09/17/17

Japanese Company Creates Robot Priest to Administer Your Last Rites

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Plastics manufacturer Nissei Eco introduced Pepper last month, a robe-donning robot trained to recite prayers and scripture while tapping a little drum.

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In Japan, where funerals often require elaborate preparation and involve religious rites, honoring the deceased comes at a very steep price. It costs about 550,000 yen (~$5,030) just to hire the services of a Buddhist monk, whose duties include chanting sutras. But now families have a more economical option to stand in place of these religious men: a robe-donning robot named Pepper who’s been trained to recite prayers and scripture while tapping a little drum. It can even livestream ceremonies to loved ones unable to attend a funeral in person.
 


 
Plastics manufacturer Nissei Eco introduced Pepper last month at Tokyo’s annual Life Ending Industry Expo — Japan’s largest trade show for everything funeral-related — and intends to offer its services at a cost of 50,000 yen (~$460), according to Japan Times. It’s an incredibly niche and unusual position for the four-foot-tall bot, which was originally designed by SoftBank Robotics as the first humanoid robot to live with humans, and the first capable of perceiving and responding to our emotions. Other Peppers have found homes in hospitals, where they work as receptionists, and in banks, where they greet and assist patrons. As Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier experienced first-hand, this little android is quite capable of displaying empathy.

Nissei Eco started tinkering with Pepper a year ago. A company spokesperson told Japan Times that its repurposed bot is part of a larger effort to innovate the funeral industry, as customers increasingly seek alternatives to traditional rituals. The robo-monk may also serve as a substitute to human priests when they aren’t available. As Nissei’s executive advisor Michio Inamura explains in the video below, priests are increasingly seeking part-time work outside their temple duties as donations from families affiliated with temples are in decline.

 


 

“So we thought that Pepper could fill that role of worship,” he concludes. Buddhist monk Tetsugi Matsuo, however, questions whether the smiling machine can offer guidance that is spiritual at heart, rather than simply replicate the physical demands of these age-old duties. Pepper the Buddhist monk’s computerized voice, for instance, may not carry the emotion that some people may seek. And some will perhaps see the machine as an undignified presence at a service steeped in tradition. Pepper, however, has yet to administer its first official funeral, so we’ll have to wait and see if it manages to fill such esteemed roles while maintaining a room’s expected decorum.

Complete Article HERE!

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09/10/17

The Prophet and Secrets To A Good Death

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I stared at her blood results for a few seconds too long. I felt crushed, my shoulders sagged and I realised that my face had given it all away.

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The patient couldn’t speak now, but she motioned to my pen. I handed it to her with her own notes – a mistake in retrospect. I need not have worried as she was in no fit state to read. She scribbled on words that broke my heart.

“Doctor, I’m dying aren’t I?”

I whispered back “Yes.”

She nodded; a large tear fell down the side of her face. I tried hard to stop my own tears falling too.

I wasn’t emotional because she was dying, as a doctor you unfortunately get used to death very quickly. No, I was upset because of how she was dying. She was in pain, she was struggling to take breaths, and her family had not yet arrived in their own car as the ambulance had managed to cut through traffic and they hadn’t.

I held her hand as her breaths became shallower, only stepping away when her husband and children finally made it to her bedside just as she slipped away.

It’s difficult to argue that this was a good death. This lady had spent her last moments surrounded by strangers, in a cold and uncomfortable emergency room bed and with the cacophony of hospital equipment as the last sounds in her ears. Her relatives had to give rushed goodbyes.

A bad death

Scenes like this play out every single minute of every single day across the world. In fact, for something we’ve been doing since the beginning of time and despite all the advancements in medical science – the human race is remarkably bad at dying.

The odds are that most of us reading this article will pass away in a manner that leaves much to be desired. [1] We may be taken to a hospital even though there was little to no benefit in doing so, passing away in an ambulance or an emergency room with tubes stuck down our throats and needles in our arms while medics surround us decide what the next move will be and how they’ll break the news to our shocked families, even if all the signs had been pointing towards this for months or even years.

Death is difficult enough without the often-preventable complications that make it more painful and stressful than it needs to be. Even though we don’t talk about it much, there is such a thing as having a “good death.” [2]

What is a “good death”?

A “good death” – the very term seems like the ultimate oxymoron. After all, what can be good about death? It’s the ultimate in bad news. In fact, on a scale of bad things that can happen to someone, death seems likely to be the worst.

