Death is a one-way journey into the unknown and, as with any other journey you may have undertaken, it will go smoother if you are prepared as can be. Being somewhat wary of death is natural with even the most spiritual and religious people being saddened at the thought of both their own deaths and the deaths of those they love. The reason death is not generally welcomed with open arms is that, after centuries of trying to understand it, it still remains a great unknown to most of us. This is where mindfulness can be of most benefit – when the uncertainty surrounding death is strongest. By becoming mindful you will likely find yourself not only being more at peace with your situation but able to find joy and happiness in your surroundings even in the final days leading up to your passing. It will also enable you to view death as the inescapable yet strangely beautiful part of life that it is.
Mindfulness may help you to get comfortable with death
The emotional and spiritual acceptance of your own mortality is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Although dwelling on death continuously isn’t healthy, mindfulness can be very effective in reducing the tremendous anxiety we often experience when nearing our time of death. Being mindful of your own death entails you coming to terms with your fate, facing your fears head-on and acknowledging your feelings. As difficult as it may seem, it is important to be at ease with all your varied thoughts regardless of how warped they may seem.
While it is near impossible to eradicate all the suffering involved in dying, it is possible to create a place to positively deal with anger, grief, and denial. Once you become accustomed to practicing mindfulness you will find yourself feeling a lot calmer and ready to live your remaining life to the fullest. In his novella ‘The Canterville Ghost’ Oscar Wilde wrote: “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.” Once you become mindful of your own death, this is how you can perceive their own death as well.
Alleviate your discomfort
Apart from conventional medication and pain-relief strategies, there are a number of holistic approaches that can be employed to alleviate discomfort. Adapting to a sensory experience helps to nurture joy and mindfulness. We are capable of reducing the physical pain we experience when we focus all our attention on what we see, smell, hear, taste or feel. Although this may seem slightly far-fetched, the phenomenon has been documented in a range of scientific studies which includes ground-breaking research by American professor emeritus of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn. The research showed that stress reduction based on mindfulness can drastically reduce pain as well as the depression and anxiety associated with coming to terms with your impending death. Once again take comfort in knowing that death is as natural a part of life as breathing is, and it is, in essence, nothing to fear.
Make your last days meaningful
We often hear people proclaim that we need to ‘live every day like it is your last’ and to ‘make every second count’ and that is exactly what you need to do as you near the end of your life. You have, after all, only been granted with a single shot at life and the least you can do is to make it as memorable as possible. By being mindful and practicing meditation, you can ensure that you get as much out of a day as is humanly possible. Be careful not to limit your mindfulness and apply it in all aspects of your life. You can even be mindful when eating, paying close attention to the entire process. Appreciate the smell and sight of your food, how it feels when you bring the fork or spoon closer to your mouth and how the food tastes. The same process can be applied to anything from sitting on your porch overlooking the garden to having a relaxing bath. Engaging in simple yet effective daily meditations that focus on breathing and pain reduction can help make someone’s final days substantially easier to endure.
Regardless of your spiritual or religious orientation, you are bound to benefit from engaging in end-of-life mindfulness and meditation. There is no rule book with regards to being mindful – by simply following basic guidelines and applying them to the areas of your life that will benefit the most from it, you will reap the countless rewards that being aware holds. Find solace in knowing that death is merely another journey you are about to undertake and one that you have the option of embracing with the same joy and vigor as you did life.
“The road to death,” the anthropologist Nigel Barley wrote, “is paved with platitudes.”
Book reviewers, I’m afraid, have played their part.
The robust literature of death and dying is clotted with our clichés. Every book is “unflinching,” “unsparing.” Somehow they are all “essential.”
Of course, many of these books are brave, and many quite beautiful. Cory Taylor’s account of her terminal cancer, “Dying: A Memoir,” is one recent standout. But so many others are possessed of a dreadful, unremarked upon sameness, and an unremitting nobility that can leave this reader feeling a bit mutinous. It’s very well to quail in front of the indomitable human spirit and all that, but is it wrong to crave some variety? I would very much like to read about a cowardly death, or one with some panache. I accept, grudgingly, that we must die (I don’t, really) but must we all do it exactly the same way?
Enter “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them),” by the writer, palliative-care nurse and Zen Buddhist Sallie Tisdale — a wild and brilliantly deceptive book. It is a putative guide to what happens to the body as it dies and directly after — and how to care for it. How to touch someone who is dying. (“Skin can become paper-thin, and it can tear like paper. Pressure is dangerous.”) How to carry a body and wash it. How to remove its dentures.
