Emptiness and Filling Out Forms:

A Practical Approach to Death

Dying with compassion means having a plan in place for those left behind. A practitioner recounts how she navigated the process with her dharma friends.

By Rena Graham

As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I am constantly reminded that we never know when death might approach, but for years, I’d avoided dealing with one of the most practical aspects of death—the paperwork. I was not alone: Roughly half of all adults in North America do not have a living will. Then recently, I suffered a near-fatal illness that left me viscerally aware of how unprepared for death I was, and I made a pledge with two of my friends to get ready to leave our bodies behind for both ourselves and the people who survive us.

Bridging the end of December 2017 and the beginning of January 2018, I spent a month in a Vancouver, British Columbia hospital with a bacterial lung infection that had also invaded my pleural cavity—the first time I’d come down with a severe illness. After ten days in an intensive-care unit, I was moved to a recovery ward where I suffered a relapse. I spent my 62nd birthday, Christmas, and New Years with strangers in the hospital.

One night in the ICU, while I was partly delirious and falling in and out of sleep, I had a vision of a deceased friend reaching out to me. From what felt like disengaged consciousness, I looked down at my body on the hospital bed and realized I wasn’t ready to die. I hadn’t studied my lama’s [teacher’s] bardo teachings to navigate the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and did not want to take that journey without a road map. It didn’t matter whether this was a drug-fueled hallucination or an actual near-death experience. The important thing is that I rejected death, not out of fear, but through a recognition of the dreamlike nature of reality. After this experience, I felt that my attachment to this life and the things in it had diminished. I no longer wanted to ignore what came next. I wanted to be prepared. 

When I told my friends Liv and Rosie about this vision, we agreed to study the bardo teachings together once I’d had a couple of months of recuperation. By March, however, our plans shifted. Rosie had heard about a man (I’ll call him Ben) who had died on Lasqueti Island, an off-the-grid enclave in Canada’s Southern Gulf Islands that a local cookbook once described as “somewhere between Dogpatch and Shangri-La.” He had left his closest friends without any instructions. They had no idea if he had a family or where they might be.

“And he left an old dog behind!” Rosie said, “Can you imagine?”

“Not the bodhisattva way to die,” I replied, referring to the Buddhist ideal of compassion. I  also imagined what mess I might have left, had I not made it. 

Promising they would never leave others in such a quandary, Ben’s closest friends created a document called the Good to Go Kit, which detailed information required for end-of-life paperwork. (It is now sold at the Lasqueti Saturday market to raise funds for their medical center.)

“I’ve been wanting to make a will for 20 years,” said Liv, who would soon turn 70, “but research throws me into information overload, which adds to the emotional overwhelm I feel just thinking about it.”

“What if we did this together instead of studying the bardo?” suggested Rosie, who was in her early 50s.

Writing a will, figuring out advanced healthcare directives, and noting our final wishes didn’t have the mystical lure of bardo teachings, but we set that aside for a year while we took on this more practical area of inquiry. 

To use our time wisely, we set several parameters in place. We decided to meet one weekend a month to allow time for research and reflection between meetings, and we chose to keep our group small for ease of scheduling and to allow us to delve deeper into each topic.

 “I’d like this to be structured,” said Liv, “so it doesn’t devolve into a social event.”  

Rosie and I agreed but we knew better than to believe there didn’t need to be some socializing. She offered her place for the first meeting and said she’d cook. 

“We’ll get our chit-chat out of the way over dinner,” she said. “Since we can all be a little intimidated by this process, we have to make it fun.”

Later in March at Rosie’s garden suite, we sat down to dinner and Liv passed out copies of “A Contemplation of Food and Nourishment,” which begins with the appropriate words: “All life forms eat and are eaten, give up their lives to nourish others.” The prayer was written by Lama Mark Webber, Liv and Rosie’s teacher in the Drikung Kagyu school. (I also study with Lama Mark, although my main teacher, Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal, is in the Nyingma lineage.)  Turning our meetings into sacred practice seemed the obvious container to keep us on topic.

After dinner, Rosie rang a bell, we said a refuge prayer and recited the traditional four immeasurables prayer to generate equanimity, love, compassion, and joy toward all sentient beings.  

We traded our prayers for notebooks and reviewed our Good to Go Kit. Rosie smiled at the expected question of pets—including the name of the person who would be caring for the pet, the veterinarian and whether money had been set aside for their expenses. The form also asked whether we had hidden items or buried treasure.