Yet, as anyone who has come across death on a regular basis will tell you, there are such things as good and bad deaths. An entire medical speciality called Palliative Care was created to facilitate the former.

From an Islamic perspective a good death is one in which the person dies with Allah being pleased with him or her, or engaged in an action or at a time that is considered pious. [3], [4] While we can never know who is in possession of divine favour, we do know that the Prophet mentioned certain times, modes and places of deaths as having special significance. For example, I remember vividly recalling that family members of Hujjaj, who died in the horrific tunnel collapse of 1990, were comforted by the fact that their relatives died on holy land whilst on the pilgrimage.

However, the commonly held Muslim view of a good death is lacking. It almost entirely revolves around the unknowable relationship between the deceased and Allah, while neglecting more practical temporal aspects. For the purposes of this essay, I want to explore the practical side of a “good death” and show that this is actually part of a neglected Prophetic tradition that we can and should revive.

A good death is described as any passing in which an individual dies as peacefully as possible, in accordance with their wishes and according to their own ethical, cultural or religious standards. [5] This includes dying free of pain, in a location of their preference (usually divided into one of the 3 H’s – home, hospital or hospice) and surrounded by their loved ones rather than medical and nursing staff.

It doesn’t sound complicated does it?

Yet, every single day, the majority of people die in just the opposite way.

So, how do we achieve a good death?

I went looking for inspiration from Islamic history and found answers hidden in plain sight. The clues are scattered throughout the life of the Prophet himself, like scattered pearls of wisdom waiting for us to put them together into a coherent whole.

You can divide the steps required into 6 steps:

  1. Thinking and talking about death

There are many ways of achieving a good death, but they all have the same first step. We need to be prepared to think about it, but in a way that empowers rather than paralyzes us. We need to make it less of a taboo.

The Prophet was the master of this. He used to think about death often and asked us to do the same, but was never accused of being morbid. He taught us, “Remember often, the destroyer of pleasures.” [6]

By bringing talking about death back into polite conversation and into the family life, we remove it from being solely the domain of the mosque and imam. It may mean taking the kids to a funeral or talking to your parents about the funeral arrangements for a recently departed grandparent. Whatever entry point you use, remembering death will help you plan about it.

  1. The warning shot

A warning shot is the first difficult discussion that people have about an impending death. This is when bad news is delivered in a step-wise process so that the impact is less severe on those affected.

Doctors are trained to do this by lowering the tone of their voice, getting the patient worried by asking if they would like to have someone there with them and to generally appear gravely concerned. We then impart the warning shot – usually something as simple as “I’m afraid I have bad news” – and give time for the patient to absorb this before delivering the bad news. [7]

This occurred quite obviously in retrospect with Allah giving the Prophet several warning shots with increasing clarity that his life was drawing to a close. First, Jibreel went through the Quran with the Prophet twice instead of the usual once during their Ramadan reviews. Beyond this, Allah revealed that religion had been “perfected” thereby making the role of the Prophet complete.

In turn, the Prophet passed on these warning shots to us, his community at various opportunities including at Hajj Al Wida and in his khutbas at Masjid Nabawi.

Warning shots are important. They allow us to prepare for the worst-case scenario, rather than live in hope and find ourselves woefully unprepared when the time comes.

  1. Choosing where and how you would like to be cared for in your final illness

The location where one dies is obviously not something everyone has the luxury of choosing. However, for most natural deaths, this is something important and despite most people preferring to die at home, this is not achieved.

The sad truth is that, again, we will spend more time thinking about the hotel room that we stayed in 5 nights in during a holiday years ago than where we would like to see out our final days.

The Prophet was concerned about where he would be during his final illness. He asked rhetorically, “Where shall I stay tomorrow?” multiple times until his wives understood that he wanted to choose where he wanted to stay rather than switching rooms every evening as was his usual custom. He chose for himself the room of Aisha  [8]

A good death isn’t necessarily a pain free one, but it certainly is one in which unnecessary suffering is avoided if the patient wishes. Again, the medical profession has advanced far enough that no one should suffer unduly in his or her final moments, but because patients are unaware as to what is available to them, they continue to suffer. [9]

  1. How should your funeral be conducted?

The rulings on Muslim funerals are fairly specific. So specific, in fact, that we make the mistake of thinking that there isn’t room for personalisation. There clearly is, even if it is limited. Everything from choosing whom you would like to lead your Janazah prayer, at which mosque and who should lower you into the ground can often give people a sense of peace and familiarity with a daunting reality.