But in its loving, fierce specificity, this book on how to die is also a blessedly saccharine-free guide for how to live. There’s a reason Buddhist monks meditate on charnel grounds, and why Cicero said the contemplation of death was the beginning of philosophy. Tisdale has written extensively about medicine, sex and faith — but spending time with the dying has been the foundation of her ethics; it is what has taught her to understand and tolerate “ambiguity, discomfort of many kinds and intimacy — which is sometimes the most uncomfortable thing of all.”
It should be noted that this book is not for the queasy. Frankly, neither is dying. Tisdale writes calm but explicit descriptions of “the faint leathery smell” of dead bodies and the process of decomposition. “A dead body is alive in a new way, a busy place full of activity,” she writes. She offers paeans to the insects that arrive in stately waves to consume the body — from the blowflies that appear in the first few minutes of death to the cheese skippers, the final guests, which clean the bones of the last bits of tendon and tissue.
This is death viewed with rare familiarity, even warmth: “I saw a gerontologist I know stand by the bedside of an old woman and say with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm, ‘C’mon, Margaret. You can do it!’” Tisdale writes. She walks readers through every conceivable decision they will have to make — whether to die in the hospital or at home, how to handle morphine’s side effects and how to breathe when it becomes difficult (inhale through pursed lips).
To the caretaker, she writes: “You are the defender of modesty, privacy, silence, laughter and many other things that can be lost in the daily tasks. You are the guardian of that person’s desires.”
“Advice for Future Corpses” also offers a brisk cultural history of death rituals and rites, from traditional Tibetan sky burials to our present abundance of options. You can have your ashes mixed into fireworks, loaded into shotgun shells or pressed into a diamond. You can ask to be buried at sea (but don’t — too much paperwork). You can be buried in a suit lined with micro-organisms and mushrooms to speed decomposition, or let a Swedish company cryogenically freeze your remains and turn them into crystals. If you’re in Hong Kong or Japan, you have the option of virtual graves, where flowers can be sent by emoticon.
Tisdale’s perspective is deeply influenced by her Buddhist practice, never more so than when she considers how the mind might apprehend death as it nears: “Consciousness is no longer grounded in the body; perception and sensation are unraveling. The entire braid of the self is coming unwound in a rush. One’s point of view must change dramatically.”
Tisdale does not write to allay anxieties but to acknowledge them, and she brings death so close, in such detail and with such directness, that something unusual happens, something that feels a bit taboo. She invites not just awe or dread — but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just “future corpses pretending we don’t know.”
[F]or many modern Pagans, there is a somewhat different philosophy on death and dying than what is seen in the non-Pagan community. While our non-Pagans see death as an ending, some Pagans view it as a beginning of the next phase of our existence. Perhaps it is because we view the cycle of birth and life and death and rebirth as something magical and spiritual, a never-ending, ever turning wheel. Rather than being disconnected from death and dying, we tend to acknowledge it as part of a sacred evolution.
In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, author Starhawk says, “Imagine if we truly understood that decay is the matrix of fertility… we might view our own aging with less fear and distaste, and greet death with sadness, certainly, but without terror.”
As the Pagan population ages – and certainly, we are doing so – it’s becoming more and more likely that at some point each of us will have to bid farewell to a fellow Pagan, Heathen, Druid, or other member of our community. When that happens, what is the appropriate response? What can be done to honor the person’s beliefs and send them on their way in a way that they themselves would have valued, while still managing to maintain sensitivity in dealing with their non-Pagan family members and friends?
Views of the Afterlife
Many Pagans believe that there is some sort of afterlife, although that tends to take varying forms, depending on the individual belief system. Some followers of NeoWiccan paths accept the afterlife as the Summerland, which Wiccan author Scott Cunningham described as a place where the soul goes on to live forever. In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, he says, “This realm is neither in heaven nor the underworld. It simply is — a non-physical reality much less dense than ours. Some Wiccan traditions describe it as a land of eternal summer, with grassy fields and sweet flowing rivers, perhaps the Earth before the advent of humans. Others see it vaguely as a realm without forms, where energy swirls coexist with the greatest energies – the Goddess and God in their celestial identities.”
Members of non-Wiccan groups, particularly those who follow a more Reconstructionist slant, may see the afterlife as Valhalla or Fólkvangr, for those who adhere to a Norse belief system, or Tir na nOg, for individuals who participate in a Celtic path. