04/5/18

A history of dying-and-rising gods

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A detailed view of coffin of Peftjanoeneith

by Derek Beres

My cat, Osiris, is lying at my feet as I type this article. That’s his normal nook while I’m in my office, which doubles as our guest room—the futon behind me is also a suitable sleeping option. Celebrating his eighteenth birthday soon, I’m thankful he’s stayed healthy and vibrant for this long. The same was not the case for his namesake.

On Sunday many Christian faithful celebrated the resurrection of their savior. Yet the story of Christ is an oft-repeated motif in mythological literature. Resurrection tales abound across the planet. This was first brought to broader attention thanks to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, an exhaustive survey on world mythologies that was originally written to show their inadequacies by a skeptical Frazer, yet turned out to influence entire academic departments in the comparative mythology and comparative religion fields that grew from his work. 

While much speculation has been offered as to why resurrection cycles persisted, the annual birth, death, and rebirth of the soil provide an important clue. The plants that grow, wither, and die seasonally only to return to nourish us once again makes for a convenient segue to the concept of souls. Frazer consciously linked this fact with the cults of Persephone, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus. As he writes, 

It remains to see whether the conception the annual death and resurrection of a god, which figures so prominently in these great Greek and Oriental worships, has not also its origin or its analogy in the rustic rites observed by reapers and vine-dressers amongst the corn-shocks and the vines.

Easter Sunday, known as Resurrection Sunday to the faithful, marks the third day of Christ’s burial after his death on the crucifix. Missionary Christianity spread Christ’s story across the planet; over the course of centuries those other resurrected gods were discredited, rewritten, or forgotten. The uniqueness of Christ’s story has been challenged by modern scholarship, notably by tablets such as Gabriel’s Revelation. Frazer just brought that reality to the forefront.

Unlike many older stories, the Christ motif was unlinked at some point from sexuality and regeneration to focus on the soul. This speaks in part to the establishment of Christian ethics, yet the desexualization of Christ did a disservice to our understanding of ecology and the environment. The below figures are all in some way connected to fertility and nutritional sustenance, two necessities for the continuation of life. The Christ story is mainly metaphysical, unchained from the earthly cycles even though those annual renewals provide the foundation upon which the Christian mythology was founded.

Beyond the cited figure in each historical mythology is the theme, which is essentially more relevant to the living than the dead. Sure, we discover emotional comfort by the notion of life beyond the grave, but what really matters is picking ourselves up after deaths during lifetime—divorce; the death of relatives and loved ones; losing a job; watching a child leave the nest. Our character is defined by our response to tragedy and suffering.

As the characters below demonstrate, some achieve greater glory after the tragedy while others are trapped in an unforgiving underworld for eternity. What unites them is the human imagination that dreamed up each figure to communicate a primal idea about how to navigate life.

A detailed view of Osiris

Osiris

The Egyptian deity of the afterlife, underworld, and dead is the classic tale of regeneration. There are many variations on his theme, but each poem centers around his love for his sister-wife Isis, a jealous brother that murders him, Set, and his son, Horus, who avenges his father’s death. In every variation, Isis copulates with Osiris’s briefly resurrected body before he once again perishes. In one telling, his body parts are scattered across the planet, which Isis has to collect before stitching him back together. The agricultural connection is clear: Osiris was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile River and the crops dependent upon its rising. He was also linked to the positioning of the stars, Orion and Sirius, at the beginning of each new year, another resurrection motif.

People take part in a reenactment of an ancient celebration dedicated to the Greek god Dionysus, marking the carnival season, on February 11, 2018, in Athens.

Dionysus

The Greeks offer the most famous mythological motifs in the West, unsurprisingly as they’re the basis of our culture. Maybe the drunken god of grape harvest, wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, and ritual madness waking up the morning after was enough of an impetus to make him a resurrected being—sulfites pack a punch. Dionysus was never crucified, but torn to bits by cannibalistic titans; he was somehow reshaped from the remaining heart, which flies in the face of anthropological data that our ancestors were organ eaters. Regardless, mythology is not about facts. Rituals celebrating his prowess remain beloved to this day. 

Tammuz

Tammuz

In one of the world’s oldest pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king references Tammuz, an ancient Mesopotamian lord of shepherds, as an ex-lover of Ishtar who was turned into a bird with a broken wing. The scorching Mesopotamian summers needed a hero to resurrect the fertile soil every year—the link between sex/fertility and vegetation, noted above with Dionysus, is another common motif—and that duty fell onto Tammuz, who was also known as Dumuzid. A midsummer month was even named in his honor. Tammuz’s legacy lived behind himself, as gods do. He was incorporated into myths in the Levant and Greece, where he became known as Adonis.

Adonis

Adonis

Being the mortal lover of Aphrodite is no small task. As his harbinger, Tammuz, was already firmly secure in his sexual prowess, Adonis has echoed through the generations as the ideal lover. Born from a myrrh tree and raised by Persephone, whose own myth centers on the regeneration powers of vegetation, Adonis’s good looks created a feud between Aphrodite and Persephone. Zeus declared that the boy would spend one-third of each year with each of them, then choose where to spend his final third term. He must not have been a fan of Hades, as he chose Aphrodite. Then he was gored by a wild boar, dying in Aphrodite’s arms. Adonis is reborn with gardens planted in his honor each summer, the result of his dying blood mixing with Aphrodite’s tears to form an anemone flower.