The Prophet did the same. He had asked that his body be washed using water from the well of Ghars, presumably because he liked the sweet taste of the water there. Amr ibn Al As asked to be buried with fragments of the Prophets nails in his mouth and under his eyelids. Ottoman Sultans would occasionally be buried with pieces of the Kaaba kiswa on them.

As long as it remains within the boundaries of accepted tradition, it can be comforting to know that you had some say in how your funeral would be conducted.

  1. Where should you be buried?

This is an important decision and for most of us, it won’t matter much because – well, we won’t have to worry about it. However, there is a strong indication that where someone is buried does matter almost as much as where they lived in life. Many a necropolis has sprung up around the tomb of a pious man or a companion of the Prophet like Jannat Al Mualla in Makkah, Eyup Sultan in Istanbul and Bab Al Saghir in Damascus. [10]

It was the cause of much consternation to the sahaaba that they did not know where to bury the Prophet . The relief that was felt by all, when it was discovered that the Prophet had mentioned to Abu Bakr that all Messengers are buried where they die, is palpable. Take a moment to reflect on that conversation. In a mark of how difficult the conversation is, even the Prophet (SAW) didn’t directly tell Abu Bakr where he would like to be buried, but instead made a general statement about all Prophets. This way, he got his point across to his close friend but minimised the heartache.

  1. How should your estate be divided after death?

Inheritance laws in Islam are strictly governed and regulated leaving limited scope for people to go wrong. But unfortunately, most Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, do not have formal wills written up. This means that their estates are at risk of being divided according to the law of the land they die in.

The Prophet was concerned about what would happen to his estate after he died, but his estate was not just the physical objects he left behind. It included the spiritual legacy of the Islamic faith. Therefore, he repeatedly mentioned for Muslims to guard the prayer and to look after the ladies of their house. [11] Not only that, it was clear that he went as far as he could towards nominating Abu Bakr to lead us after his death without actually commanding it.

While you should definitely prepare a will for your physical possessions, also consider your legacy beyond that. Who should educate your children? What advice do we have for them when they grow up? What should happen to our collection of books? Which charities would you like some of your endowments to go to and for what cause?

Your life is so much more than just the money and materials that gets divided up after you die. If you are lucky, those who survive you may try and keep your legacy alive. They would find it much easier if you gave them some directions beforehand.

Conclusion

In the end, the best way to attain a good death is to live a good life – a. A life that is lived in the service of others for the sake of Allah, a life in which there is real meaning and purpose and a life in which death is remembered.

As a Muslim, I know that a good death is one in which Allah is pleased with the person dying. As a doctor, I know a good death is one in which the patient is comfortable and surrounded by their family, not me. As a human being, I know a good death is one that comes after having added value to the lives of my fellow human beings. These are not mutually exclusive and the life of the Prophet (SAW) gives evidence for being able to combine all three.

As the old poem goes, we all have a rendezvous with death. Why not make it a good one?

Complete Article HERE!

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09/6/17

Confronting Death and Dharma at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

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Can we shift our perspective on the reality of loss?

By Lauren Krauze

When I arrived at the main gate of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, I was greeted by two talkative green birds hopping and flapping about in the grass. I was surprised; the birds seemed bright and exotic compared with the pigeons, jays, and sparrows I normally see. I later learned that these playful birds are monk parakeets—a very fitting name given that I was attending an event called Death and Dharma, a lecture and meditation series co-presented by the Brooklyn Zen Center and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Green-Wood’s high, rolling hills and shady lawns offered a cool and quiet respite from the heat and hum of downtown Brooklyn. A group of about 40 people gathered on the grass near the cemetery’s Modern Chapel, a serene space for meditating and contemplating death and dying.

“Death is a fundamental question. It’s sometimes called ‘the big question,’” said Rev. Francisco (Paco) Genkoji Lugoviña, the founder and guiding teacher at the Hudson River Peacemaker Center. “There are lots of questions, actually, and no real answers. However, at age 78, I try to live each day with as much involvement and obedience to what emerges and go with it.”

Joining Lugoviña was Rev. Daiken Nelson, the founder and guiding teacher at the Pamsula Zen Center in Harlem. Nelson and Lugoviña are both teachers and priests in the White Plum Lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and the Zen Peacemaker Order. As a pair that often teaches together, they were invited to share their insights with the Brooklyn Zen Center community.

“In the West, and particularly in the U.S., people don’t deal with death until they have to,” Nelson said. “They don’t think about it until someone they know passes away. I think it’s important to at least think about it before that happens and try to realize that it’s everyone’s fate.”

While the discussion was rich with teachings, stories, and koans from the Zen tradition, Nelson and Lugoviña also created space for people to briefly talk about their own relationships with death and dying. At the start of the discussion, they asked individuals to share one or two words that reflected their thoughts on the topic. While many people expressed a cautious wonder and curiosity about the topic, others shared words like “fear,” “uncertainty,” and “dark.”

Lugoviña didn’t seem very surprised. As a Zen teacher, he said that he often ventures into this very territory, especially in his conversations with people struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He also relayed a poignant story about his grandson, who passed away at age 23 after a methadone overdose. That experience taught him to reevaluate his intellectual understanding about death and shift toward a deep experience of gratitude.

“A friend of mine once told me she that she used to count her life by the number of summers she had left,” he said. “I think that’s a very poetic way to look at what we value in our lives and cherish what’s important to us.”

In a short work titled “Vulnerability,” acclaimed poet David Whyte writes, “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” Nelson echoed this by imparting a teaching about impermanence and what can come of embracing the transient nature of experience.

“What I’ve been working with in my own practice is accepting whatever is arising,” he said. “We can learn to accept our inevitable passing, the passing of others, and the passing of this moment. Realizing something is just how it is—that it’s ‘just this,’ without it having to be any different—can give rise to freedom.”

At Green-Wood, humble gravestones and elaborate mausoleums dot the landscape, crowding some of the hills and valleys. The root of the word monument is the Latin word monere, which means “to remind.” These markers remind the living of the deceased’s name, life, and family, but for Nelson, the monuments reflect a more complicated reality that attempts to honor both the teachings of impermanence and the reality of human connection and loss.

“Once we are born, we exist, and then we spend our lives going to great lengths to express that in the world,” he said. “We spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about this self, or the ideas we have about awareness, consciousness, our connections with others, acceptance, and impermanence. Then people die, and afterwards, we want to live in the memory of them, whether it’s through their accomplishments, their stories, or things we build to honor them.”

He then introduced a teaching from Bankei, a 9th century Chinese Zen master. While recovering from a serious illness as a young man, Bankei realized his existence was nothing more than a moment-by-moment experience. He framed his realization about life as “the unborn.”

“He taught us that nothing is ever born and nothing ever dies,” Nelson said. “Life is a moment-by-moment arising and falling away. So, he said, don’t get born. Don’t fall into identification as me or you, as young or old, as a woman or a man. Even our habits are not part of our original being. Everything is unborn. Why not abide in that?”

He then looked around and chuckled.

“What better place to talk about the unborn than a cemetery?”

Many of us laughed, too. Later, during meditation, I tried to focus on the sounds and sensations I was experiencing: the gentle breeze rolling off the back of my neck, the cool grass under my feet, the soft breathing of my friends around me. At one point several birds cried out, asserting their place in the world before settling in for the evening.

I began to realize that it is possible to sit in a cemetery—a place so deeply associated with death and loss—and feel very much alive. I also understood this as something I can practice on a regular basis; when I find myself sinking into mental, physical, or emotional places of decay, I can work to more directly experience my own vitality as I honor the complicated thoughts of fear and doubt swirling within me.

By the end of meditation, the sun had dipped below the Upper New York Bay. In the lingering warmth of the afternoon, I found myself wondering how many more summers I have left. In that same moment, however, I was able to shift my perspective and realize: I am here, right now, breath-filled and conscious and capable of so much. As my friends and I walked out of the cemetery, I took comfort in their singsong voices echoing in the open twilight sky. I also noticed a pigeon’s glowing red feet, the cemetery security guard’s half-smile, and the first fireflies brave enough to shine their lanterns and welcome the night.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/28/17

The Christian case for assisted dying

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Before and after photos of Frenchwoman Chantal Sebire motivated me, in 2009, to become public in advocating, as a Christian, for the terminally ill to be shown Christian empathy, love and compassion, and to be given an additional choice when even the best palliative care cannot ease their futile suffering.

Chantal, who had an aggressive nasal cancer, that had left her blind, her jaw disintegrating and suffering “atrocious pain”, was pleading for assistance to die.

Since then my views have been reinforced by Christians far more theologically qualified than I am, and many examples of futile suffering sent to me by Christians who have watched loved ones dying inhumanely, asking how can this be compatible with Jesus’ message of love.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung, in his book A Dignified Dying states:

As a Christian and a theologian I am convinced that the all-merciful God, who has given men and women freedom and responsibility for their lives, has also left to dying people the responsibility for making a conscientious decision about the manner and time of their deaths. This is a responsibility which neither the state nor the church, neither a theologian nor a doctor, can take away.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has written:

I know that we will all die and that death is a part of life. Terminally ill people have control over their lives, so why should they be refused control over their deaths? Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes?