Liv laughed and said, “People still bury strongboxes in their backyards?”

My answer was more prosaic: “Storage lockers.”

Rosie, Liv, and I are all single and childless. We are all self-employed and independent and have chosen Canada as our adopted homeland, meaning we have no family here. So we considered what roles friends might play and focused on those who were closer geographically than sentimentally. 

Pulling them in to act on our behalf seemed like such a “big ask” as Rosie said, but it was time to get real about our needs. The three of us shared our feelings about involving friends outside the dharma versus those within. 

When I was in the ICU, my friend Diane visited on several occasions and later told me she remained calm until she reached her car, where she cried uncontrollably. In marked contrast, my dharma friend Emma calmly asked what I needed and didn’t make much of a fuss. My Buddhist friends tend to view death as a natural transition from one incarnation to the next, while other friends may see it in more dire terms: as a finality or even failure. For end-of-life situations, asking non-Buddhist friends for limited practical support seemed kinder for all involved. 

We started to familiarize ourselves with the responsibilities of someone granted power of attorney for legal and financial proxy and enduring power of attorney for healthcare. Months later, we agreed our network of “dharma sisters” would be the perfect fit. While we hope to maintain our ability to make decisions for ourselves, should we require long-term care, we felt the baton could be passed between a dozen or so trustworthy women. We have since spoken casually about this with a number of these women and have made plans to organize a get-together and discuss our plans in greater detail, offering reciprocal support for what the Buddhist author Sallie Tisdale calls “the immeasurable wonder and disaster of change.” 

We concluded our five hours together by dedicating the merit and reciting prayers of dedication and aspiration. Long-life prayers for our lamas were offered, a bell rung, and heads bowed. Without the need for further conversation, we made our way into the chilly spring evening, silently reflecting on our new endeavor.

The next meeting and those following included menus and discussions that varied widely. Our research grew monthly with documents from government agencies, legal and trust firms, and funeral homes. None of which felt specific to Buddhist practitioners, until Rosie told us about Life in Relation to Death: Second Edition by the late Tibetan teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. This small book is out of print, but I purchased a Kindle copy. In the introduction, Chagdud Tulku, a respected Vajrayana teacher and skilled physician, reminds us that “[t]here are many methods, extraordinary and ordinary, to prepare for the transformation of death.” A book of Buddhist “pith instruction,” it includes in its second edition appendices that above all I found most valuable. These include suggested forms for “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care,” “Advance Directive for Health Care (Living Will),” “Miscellaneous Statements for Witnesses, Notary and Physician,” and “Letter of Instructions.” It even includes a wonderful note for adding your ashes to tza-tsas, small sacred images stamped out of clay. We loved that idea, though we couldn’t imagine asking friends to go to that extent to honor our passing. 

We decided to use a community-based notary public to draw up our wills, but with further research, Liv realized she could also hire them to act as her executor, rather than use her bank. She found someone experienced and enjoyed the more personable experience. In contrast, Rosie and I’ve decided to pay friends now that we’ve found ways to simplify that process for them. 

Memorial Societies are common in North America and help consumers obtain reasonably priced funeral arrangements. Pre-paying services at a recommended funeral home allows us to leave funds with them for executor expenses, should our assets be frozen in probate. End-of-life insurance “add-ons” we like include travel protection—should we die away from home—and a final document service to close accounts and handle time-consuming administrative tasks. 

In her book Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, Sallie Tisdale says, “Your body is the last object for which you can be responsible, and this wish may be the most personal one you ever make.” Traditionally in Tibetan Buddhism, the edict is to leave the body undisturbed for three days after death so your consciousness has time to disengage. Tisdale states that American law generally allows you to leave a body in place for at least 24 hours and that while a hospital might want to give you less time, you might be able to negotiate for more. 

We then turned to the thorny topic of organ donation, with Rosie and Liv both deciding against. Knowing someone would soon be taking a scalpel to your cadaver would not enhance the peaceful mind they hope to die with, while my view was just the opposite. Besides gaining merit through donation, that same scalpel image provides great motivation to leave the body quickly.

While reading Tisdale’s chapter titled “Bodies,” I began entertaining thoughts of a green burial, but after months of discussion, I ended up where we all started: with expedient cremations. Rosie wanted her ashes buried and a fragrant rose bush planted on top. Liv and I were more comfortable in the water and decided our ashes would best be left there, but not scattered to ride on the wind. We selected biodegradable urns imprinted with tiny footprints. Made of sand and vegetable gel, they dissolve in water within three days, leaving gentle waves to lap our remnants out to sea. 