The Shrine of Attis

Attis

This Geek deity’s story went down over a millennia before the Christ figure appears. His first cult was linked to a Phrygian trading outpost, Pessinos, whose great mountain was thought to be a daemon. Attis’s mother, Nana, became pregnant by laying an almond from a mystical tree on her bosom. She had second thoughts about this motherhood job, though, as upon his birth she abandoned him. Attis was subsequently raised by a he-goat. He fell in love with Cybele, but his foster parents sent him to Pessinos, where he was forced into an arranged marriage to King Midas’s daughter. Eventually, he went mad and cut off his genitals, so that he would not betray Cybele. He too died and was reborn, concurrent with the spring planting and autumn harvest the locals experienced every season.

Complete Article HERE!

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04/2/18

Death is changing — can the Catholic Church change with it?

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With cremation on the rise, cemetery space dwindling, and cryogenic freezing around the corner, the Vatican is facing some tough decisions.

By Leah Thomas

The Catholic Church preaches the importance of following ritual, especially when it comes to burial practices. It stresses that, if possible, one’s whole body should be buried in a Catholic cemetery after carrying out a traditional Catholic funeral service, which involves the wake, the funeral mass, and the final interment prayer at the gravesite. If it was good enough for Jesus, reasons the Vatican, it’s certainly good enough for everybody else.

But in 2018, choosing cremation over full-body burial is so popular even Catholic priests are planning to skip out on classic casket burials. “I haven’t signed up for it yet, but yes, that’s what I will do,” said Father Allan Deck, a priest and professor of theology at Loyola Marymount in California.

“I think it’s a bit more practical,” he continued, laughing. “It’s easier to move the cremated remains around than it is a coffin, right?”

Cremation is prevalent now more than ever, with over half of Americans opting to be cremated rather than having a standard burial. And this percentage is projected to reach 78.8 by the year 2035, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Whether the Catholic Church felt pressured by the decreasing number of standard burials or by its own priests choosing the alternative, the Vatican released a statement in 2016 outlining the church’s new, more relaxed stance on cremation and the handling of cremated remains.

The new guidelines clarified that while cremation is acceptable, full-body burial is still preferred in order to (hopefully) emulate the Easter Day resurrection of Jesus Christ. “In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body,” the document stated.

“More and more of our funeral services are with cremains rather than with coffins,” Father Deck said. “It goes up every year, and the church has tried to respond to it in a constructive way, indicating certain things that should be observed if at all possible, like that cremated remains be put in one place, either in a cemetery or a mausoleum.”

The Vatican’s statement also made it clear that cremated remains, or “cremains,” should not be scattered, divided up, kept in one’s home, or preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects. But why is it so necessary for those ashes to be buried?

“The preservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they will not be forgotten or excluded from prayers,” said Andrew P. Schafer, Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Newark.

“We’ve had situations where homes have been sold and the next buyer finds an urn with human cremated remains in it simply because as the generations passed on, the family forgot about that person,” Schafer recalled. “And so it’s important to remain part of the Christian community and to be buried properly so you will always be remembered, especially in prayer.”

The fear of being “forgotten or excluded from prayers” derives from the church’s belief in the concept of purgatory, which is described as a post-death cleansing process where prayers from loved ones and other Catholics can pass a soul into heaven. If one’s body or ashes aren’t in one place — particularly a Catholic cemetery — they may not be remembered. The person may not receive prayers in their name. And they may never leave the eternal waiting room that is purgatory.

Catholics also stress the importance of burial in completing the church’s funeral traditions — traditions they maintain allow families to heal and grieve properly.

“There’s something psychological about bereavement and loss, and there’s a beauty that we offer with a funeral ritual,” said Peter Nobes, Director of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The funeral rituals Nobes is referring to being the three parts of the traditional Catholic funeral service.

“Rituals are important, particularly when there’s a loss in the family. Avoiding things, not wanting to do particular things or not spend money on a particular thing or cut corners here or there, can all be harmful to the family’s grieving process,” Nobes said.

But some attribute the rise in defying Catholic traditions to the high costs of Catholic traditions.

“You’re supposed to get buried in a catholic cemetery, which is also an income generator [for the church],” said Norma Bowe, a Kean University professor who teaches a course called “Death And Perspective.” She added, “I just have to wonder: are they continuing this tradition so that they’re still making money? Because it’s expensive to die.”

She’s not wrong. The average funeral, including embalming and burial, rings up to around $11,000.

The Catholic Church’s mandated burial practices not only present the issue of cost but have also led to a separate issue of cemeteries running out of room.

By the year 2030, the average baby boomer will reach age 85, increasing the death industry by 30 percent, according to the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Assocation. Moreover, individuals over 80 years of age are less likely to choose cremation and more likely to opt for a full-body burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, further contributing to the space issue that Catholic cemeteries are attempting to alleviate without defying traditions.

Catholic cemeteries are beginning to feature “green burials,” or eco-friendly burial pods that recycle into the earth over time.

Other cemeteries are “doubling-up” — or placing the cremains of an individual inside an already used burial plot.

The rules for doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-up vary by region and diocese. In Nobes’ diocese, for example, up to three cremated remains are allowed to be buried inside one traditional full-body burial plot.

Some Catholic cemeteries are building up, rather than down.

“Many of our Catholic cemeteries have been building mausoleums for years now,” Schafer said. “So we’re kind of using the dead space above the cemetery — no pun intended.”

The Catholic mausoleums resemble that of the illustrious above-ground cemeteries in New Orleans, created as an adaptation to the city’s swampland rather than lack of burial space.

The rise in cremation is somewhat helping to alleviate the space issue, as cremated remains take up a significantly less amount of space than full body burial plots. Cremation “niches” can be as small as 12 inches square, according to Schafer.

Bowe, a Catholic, has faith that the church will eventually allow for more choice when it comes to what one has done with his/her ashes.

“I see the church changing,” she said. “I see them embracing folks they haven’t embraced before. Religion serves the people, so they have to think in terms of what the people want.”

When it comes to other modern death practices (or death avoidance practices) the Catholic Church is taking a stronger stance.

“People think they’re going to be frozen or do things to prevent death,” Father Deck said in regards to cryonics, or the practice of freezing bodies in order to potentially be revived in the future with scientific advancements. “But no one in human history has ever avoided death. Even Jesus died on Easter.”

Father Deck went on to clarify that while the church does believe in combating diseases and other health epidemics with medical research and advancements, it does not believe in preventing natural death.

“Death comes to us all. And as Christians we believe that the hour of death leads to the hour when we begin eternal life with the lord,” Father Deck said.

Regardless of Catholic burial recommendations, Bowe still plans to be cremated and have her ashes scattered.

“We have a cabin in New Hampshire that’s been our family retreat for years. I pick blueberries off an island that’s right in the middle of the lake,” Bowe said. “And that’s where I want to go. I want to be among the blueberry bushes. And I don’t think that makes me less of a Catholic.”

Complete Article HERE!

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02/6/18

How the dead danced with the living in medieval society

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Detail of figures from the Dance Macabre, Meslay-le-Grenet, from late 15th-century France.

By

In the Halloween season, American culture briefly participates in an ancient tradition of making the world of the dead visible to the living: Children dress as skeletons, teens go to horror movies and adults play the part of ghosts in haunted houses.

But what if the dead played a more active, more participatory role in our daily lives?

It might appear to be a strange question, but as a scholar of late medieval literature and art, I have found compelling evidence from our past that shows how the dead were well-integrated into people’s sense of community.

Ancient practices

In the medieval period, the dead were considered simply another age group. The blessed dead who were consecrated as saints became part of daily ritual life and were expected to intervene to support the community.

A funeral mass, with mourners, from a Book of Hours.

Families offered commemorative prayers to their ancestors, whose names were written in “Books of Hours,” prayer books that guided daily devotion at home. These books included a prayer cycle known as the “Office of the Dead,” which family members could perform to limit the suffering of loved ones after death.

Medieval culture also had its ghosts, which were closely linked with the theological debate concerning purgatory, the space between heaven and hell, where the dead suffered but could be relieved by the prayers of the living. Folk traditions of the dead visiting the living as ghosts were thus explained as souls pleading for the prayerful devotion of the living.

When, how practices changed

The Reformation in Europe radically changed this cultural interface with the dead. In particular, the idea of a purgatory was rejected by Protestant theologians.

While ghosts persisted in folk stories and literature, the dead were pushed from the center of religious life. In England, these changes were intensified in the period after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. Thereafter, the veneration of saints and commemorative prayers associated with purgatory were banned.

The dead were also removed from view in more literal ways: Reformation iconoclasts, who wished to purge churches of any association with Catholic practices, “whitewashed” hundreds of church interiors to cover the bold, colorful murals that decorated the medieval parish churches.

One of the more popular mural subjects that I have studied for many years was the Dance of Death: over 100 mural paintings of the theme, as well as dozens of manuscript illuminations, have been identified in England, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

Bernt Notke, Danse Macabre, Tallinn, Estonia (late 15th century).

A powerful metaphor

Dance of Death murals typically depicted decaying corpses dancing amid representative figures of late medieval society, ranked highest to lowest: a pope, an emperor, a bishop, a king, a cardinal, a knight and down to a beggar, all ambling diffidently toward their mortal end while the corpses frolic with lithe movements and gestures.

The visual alternation between dead and living created a rhythm of animation and stillness, of white and color, of life and death, evocative of fundamental human culture, founded on this interplay between the living and the dead.

When modern viewers see images like the Dance of Death, they might associate them with certain well-known but frequently misunderstood cataclysms of the European Middle Ages, like the terrible plague that swept through England and came to be known as Black Death.

My research on these images, however, reveals a more subtle and nuanced attitude toward death, beginning with the evident beauty of the murals themselves, which endow the theme with color and vitality.

The image of group dance powerfully evokes the grace and fluidity of a community’s cohesion, symbolized by the linking of hands and bodies in a chain that crosses the barrier between life and death. Dance was a powerful metaphor in medieval culture. The Dance of Death may be responding to medieval folk practices, when people came at night to dance in churchyards, and perhaps to the “dancing mania” recorded in the late 14th century, when people danced furiously until they fell to the ground. But images of dance also provoked a viewer to participate in a “virtual” experience of a community. It depicted a society collectively facing up to human mortality.