Regardless of what you might choose for yourself, why should you deny others the right to make this choice? For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.

In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values. I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth. The time to act is now.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/25/17

Dying is a Sacred Act

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by Frank Ostaseski

Mirrors reflect the truth of what strikes their surface. The eyes of a dying patient are the clearest mirrors I have ever known. In their gaze, there is simply no place to hide. Over the years, the habits of my life have been reflected in those eyes.

Once while washing the back of a hospice patient named Joe he turned toward me and said, “I never thought it would be like this.” I asked what he had thought it might be like. He answered, “I guess I never really thought about it.” Death had taken him by surprise. Perhaps we are not so different.

In the sacred, Hindu epic poem the Mahabharata there is a question that speaks to this tendency. “In all of the worlds what is most wondrous?” The answer that is given is; “That no man no woman though they see people dying all around them believes it will happen to them.”

We make an enormous effort to keep death at arms-length. We spend more than 50% of our healthcare dollars in the final six months of life, literally throwing money at death. We shut away our elders in nursing homes to avoid confronting their pain and our destiny. We have a multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry that tries to keep us all looking young. We even put rouge on people in the coffin.

Death is the fulcrum issue of our life and yet we can barely use the word. People don’t die they “pass away” or they “expire” like credit cards. We make plans for all sorts of activities; when to get married, the number of children we will have, where to go on vacation, which career moves to make or how we will spend our retirement—all of which may never happen. But death, the one event that is certain to occur, barely receives a sidelong glance.

Dying is at its heart a sacred act; it is itself a time, a space, and process of surrender and transformation. The sacred is not separate or different from all things, but rather hidden in all things. Dying is an opportunity to uncover what is hidden.

Walking the gauntlet of thirty beds on the long single hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital, I noticed Isaiah out of the corner of my eye. An African-American man raised in Mississippi, Isaiah was actively dying. His breathing was labored, and he was sweating up a storm. I sat down next to him.

     “You look like you’re working really hard,” I said.

     Isaiah raised his arm, pointed to the distance, and said, “Just gotta get there.”

     “I forgot my glasses. I can’t see that far in the distance. Tell me what you see.”

     Isaiah described a bright green pasture and a long hill leading to a grassy plateau.

     I asked, “If I promise to keep up, can I come?”

He grabbed my hand tight, and Isaiah and I started climbing together. His breathing got shorter, and he perspired more with every step. It was a long walk. Not an easy one.

     “What else do you see?” I asked.

He described a one-room red schoolhouse with three steps leading up to a door.

My training informed me that Isaiah was disoriented to time and location. I could have told the old man that his visions were likely being caused by brain metastasis and morphine. I could have reminded him that we were in a ward at Laguna Honda Hospital. But that was only true on the most superficial level.

The deeper truth was that we were walking to a little red schoolhouse.

     I asked, “Do you want to go in?”

     Isaiah sighed. “Yeah. I’ve been waitin’.”

     “Can I go with you?” I asked.

     “Nope.”

     “Okay, then, you go,” I said.

A few minutes later, Isaiah died quite peacefully.

The great spiritual and religious traditions have any number of names for the unnamable: the Absolute, God, Buddha Nature, True Self. All these names are too small. In fact, all names are too small. They are fingers pointing at the moon. I invite you to connect with what you know and trust most in your heart of hearts.

I use the simple term Being to point at that which is deeper and more expansive than our personalities. At the heart of all spiritual teachings is the understanding that this Being is our most fundamental and benevolent nature. Our normal sense of self, our usual way of experiencing life, is learned. The conditioning that occurs as we grow and develop can obscure our innate goodness.

Some part of us, deep in our hearts has known this truth. If not, we would not long for a return to it. And this part of our being knows that we will never be satisfied until our whole being is immersed in this oneness.

Complete Article HERE!