By getting past the practical and emotional aspects surrounding death, Liv has found herself in a space of awe. 

“There’s a wow factor to dying that I can now embrace,” she said. 

Rosie no longer worries about who will care for her in later years. Without that insecurity, she’s left with a yearning to be as present for the dying process as possible. And I have found that my understanding of life’s importance as we reach toward enlightenment has been heightened. 

Our small sangha still meets monthly and is now studying bardo teachings in our ongoing attempt to create compassionate dying from compassionate living. As we have continued with our arrangements, we’ve reflected on what we gained from our meetings. We feel blessed for the profound level of intimacy and trust we now share. We have a deeper regard for other friendships and feel enveloped by an enhanced sense of community. And we all feel more cared for.

As Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche wrote in Life in Relation to Death: “Putting worldly affairs in order can be an important spiritual process. Writing a will enables us to look at our attachments and transform them into generosity.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why Victorians Loved Hair Relics

Victorians were mesmerized by the hair of the dead — which reveals something about about how they saw life.

A case of memorial jewelery made from human hair

By: Matthew Wills

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman‘s birth. To celebrate, the New York Public Library and the Grolier Club are hosting exhibits, both of which will include samples of Whitman’s actual hair. Yes, hair.

In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.

Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.

Hair was a very tangible reminder, memento, souvenir, and keepsake of a life, and of a body.

Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.

Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”

Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”

Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”

Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”

Complete Article HERE!

A Place for Death in the Life of the Church

What does faithful ministry look like in a church that sees more funerals than baptisms?

BY

I remember the first time I touched a dead body. It was at my grandfather’s funeral. You know the scene: attendants in boxy black suits, the cloying scent of flowers, tissue boxes, breath mints, dusty funeral parlor furniture. As the sad murmur of relatives droned all around, I stepped up to the coffin and quickly reached in to touch his embalmed hands, folded nicely on his belly. They felt like cold, soft leather.

That was when death was still an anomaly to me, an outlier. Now it has become familiar, a recurring pattern in recent weeks and months. For the past several years, I’ve served as a pastor in a suburban parish, an evangelical who made his home in a mainline church. I don’t run the show, since I’m a lay pastor, but I’ve been there for most of the funerals. In the past few years we’ve had almost 40 in our parish. Those are a lot of faces I won’t get to see any more on Sunday mornings. Death is no longer a stranger to me; it is a regular part of my life.

This has been one of the more difficult parts of being a pastor, seeing people who faithfully served our Lord over decades take ill and start a steep decline. These deaths don’t have the shock of tragedy, of teenagers hit by cars or babies born without breath. Still, the dull ache of sorrow is there.

It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a thriving megachurch (by Canadian standards, anyways), and I took it for granted that slowly and surely our congregation would continue to expand. And it did, all through my teen years. As I looked out over the congregation on Sunday mornings, I could see a diverse group of people from ages 15 to 60. But children were most often annexed to their age-appropriate ministries, seniors were few and far between, and funerals were not a constant. The bulk of our congregants were in the prime of life.

Later, when I began my pastoral ministry in a congregation that skewed to those over 65, I became frustrated as our church struggled to thrive. Growth no longer just seemed to happen. And though we saw many young families drawn deeper into the life of Christ, we also lost many veteran saints. I learned to care for the very young as our nursery filled up, and I learned to walk with the aging as they lost the strength to sit in our pews.

Though I looked longingly at congregations that seemed to expand effortlessly, I learned to love the slow work of pastoring a struggling congregation. I took in the beauty of a woman in her 80s dancing with toddlers and singing worship songs. And I remember the 70th wedding anniversary of a couple that faithfully attended worship for just as many years. These quiet miracles don’t have the same luster as other “vibrant” ministries I’ve been a part of, but nonetheless, they witness to the patience and love of God. I came to appreciate the church as the body of Christ formed of the whole people of God, from young to old—even those heading to their graves.