Mural of the Danse Macabre from the parish church of Kermaria-en-Isquit, France (late 15th century).

A healthy community

In analyzing the murals in their broader social context, I found that for medieval cultures, dying was a “transition,” not a rupture, that moved people from the community of the living to the dead in stages.

It was part of a larger spiritual drama that encompassed the family and the broader community. During the dying process, people gathered in groups to aid in a successful transition by offering supportive prayer.

Scenes of dying, a funeral mass, sewing the shroud, burial and comfort of the widow. In the lower margin, a group of nobles confronts a symbolic figure of death, riding a unicorn.

After death, groups prepared the corpse, sewed its shroud and transported the body to a church and then to a cemetery, where the broader community would participate in the rituals. These activities required a high degree of social cohesion to function properly. They were the metaphorical equivalent of dancing with the dead.

The Dance of Death murals thus depicted not a morbid or sick culture but a healthy community collectively facing their common destiny, even as they faced the challenge to renew by replacing the dead with the living.

Many of the murals are irretrievably lost. However, modern restoration work has managed to recover some of them. Perhaps this conservation work can serve as inspiration to recover an older model of death, dying and grief.

Acknowledging the work of the dead

Constable, bishop, squire and clerk from the Danse Macabre of the Abbey Church of La Chaise-Dieu, France.

In the modern era entire industries have emerged to whisk the dead from view and alter them to look more like the living. Once buried or cremated, the dead play a much smaller role in our social lives.

Could bringing the dead back into a central role in the community offer a healthier perspective on death for contemporary Western cultures?

That process might begin with acknowledging the dead as an ongoing part of our image of community, which is built on the work of the dead who have come before us.

Complete Article HERE!

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02/5/18

A Burial at Gethsemani

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Abbey of Gethsemani

By Gregory K. Hillis

It was a surprise to enter the Abbey of Gethsemani’s church and see a body lying on a bier. Br. Harold was dressed in a white cowl and his face bore no signs of being made up by a mortician. He did not look like he was sleeping. He looked like what he was: dead.

He was not alone. The community had kept vigil with Br. Harold all night, each monk taking turns at the bier, praying the psalms with him one last time, prayers he knew so well from decades of saying the Divine Office.

As the funeral Mass began, Br. Harold’s bier was carried directly in front of the altar. There was no casket and his face was not covered. He simply lay there, a monk among his brother monks, albeit a now silent and unmoving participant in the Eucharistic feast.

After the Mass, his bier was carried out the doors of the church to the cemetery, filled with hundreds of identical white crosses. Here are buried monks from more than 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey. Among them is Thomas Merton, known in the community as Fr. Louis, buried beside Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom he so often clashed.

Along with the monks and members of Br. Harold’s family, I processed to a freshly dug grave. Although I’ve come to know quite a few of the monks of the abbey, I didn’t know Br. Harold. He was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer’s when I moved to Kentucky. I learned, though, that I missed out on a beautiful and simple man who breathed God in deeply, particularly when looking at a flower in bloom.

To allow Br. Harold’s brother monks, family members, and friends to be near the graveside, I found a spot on an outlook near the church that stood above his final resting place. Cistercians dig their graves very deep and they bury their dead without caskets. From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower. There was also a ladder leading into the grave.

After graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier. The sheet he was on had six long straps attached by which he was lowered into the ground. As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk standing in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold’s head.

There was love and gentleness in the way the monk did this. I was reminded of the care with which my wife and I would put each of our newborn sons into the crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn’t disturbed. When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother monk almost tuck him in for his rest. He carefully laid Br. Harold’s head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over his face, and then ascended out of the grave, pulling up the ladder behind him.

From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, and then, shovel by shovel, being covered in dirt. Truth be told, it was disconcerting to see a human body—not a body in a casket, but simply a body—be buried. But never before had the words Christians recite on Ash Wednesday—remember you are dust—been as real to me as they were at that moment.

More importantly, I had never experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral. What I witnessed was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the very depths of the grave.

On Ash Wednesday we are reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others. However, there’s something about my experience at Br. Harold’s funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community—to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighborhood and city.

Br. Harold lived a life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others. In his life, he gave himself to his community. In his illness and death, the monks in the community gave themselves to him. At his funeral I learned that to confront our mortality is to come face to face with the reality of how deeply and truly we need one another. 

Complete Article HERE!

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01/15/18

Death: The Greatest Teacher

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The Buddha said the greatest of all teachings is impermanence. Its final expression is death. Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains why our awareness of death is the secret of life. It’s the ultimate twist.

“Laughing in the Face of Stupidity,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

by

Whether we fight it, deny it, or accept it, we all have a relationship with death. Some people have few encounters with death as they are growing up, and it becomes personal for them only as they age and funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Others grow up in violent surroundings where sudden death is common, or see a family member die of a fatal illness. Many of us have never seen a person die, while people who work in hospitals and hospices see the realities of death and dying every day. But whether death is something distant for us or we are in the thick of it, it haunts and challenges us.

Death is a strong message, a demanding teacher. In response to death’s message, we could shut down and become more hardened. Or we could open up, and become more free and loving. We could try to avoid its message altogether, but that would take a lot of effort, because death is a persistent teacher.