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08/18/17

A Quaker Approach to Living with Dying

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By Katherine Jaramillo 

I’ve been present with hundreds of people as they’ve died, hundreds more who were already dead by the time I was paged, and hundreds more who were in their dying process. I’ve accompanied spouses, parents, children, friends and family members as they’ve experienced the horror and sorrow of grief. For the past 20 years, I’ve been a chaplain, mostly in hospitals, a few with hospice. In doing this work, I’ve crossed death’s path more often than I can count as I’ve zigzagged my way through the hospital corridors and in the homes of folks experiencing the last days, weeks, months of life. Those of us on the interdisciplinary healthcare team struggle, as best we can, to provide our dying patients with a “good death,” however they and their families define such. There’s a saying in healthcare, “People die as they have lived.” Sometimes that is not the case, but, more often than not, that’s the way it goes.

Often, Quakerism is defined as a way of life. Some questions that I have carried for years in the ministry of chaplaincy include the following:

  • What does our Quaker faith and spirituality offer us as we face decline, diminishment, and death?
  • What can we say, as Quakers, with regard to dying and death as a personal and spiritual experience?
  • Is there a Quaker way of dying? How do we, as Quakers, do this?

My formative experience with regard to the Quaker way of dying was by accompanying a Friend through her decline and death. Her final illness, dying process, and death were Quaker community and meeting experiences. Her experience wasn’t a private or family-only affair. When she couldn’t come to meeting, small groups of Friends were dispatched to her home, hospital, or nursing facility to have meeting for worship with her. Friends from meeting stayed with her overnight in the hospital when she had to be on the breathing machine and was so uncomfortable and scared. She had a committee of trusted Friends who arranged for her practical needs when she was still able to live independently, including staying with her 24/7 when just home from the hospital and at times of extreme debility. These Friends helped with discernment regarding transition from independent living to a skilled nursing facility. In what turned out to be her final hospitalization, these Friends helped her discern her choice to decline heroic life-sustaining treatment and allow herself a natural death. Friends reflected with her about her desire for integrity and living in alignment with the testimonies, her beliefs about an afterlife. She was afforded the opportunity, though her Quaker way of living, to proceed to a Quaker way of dying. One First Day, as we knew death was approaching, our meeting of about 80 Friends decided to meet in a hospital conference room for worship. About halfway into the worship hour, a Friend came downstairs to announce our Friend’s death. It was a gathered meeting. Our Friend died the way she had lived.

Last year, desiring conversation on these questions, I facilitated an interest group I called “The Quaker Art of Dying” at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. The conference brings women together from the divergent Friends traditions in the Pacific Northwest, primarily from Canadian, North Pacific, and Northwest Yearly Meetings, as well as other independent meetings and churches, to articulate our faith and to learn from each other. The group was well attended and diverse. I presented three queries to the group for discussion. We broke into small groups each taking one of the queries, then reconvened into the large group to get the bigger picture.

What is a Quaker approach to declining health, dying, and death?

Friends reported their understanding that all life is sacred and Spirit informs all life. A Quaker approach would be a mindful, conscious, and prepared approach, with an excitement—or at least a willingness—to enter the mystery of death. It was agreed that a Quaker approach would involve less denial that someone is dying or that death is imminent. There is a value for listening, hearing one another’s experiences, and entering new situations with curiosity, not offering answers. Especially for Liberal Friends, but for some Evangelical Friends as well, there was less focus on an afterlife. A Quaker approach would be a well-ordered approach, with orderly records, legal documents, and final letters and lists of wishes. Friends agreed that cremation was customary and in alignment with Quaker values. The writing of a memorial minute was another Quaker tradition to document the passing of a Quaker life. As one Friend stated, “The Quaker approach is portable; you can take the heart of the Quaker way wherever it needs to go.”

How do our beliefs, testimonies, and values inform our approach to the end of life?

Friends agreed in their understandings that we have a direct connection with the Divine. Some Friends voiced a lack of fear about death. Others voiced fears about the decline of physical and cognitive abilities and the actual process of dying, such as the possibility of pain, loss of competence, being a curmudgeon, or depleting family resources. One Friend likened the burdens of dying to birthing: “Both are hard work.” Friends agreed that upholding the dying person in community benefits the community as well as dying person. Friends voiced an intention to allow support and presence of others as we approach the end of life, as well as taking all the alone time we need.

How can we prepare for death? Our own and that of our loved ones? A list emerged.