Pastoring an Aging Congregation

Death does not fall outside the life of Christ’s Body; it is a threshold through which we all must walk. Recognizing death as part of our common Christian life allows for a more expansive vision of God’s redemption, which begins the day we are conceived and carries us into our dying

I’ve come to appreciate my close experiences with death. When I look at large, booming churches or hip, thriving church plants, I wonder if their pastors experience the regular privilege of burying octogenarians. I’m glad for these growing churches, insofar as people are having encounters with Christ and his Word. I wish so many of the churches in my denomination would thrive like that. Yet I’m learning to appreciate aging congregations like my own in which the whole community of faith mourns with the death of each faithful servant.

I recently read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35. She was enjoying a vibrant career, academic success, and a wonderful home with her husband and toddler. The news of her cancer seemed to crush all of that. Life had to be put on hold for chemo, rest, and preparation for dying.

She writes in her memoir about churches in which blessings come as the direct result of fierce faith. She writes, “The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart. … The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.” Bowler writes that she tacitly held to a tamer form of prosperity gospel logic. She expected that, if she followed Jesus, things would go pretty well because God loves her and wants her to have a good life.

I often find myself believing the same thing about my church: if we worship Jesus and do his will, he will bless us with new members and increased vitality. Stagnant membership and death in the congregation feel like punishments for lack of faith.

But God throws wrenches in the wheels of our theological systems. We get fired. We get divorced. We get sick. We die.

Our local congregations lose their liveliness. They suffer from conflicts. They struggle to raise funds. They shrink

Christians believe that “death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:54). Our faith is built upon the fact that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. But our experience of death is not always so straightforward. Our sojourn still leads to our bodies being cremated or placed in a coffin.

Helping People Reckon with Death

In many churches I’ve attended, death was pushed to the margins. It was treated like an interruption to God’s work in the world, not as an instrument by which God draws people more fully into his own life. I’m not saying we should love death—after all, it’s still “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). But part of living as disciples is learning to die well.

Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, writes,

“To die well” is to locate what is good somewhere outside our control—in the God who gives and receives our lives. It is also to allow that alien goodness, the goodness of God’s transcendent superintendence over life and its temporal duration, to inform the very meaning of our vulnerability to illness, suffering, and death.

In other words, by embracing death in our churches, we allow our creator to give meaning to our human weakness.

Stanley Hauerwas notes in God, Medicine, and Suffering that Western culture shifted from preparing Christians to die well in the medieval period to franticly attempting to cure us from death in contemporary society. He writes, “We have no communal sense of a good death, and as a result death threatens us, since it represents our absolute loneliness.” According to Hauerwas, we need to learn once again how to grapple with our mortality.

Stories like Bowler’s, then, make me wonder about the kind of church we ought to be. What might it mean to be a church where people regularly come face to face with death? How can we present the gospel in a way that changes hearts, but also ministers to people whose earthly lives will never return to “normal?”

One way in which pastors can deal with death is by talking about it openly in sermons and in conversation. I remember talking with a friend who has since passed away from cancer. He told me that many of the Christians he encountered didn’t want him to talk about the possibility of death. They wanted him to stay positive, focusing on things he could do to get better. He knew that he wouldn’t, but he felt the pressure to stay positive for the sake of others. When I talked frankly with him about the possibility of death, he seemed to breathe easier. In naming death, he allowed the grace of God to come to him even there.

We talk about illness and aging as “battles”; to die is to lose these battles. But staying alive is a battle we all lose eventually—some quickly, some slowly—so we might as well invite God’s presence into our dying. In the cross we understand our living and our dying. What better place to learn this than the church? Who better to initiate these conversations than pastors? Sure, I want my church to be dynamic, vibrant, growing; I pray to God for this. But I also want to cultivate a church where people can reckon with death, worshiping a savior who won his victory hanging from nails pinned to a wooden cross.

Complete Article HERE!

More to dying than meets the eye

Those who work with dying people are familiar with patients seeing long deceased loved ones, angelic beings, even hearing music and comforting voices as the patient nears death. Deathbed phenomena have been documented in the days, weeks, and months before death since the 1500s. Often confused with hallucinations, deathbed phenomena can bring comfort to patients and caregivers if those involved know what they are experiencing. This talk will explain deathbed phenomena and present on-going research about the topic. Accounts from the dying and bedside witnesses will be shared.

A history of dying-and-rising gods

A detailed view of coffin of Peftjanoeneith

by Derek Beres

[M]y 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!

How the dead danced with the living in medieval society

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

By

[I]n 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!

A Burial at Gethsemani

Abbey of Gethsemani

By Gregory K. Hillis

[I]t 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!