Teacher death met up with us the minute we were born, and is by our side every moment of our life. What death has to teach us is direct and to the point. It is profound but intimate. Death is a full stop. It interrupts the delusions and habits of thought that entrap us in small-mindedness. It is an affront to ego.

Death is a fact. Our challenge is to figure out how to deal with it, because it is never a good plan to struggle against or deny reality. The more we struggle against death, the more resentment we have and the more we suffer. We take a painful situation and through our struggles add a whole new layer of pain to it.

We cannot avoid death, but we can change how we relate to it. We can take death as a teacher and see what we can learn from it.

“Laughing in the Face of Pride,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

Facts are facts: everyone is going to die sooner or later. No magic trick or spiritual gimmick will make it go away. Distancing ourselves from death or putting off thinking about it does not work.

I have noticed that the more distant we are from death, the more fear arises. Death becomes alien, other, scary, mysterious. People who work regularly with the dying, who are closer to death, seem to have less fear.

We each have our own unique relationship with death, our own particular history and circumstances, but one way or another we all relate to death. The question is: how do we relate with this reality and how does this color our lives? It is possible to come to terms with the fact of death in a way that enriches our lives, but to learn from death we must be willing to take a dispassionate look at our experiences and preconceptions.

Reflecting on our own mortality and the reality of death is practiced in many contemplative traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, the contemplation of death is said to be the “supreme contemplation.” It encompasses reflecting not only on physical mortality, but on impermanence in all its dimensions.

By means of meditation and by developing an ongoing awareness of death, we can change our relationship with death and thereby change our relationship with life. We can see that death is not just something that pops up at the end of life, but is inseparably linked with our life moment to moment, from the beginning to the end.  We can see that death is not just a final teacher. It is available to teach us here and now.

When we contemplate in this way, our many schemes for getting around the reality of death, such as coming up with interpretations to make it more palatable, are exposed one by one and demolished. Death is the great interrupter, unreasonable and nonnegotiable. No amount of cleverness will make it otherwise.

Contemplating death is not an easy practice. It is not merely conceptual. It stirs things up. It evokes emotions of love, sorrow, fear, and longing. It brings up anger, disappointment, regret, and groundlessness. How tender it is to reflect on the many losses we have experienced and will experience in the future. How poignant it is to reflect on life’s fleeting quality.

How we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

 
In this practice, we deliberately bring our attention back again and again to our relationship with death. We examine what we mean by death and what it brings up for us. We reflect on our experiences and reactions to it.

It is a bit like going for marriage counseling. “When did you two first meet? Tell me a little about your history. Do you spend much time together? What is it about him or her that has offended you? How do you see your relationship moving forward?” You could say that death is your most intimate partner. It is with you all the time, completely interwoven into your daily activities. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make a relationship with it?

But our relationship with death is not that simple. In order to understand it, we need to slow down and systematically examine our ideas about it, what it brings up for us, and what it means to us. Death stirs up all kinds of thoughts. And hidden within those clouds of thoughts is a small, unspoken, deep-rooted, yet persistent notion—that we will come through it intact, as though we could come to our own funeral.

The more closely you look into all these ideas, the more you see how inadequate the conceptual mind is in the face of death. Nonetheless, how we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

Contemplative practice challenges us to look deeply into our thoughts and beliefs, our fantasies and presumptions, and our hopes and fears. It challenges us to separate what we have been told from what we ourselves think and experience. We have all kinds of thoughts about what happens when we die and how we and others should relate with death, but through meditation we learn to recognize thoughts as thoughts. We learn not to mistake these thoughts and ideas about death for direct knowledge or experience. We learn not to believe everything we think or everything we have been told.

“Laughing in the Face of Attachment,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

We are in a dance with death at all levels, and each level influences and is influenced by the others. We are influenced by what we have been told about death and dying, by our personal history, by our cultural biases, and by what we have observed. We are also influenced by inner habits of thought and conditioned responses. Our most subtle views and reactions to impermanence may be quite hidden, but they touch on our view of life altogether, and on our personal identity.

If we want to understand our relationship with death, we need to explore its broader as well as its more subtle dimensions. If we are willing to take an honest look at how we personally deal with this reality, we can develop a deeper understanding of impermanence and even befriend it.

One way to begin is by reflecting on your personal history with death. What have you been told about death? What are some of your earliest experiences of it?

In my case, when I was about five, I was told my babysitter had died, and that was it. For me, she just disappeared, and children did not go to funerals. A bit later, when my aunt died, I was told that she would go to heaven, a very beautiful place. But I didn’t think people really believed that, because all I saw were people upset and crying. When pets died, I was told they “went to sleep.” It didn’t look like sleep to me.

As a child, I observed that dead animals did not breathe or move about like live ones. I saw that they shriveled up and began to smell funny, or were squashed beyond recognition. I saw that dogs hit by cars screamed in pain and that animals looked sick before they died. I saw that people became old and frail. I saw that when you killed a bug, you could not make it come back to life, even if you felt sorry. My friends and I thought it was funny to sing ditties, like “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…”  Death was not that real to us; we made it into a joke.

I observed many such things on an outer level, but on an inner level, I did not have a clue as to what death was about or what it all meant. I did not know how to make sense of it, or to link it to other experiences in my life.

Death is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

 
In our encounter with mortality, it is this inner dimension, the relationship dimension, that we need to explore. It becomes obvious that to get to a more uncluttered relationship with death, we first need to plow through a surprising number of ideas, presumptions, and speculations, some of which are very deep-rooted. Through this process, we can become aware of the many concepts that are floating around in us, and try to figure out where they come from and what effect they have on us.

When we look into where all this comes from, we encounter a paradox. We usually consider death to be the end, but it begins to seem that death is in fact the beginning. It is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

We can begin our exploration right where we are. We have already been born, we are alive, and we have not yet died. Now what? We might connect to our life in terms of a story or a history. For instance, we were born in such and such a time and place, we did this and that, and we have a particular label and identity. But that story is always changing and in process; it is not all that reliable. However, when our story is combined with a physical body, we seem to have something more solid, a complete package. We have something to hang onto and defend. We have something that can be taken away.

But what do we have to hang onto, really? Our story is not that solid. It is always being revised and rewritten. Likewise, our body is not one solid continuous thing. It too is always changing. If you look for the one body that is you, you cannot find it.

The closer you look, the less solid this whole thing seems. When we investigate our actual experience, here and now, moment by moment, we see how fleeting and dynamic it is. As soon as we notice a thought, feeling, or sensation, it has already happened. Poof! It is the same with the act of noticing. Poof! Gone! And the noticer, the one who is noticing, is nowhere to be found. Poof! When we contemplate in this way, we begin to suspect that this life is not all that solid—that we are not all that solid.

This may seem like bad news, but in fact this discovery is of supreme importance. As we begin to see through our mythical solidity, we also begin to notice all sorts of little gaps in our conceptual schemes. We notice little tastes of freedom and ease in which our struggle to be someone dissolves, and we just are. In such moments, at least briefly, we are not being propelled by either hope or fear. We see that continually holding onto life and warding off death as a future threat is not our only option. There is an alternative to our tight-jawed habit of holding on and defending.

After each little insight or pause, there is a regrouping, and we find ourselves reconstructing our world. Each time we put it back together, we are also putting together the threat that it cannot be maintained. We do this over and over again. We are repetitively and continuously fueling the pretense of solidity and the fear of death that comes with it.

To undo this harmful habit, we need to see it more clearly. We need to recognize that we ourselves are responsible for perpetuating it, and therefore we have the power to stop.

“Laughing in the Face of Jealousy,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

In looking at the seeds of our relationship to life  and death at a subtle inner level, we uncover how we set  ourselves up for a struggle with death from the beginning—at the very personal level of identity and self-definition.

The more solidly we construct ourselves, and the more rigidly we identify with this construct, the more we have to defend and the more we have to fear. Looking at death in terms of such subtle underlying patterns may seem inconsequential, but it is not.

When we drop the battlefield approach—that life and death are enemies—we become open to an entirely new way of viewing things. Instead of this vs. that, us vs. them, something much more inspiring can take place. Experiences can arise freshly because they are immediately let go. Because they are dropped as soon as they arise, there is nothing to hold onto and nothing to lose.  There is no battlefield, no winner and loser, no good guy and bad guy.

Simple formless meditation is a very powerful tool for relaxing this pattern of holding and defending. Working with death through our awareness of momentary arisings and dissolvings is a profound practice. It shows us that the life–death boundary is an ongoing and quite ordinary experience, and that this unsettling meeting point colors all that we do. If we can become more grounded at this level, we can become more open to what death has to teach us altogether.

Although death is an ongoing reality, there are times when it hits us particularly hard. It may be when we have a health scare or a near accident. At such times, we really wake up to the presence of death, and its teachings come through loud and clear. The heart pounds, the senses are heightened, and we feel extra alive. There is a stillness, as though time had stopped.

When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

 
Times like this are so simple and straightforward, so immediate. “This is it,” we think. “It’s actually happening.” In such moments, the heightening of our awareness of death simultaneously heightens our feeling of being alive.

In fact, in the face of death, we feel more fully alive than ever. We are shocked into thinking more seriously about what to do with the time that we have. Usually, though, we don’t maintain that awareness, and the feeling of heightened aliveness fades away. We revert to the default pattern of avoiding death, and, along with that, our dulled down approach to life.

Maintaining an awareness of death makes life more vivid. In the light of death, petty concerns fall away and our usual preoccupations become meaningless. It is as though clouds of dust that have covered over something shiny and vivid have been blown away, and we are left with something raw, immediate, and beautiful. We have insight into what matters and what does not.

Awareness of death—hearing its teaching—cuts through the subtle clinging at the core of our experience. It cuts through our self-clinging and our clinging to others. This may sound harsh, but all that clinging has not really helped us or anyone else. Our clinging to others may have the appearance of real caring, but it is based on fear and an attempt to freeze and control life. It is a way of tuning out death and pulling back from the intensity of life. But if we develop more ease with our own impermanence and struggles with death, we can be more understanding of others and their struggles. We can connect with one another with greater genuineness and warmth.

Death turns out to be the teacher who releases us from fear. It’s the teacher that opens our hearts to a more free-flowing love and appreciation for life and one another. When we get stuck in self-importance and earnestness, death steps in. When we get caught in self-pity, death steps in. When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

Death spurs us forward with a sense of urgency and puts our preoccupations in perspective. Death lightens our clinging and mocks our pretensions. Death wakes us up. It is our most reliable teacher and most constant companion.

Complete Article HERE!

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01/7/18

A time to die? Why I believe in the right to choose

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It’s the beginning of a new year and the script is that we talk about hope. It was a challenging 2017 but things will be OK. New opportunities, fresh blessings, more love and more joy.

 

So why am I wanting to talk about death? Well, it’s personal and also professional.

A doctor watches over a deceased hospital patient.

By Rosie Harper

It’s personal because I have just booked flights back to Switzerland to go to the funeral of my much loved uncle Albin. He died two days before Christmas, aged 82, gently and peacefully with his family around him. About six years ago his younger brother Otto also died peacefully with his family around him. The difference was that Albin died of old age and dementia, Otto died of a nasty aggressive brain tumour. Albin died ‘naturally’. Otto, being Swiss, was able to request and receive the help he needed to die in a dignified and pain-free peaceful way. This merciful intervention in no way changed the fact of his death, and even now the sorrow is hard to bear, but it did cut short the last bitter agonies of the manner of his dying.

It is professional because in the parish where I work there are a lot of funerals. Mostly the bereaved tell me of the immense kindness of all around; family and friends, doctors and nurses. They tell of the shock of sudden unexpected death and also the oblique conversations about the use of morphine. They also sometimes tell me of bad deaths. Deaths where there is no way of giving the dying person their final wish: ‘Please, dear God, please help me to die.’

Don’t tell me that the time of someone’s death is purely God’s business. That at the moment when all a human soul wants is for it to end, God stands at the end of the bed and says: ‘No my child, it is my will that you suffer just a few more days.’

That is pure fatalism and superstition. Even people who would use language such as ‘God has a plan for your life’ don’t actually mean that everything that happens to them from birth to death is controlled. Of course not. We rejoice in our free will, even in the knowledge that we risk misusing it. That’s part of the deal. Our conception is a risk. We may be born to loving parents, or our mother might have been kidnapped and raped. The will of God? Throughout our lives we make choices and many of them are life and death choices. To smoke or drink or over-eat. To enjoy extreme sports, to ride a motorbike. For all those things we choose and we also take responsibility.

When our lives are nearing the end there are now many societies where that degree of both choice and responsibility remains. That is not the case in the UK.

Just when you might think we need our freedom the most, the medical profession, by law, takes it away from us. Just when you might think that God would most honour the freedom he has given us, the Christian community takes it away from us.

I’m with Hans Küng. If the time comes, and it is necessary for me, I would find it a fulfilment of my life of faith to be able to say to God: ‘Loving Father, I thank you for the most wonderful gift of life. The burden of it is now too much for me to bear and so with every ounce of love and gratitude I can muster I give it back to you.’

Complete Article HERE!

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12/29/17

End-of-life activists ponder how to die in a death-averse culture

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Why, you may ask, take on this unpleasant, frightening subject? Why stare into the sun?

— Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death

THE SACRED ART OF DYING: Third Messenger co-founders Said Osio, left, and Greg Lathrop promote community events such as the popular Death Cafe, a community forum that invites participants to engage in conversation about death and dying.

“Are you willing to pretend something for a minute?” asks Greg Lathrop, a local end-of-life activist. “So, let’s pretend this. March 27 will be your last day here. In this game, we know that you’re going to die March 27th. Now, how’s your life? See, it’s a simple perspective shift. Perspective is just a choice. You shift the perspective just that much, and it opens a door. We’re getting somewhere. Now it’s like, ‘I hate my job,’ or ‘I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.’ What would it look like, in these last three months, to live the best three months of your life? It gives us an opportunity. It’s more than a bucket list. What’s your life’s purpose — why are you even here?”

Lathrop, a registered nurse, holds a certification as a Sacred Passage doula — caring for people who are in the process of dying — and is co-founder of Asheville’s Third Messenger, a community of Asheville death-issues activists who have created a forum for conversations about death at the so-called Death Cafe. Lathrop is also part of a growing  national community that works in “the death trade” — people dedicated, he notes, to broaching the conversation of death and dying within a culture that prefers to speak about virtually any other subject.

Lathrop first began that conversation on the heels of his own significant loss. Synchronistically, the death of Lathrop’s wife and the passing of Third Messenger co-founder Said Osio’s daughter propelled the two men to join forces in end-of-life activism. To Asheville locals and tourists alike, Third Messenger’s work may be most visible in what has become a landmark Biltmore Avenue structure.

Ministered to for years by Earl Lee “Happy” Gray (before his passing in October 2016), the “Before I Die” wall poses passers-by one simple question: What have you left undone? Not surprisingly, responses range from the mundane to the profound, reflecting our culture’s divisive relationship with the end of life. Yet the wall serves as a catalyst, the beginning of what Third Messenger views as a critical and much-needed conversation. “We cultivate the sacred art of being with dying — we use art to engage the conversation,” says Lathrop.

It is precisely this lack of familiarity with death that engenders the paralyzing fear of the unknown and creates what author and end-of-life activist Stephen Jenkinson, who spoke at Asheville’s Masonic Temple Nov. 6, refers to as a “death-phobic culture.”