We need to:

  • Pray.
  • Think about what we want.
  • Talk about what we want, even though it is difficult, especially with our children.
  • Talk about what others want.
  • Talk with our families about our wishes.
  • Pray some more.
  • Deal with unfinished business—either finishing it or leaving it unfinished, but dealing with it intentionally.
  • Educate ourselves about health decline and the dying process by reading books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
  • Talk with our spouses or significant others, about things we’ll need to know if they can’t tell us themselves for whatever reason.
  • Prepare for the process:
    • Who do we want involved? Who do we not want involved? Do we want a care committee or not?
    • How do we want our remains disposed? Do we prefer cremation or burial? If we want to be cremated, do we want our remains to be scattered, interred, or buried?
    • What do we want for a memorial or funeral?
    • Do we want an obituary; a eulogy? What would we want said in our memorial minute?
  • We need to help meetings and churches be prepared for the decline, debility and deaths of their members and attenders.
  • Keep praying.

This conversation continues. In a recent meeting of our Quaker women’s discussion group, I facilitated a robust discussion about a Quaker approach to end-of-life issues and posed similar queries to the group. Evangelical Friends spoke of the “continuum of life” that transcends death, the need for “being right with God,” and the peace that “being with Jesus” will bring. Liberal Friends spoke of “entering the mystery” and “going into the Light.” There seemed to be agreement and assurance that “all will be well” at the end of physical life. Some women focused on the need to enter this time of life with their “affairs in order.” Other women spoke of their experiences accompanying a dying person in their meeting or church or in their own families. All seemed to enjoy the discussion of “things we don’t usually get to talk about” and voiced an intention to encourage further discussion in our churches and meetings. Later this month, I will attend my own meeting’s retreat where the topic will be “Spirituality As We Age.” No doubt, we will be continuing the discussion of how we Quakers intend to die as we have lived.

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07/3/17

Deconstructing Death as a Dying Woman

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by Mackenzie E. Rockcastle

Next week, I have my second scan since being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

 
The thought of the little white masses glowing brightly on my doctor’s computer monitor leaves my stomach unsettled—leaves my mind unsettled.

As my “scanxiety” builds, I find myself leaning on my own advice to approach my fears of dying. A few weeks ago, I gave my therapist a breakdown of what I thought were my general fears surrounding death. She was surprisingly thankful for my analysis of such an enormous concept and fear that is shared by so many. She told me many of her patients held an irrational fear of dying. Breaking death down into the smaller fears that truly comprise the overall terror for the word makes it a little less intimidating.

She believed this mindset could help some of her other patients get to the root of their obsessions. So I thought to myself, perhaps my breakdown of death—one that has helped me unveil my true fears, befriend my own death, and enhance my life—could help others do the same.

To start the process of grasping my fears surrounding death, I first had to ask: Is it possible to create a good relationship with death? And in order to create a good relationship with it, well, perhaps we need to understand why we have such a bad relationship with it.

I personally see four major reasons to feel uncomfortable about death. All of them associate with fear. Fear of the dying itself, fear of what lays beyond death, fear of the life we will never live, and fear for those we leave behind.

At this point, I believe I’ve come to peace with three out of the four. But I had to ask (and continuously have to ask) myself the following questions:

1. What is dying?

Dying is a physical action. It is momentary. Physical pain may be associated, but it is temporary, not eternal. Dying is generally defined as “to stop living.” This definition causes death to be associated with the opposite of life. I don’t like this association, and I don’t believe it properly does justice to the word death.

As a young child in school, I specifically remember doing worksheets to understand opposites: on/off, black/white, night/day, life/death. Looking at a lot of ancient cultures, many have a book of the dead: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Celtic Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and so on. The way that most of them describe death is not as the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. I think this shift in language—this shift in the juxtaposition of life and death—is important.

It is an entirely different concept. It suggests that we walk into a room and we walk out of a room, not that the room disappears.

2. What comes after death?

Since this is the most uncertain part of the equation, this question can bring about the most fear. Do we fear an almighty man in the sky? Burning for all eternity? That, maybe, this is it? Religion, upbringing, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve watched, and what we’ve read all play into what we believe happens after death. But the reality is, no one knows for certain. Beliefs, faith, and religion aside, really no one can say without a shadow of a doubt what happens when we die.

In this thought, some people hold fear, and some people hold peace.

For me, this is the most fun part. As a nonreligious, but spiritual person, this is a playground of opportunity. I personally don’t hold a fear for this. Rather, I see the space beyond death as a a beautiful existence where our beings no longer hold their human form. I acknowledge my brain doesn’t have the capacity to understand this fully, and therefore I don’t try too hard to create an image or definition to coincide, rather just a feeling. This is the part of death I feel to be the most reassuring, warm, and whole. It’s the presence that gives full peace.

