it were a straight line. The longer the line the more we imagine we have lived, the wholer we suppose ourselves to be, and the less horrendous we imagine the end point. The death of the young is seen as tragic and shakes the faith of many. But in the American Indian culture one is not seen linearly but rather as a circle which becomes complete at about puberty with the rites of passage. From that time on one is seen as a wholeness that continues to expand outward. But once “the hoop” has formed, any time one dies, one dies in wholeness. As the American Indian sage Crazy Horse commented, “Today is a good day to die for all the things of my life are present.” In the American Indian wisdom wholeness is not seen as the duration one has lived but rather the fullness with which one enters each complete moment.
Unlike our culture which encourages little preparation for death, in the American Indian culture at the time of death a naturally formed crystal is often offered for use as a meditation object. Gazing into the fissures within the crystal that create prismatic rainbow lines, one project one’s consciousness into the rainbow, letting go of all that keeps the mind from focusing beyond itself. At death one is guided into the rainbow body, melting out of temporal form with ease and wise preparation.
There seems to be much less suffering for those who live life in the wholeness that includes death. Not a morbid preoccupation with death but rather a staying in the loving present, a life that focuses on each precious moment. I see few whose participation in life has prepared them for death. Few who have explored their heart and mind as perfect preparation for whatever might come next be it death or sickness, grief or joy.
Who is prepared to die? Who has lived so fully that they are not threatened by their imaginings of nonexistence? For it is only the idea of death that frightens us. It is the unknown we pull back from.
How often are we like the battered child on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, being carried gently from the room by the compassionate matron, who reaches out over the matron’s shoulder shouting, “Mama, mama,” to the woman in custody between the policemen on the other side of the room, arrested for burning the flesh and breaking the bones of this child? How many reach back for the hellishness of the known rather than opening into the unknown, with the patience and warmth that make room in our heart for ourselves and all others?
In some societies, death brings the whole tribe or family together in celebration and acknowledgment of the continual changing nature of life. During these celebrations, often a deeply spiritual context for this passing allows many to have profound experiences of their own true nature. For these societies, death is a continual opportunity to let go of the illusions of life, to see it as it is, and open in love to all about.
In Hebrew culture, as in East Indian society, the body is most often disposed of within twenty-four hours. In the Orthodox Hebrew tradition, one sits shiva for a week, mourning the loss with lamentations and prayers, yet respecting the passage of the other, wishing that being well in whatever newness may approach it. In India the corpse is carried on a litter by the family to the burning ground. On the first part of the journey, chanting “Ran Nan Sarya Hey” (The Name of God is Truth), the family carries the deceased with its head still pointing toward the home it has just departed. Halfway to the funeral grounds, the litter is turned about so that the head no longer faces the life just left, but instead approaches what is to come. At the burning ground, with the family all around, the body is placed on a large stack of wood and covered with flowers and incense and set ablaze. If the deceased is the father of the family, as the bones disintegrate, as the body begins to fall apart, the eldest son stirs the burning bones with a large staff, and, if necessary, with a stout whack, caves in the top of his father’s skull so that his spirit may be released in joy to whatever realms await.
In Mexico, in November, there is celebrated “La Día de la Muerte,” the Day of the Dead. Children buy paper skeletons and parents go to celebrate the nature of change picnicking in the cemeteries that adjoin each small town.
I’ve been with those whose death has brought them fully into life and strengthened their confidence in something sensed to be ongoing and untouched by the demise of the body. I have seen those whose lives have been fearful come to the moment of death with a new openness that allowed them a sense of completion they had seldom known.
I have been with people at the time of their death whose pain and fear had so closed them that they could not say good-by to those they loved most. So much business was left unfinished that all about were bereft of the contact they so desired.
I have also seen those who cried out, “God, not me!” when they received a terminal prognosis, after a few months of deep investigation, quietly close their eyes and whisper, “Sweet Jesus” as they died.
This excerpt is from Who Dies? by Stephen Levine. Copyright © 1982 by Stephen Levine. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc, http://www.bdd.com.