Dr. Aditi Seth-Brown, hospice and palliative care physician at CarePartners, agrees: “Many years ago, there were so many intergenerational families and communities, so death was something that young children were around and saw — life happened around death.” As a result of an unfortunate marriage of families living farther apart and a highly individualistic culture, Sethi-Brown now frequently encounters many individuals who have virtually no experience with the process she views as an inextricable part of life.

“People come to us, and oftentimes this is their very first experience with death, and there’s so much fear of the unknown,” says Sethi-Brown, who is also is a local musician, whose work includes playing for people transitioning and at Third Messenger events. “Sometimes, family members come to us and say, ‘We don’t want our loved one to know that they’re dying.’ We don’t practice it. There are some traditions around the world that actually have practices around death, meditations around death — just like if you’re birthing, you go to birth classes, read birth books, but [there’s] nothing to prepare you for death.”

CALLING FORTH THE BEYOND: Hospice and palliative care physician and musician Dr. Aditi Sethi-Brown often provides musical accompaniment for those transitioning.

Shining light upon the shadows

“I was 9. That’s the start of it, in my memory.” says Asheville resident Julie Loveless. Beginning in early childhood, Loveless found herself plagued by an inexplicable and inescapable fear of death. One night in particular, Loveless says, “We were at my grandmother’s house. My parents were there, my grandmother, my aunt, and it was time for me to go to bed. I was terrified, because I knew I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning. So I was coming up with all of these tactics to stay up. I had a fever, I had diarrhea, my stomach hurt, I was throwing up, I fell down the stairs — anything I could do to stay up and be the center of attention.” It was as though she needed to be seen in her terror, Loveless says, validated in her very existence. “I needed somebody to know I was alive.”

Loveless’ childhood fear of death is far from uncommon. Recent studies show that children as young as 5 express substantial “death anxiety.” The results of one such study indicated that a mature relationship to dying (understanding death as an inevitable biological event) correlated with a decreased fear of death.

Is it any surprise, when many children are now inoculated from the natural rhythms of life, that they fear, rather than revere, that great unknown? The reality is that “we don’t even have a language for dying,” says Lathrop.

Trish Rux, hospice and palliative care nurse and Sacred Passage doula, agrees. In contrast to her upbringing, she says, the majority of individuals she meets have rarely contemplated death. “I was raised without a death phobia,” Rux says. “I remember my father bringing me to a friend’s funeral when I was pretty young and my not really understanding about the casket, and his explaining it to me. He was just a very practical person. Just knowing that death is a part of life — it was an accepted thing.”

In stark contrast, Rux now regularly witnesses individuals who, in their final days, have scarcely given a thought to the inevitability of their own mortality. “Curiously, I’ve had people that in are in their late 80s, and they’ve not thought about their death. It’s incredible to me — they haven’t thought about what they want, who they want to see. It’s sad for me, and it’s pretty common.”

MINDFUL LIVING: “All of our time is running out,” says Julie Loveless. “It does make things less scary when you’re faced with what’s considered the scariest thing a human can be faced with.”

Dancing with death

Loveless was 30 when she first received a diagnosis of breast cancer and 37 when it returned with a vengeance. After having been in remission from the cancer for seven years, a persistent lymphedema sent her back to the oncologist for a standard biopsy. “I’ve never seen it happen that fast,” Loveless says. “He walked in, did the core needle biopsy and left. I got my clothes back on and am sitting down, and he immediately walked back in and said, ‘It looks like disease.’ The way he was talking about it, he made it clear it had metastasized. I don’t think he said the word, ever — it was just understood.”

Yet Loveless is no longer afraid to fall asleep. Now faced with the stark reality of her worst childhood fears, she finds herself liberated rather than imprisoned. “When I go back to the last time I remember having that really potent fear of death that was crippling, like pulling over to the side of the road and having to breathe into a paper bag, to now — it’s night and day. Before, when something would go wrong and I’d look into the mirror and see a new mark on my skin, I’d think ‘Oh, that might be skin cancer.’ Or, ‘I have a headache — I might have an aneurysm.’ To have those thoughts in my head all the time, to think that way and then to be like ‘Oh my God, I might have cancer — oh wait, I do have cancer.’ I have the worst thing you can have. Nothing else is scary.”

Freed from the fear of dying, Loveless now finds herself preoccupied with living. “I wake up in the morning and [think], ‘This may be my last day — how am I going to spend it?’ [Or], this might be my last minute — do I want to spend it brushing my teeth and sitting on the toilet and looking at Facebook? Or, do I want to go make a really yummy smoothie, or do I want to go outside and look at the leaves? So, if you’re thinking that way all the time, you have no idea that it’s even happening until the end of the day and you realize — ‘I didn’t waste my day today.’”

Lathrop questions whether we cheat ourselves of the chance for a more meaningful life if we spend our days running from the inevitability of death. His answer: “Death is my guru. It becomes a real teacher for how to live.” And Sethi-Brown agrees: “The reality is you don’t know when your time is. Don’t be afraid of having the conversation. The fear of the conversation, the discomfort around it — go there, explore that — and you’ll see, it will change your life.”

Complete Article HERE!

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