3. Are we afraid of the things you will miss out on, the things we never did, or the things we’ll never do?

This fear is actually comprised of regret. These are the things in life we always thought we’d achieve or have the time for. The places we wanted to go. The people we wanted to meet. The food we wanted to eat. The adventures we wanted to take. This is bucket-list stuff, and is constantly shifting. It’s understandable to want more time to do more things, but, in fact, more incentive to live fully while we know we are here. Carpe f*ckin’ Diem, right?

The longer we live, we assume, the more likely we are to achieve our dreams and desires. And sometimes this is true. At 21, my initial diagnosis left me thinking I’d never graduate from college. A year later, I graduated with my class. At 23, just two weeks after finding out my cancer had returned, I stood next to my beautiful sister-in-law as she married my brother. I cried a good amount, most tears were of joy, but some of the salty droplets fell from the thought that I may never live long enough to get married. A year passed, and I did.

I realize some of those things can’t always be attained. I have certainly shed a tear or two over the thought of the empty bedrooms in my home that echo with the cries of babies who are not mine, and are not there. While the thought is sad, it too passes. My perspective goes beyond that. I have a lot of dreams. But if I don’t attain them, I am at peace with that. And I think part of that acceptance is the realization that it isn’t those big “achievements” that were my favorite parts of life thus far.

It’s the nitty gritty. The naughty. The unexpected. The unconventional things that are mine. And if that’s what we enjoy about life—the little things and the uniqueness of the bonds we’ve made—then maybe we can take away the bigness of death. Maybe if we break it down into the little things about it we can start to get on the same level as it. Maybe we can start to repair this broken relationship with death.

4. Do we hold a fear for those we’ll leave behind?

Currently, this is my greatest fear associated with my own death. I fear for the pain inflicted on those who will heavily feel my void. I am trying to remedy this by reminding them that my purpose here may be just that: a reminder. A reminder and an inspiration. And whatever is happening, it’s supposed to. It’s fluid and it will make sense. If I were to die soon, I know the little things people will see and think of me for.

Little jokes that will make them laugh. Spaces, patterns, and songs that will make them smile. And that is what makes us immortal: our essence. I believe that’s what we become when we die. And if I can inspire people to pursue the things that make them smile, laugh, and feel joy—feel love—that is a gift greater than I can take credit for. It gives me peace to know I will, in some way, be with them.

But, I can stare into my mothers eyes and tell her how at peace I am over a bottle of wine at lunch. And I am. But when I swivel around that table and look through her eyes, what do I see? My baby girl dying? F*ck, I can’t imagine. Nor, probably will I ever have to (which adds into the f*cked-up-ness of the thought).

I can physically feel the heaviness of my husband’s sadness as he lays his body on top of mine just to make sure I’m still there. I can run alongside my best friend and no empathy is needed, because the thought of losing her is the exact same weight as her thought of losing me. I can talk bucket-lists with my dad, who is battling Stage 3 cancer, with stipulation on both ends on how things are doing in a few months—a most unusual fate not typically shared between a father and daughter simultaneously. I can go out with my brothers or my friends and share meals, drinks, and laughs.

A big part of the problem is we continue to view death as an end—that we’ll never be able to share those same meals, drinks, and laughs again. But we wouldn’t anyways. That’s how time works. Part of making peace with death is making peace with time. Perhaps it’s the most perfect preserver of time—the relationship we had is exactly the relationship it will always be. We will always have shared that meal. We will always have shared that drink. We will always have shared that laugh. Allowing the fleeting to fleet. And letting life slip into death, in the beautiful, exact way it’s supposed to.

But, still, this is where I find sadness: in the sadness of others. I don’t like being the source of peoples’ pain. It’s the part that hurts the most. So no, this piece I am not yet at peace with. But it is a shared burden. And I believe the more at peace those I love become, the more at peace I’ll become. Which is the point of this whole thought: How do we better our relationship with death?!

I suppose a more complicated question then becomes: How do we better our relationship not only with our own death, but with the death of others? And I’m starting to think this is a full circle concept. If we better our relationship with our own death, we better our relationship with the death of others.

I think the first step is talking about it. Often the conversation is met with: “I can’t bare the thought.” But what if we did? What if we did just f*cking bear the thought? What would we do differently? How would we treat each other differently? How would we live differently? Can being friends with death make us have a better life?

I whole-heartedly believe the answer is yes.

I think as we visit and revisit each of these four major parts of death, we continue to delve deeper and deeper into a peace with it. A peace with our own death, a peace with the death of others, and a life more fully lived.

Complete Article HERE!

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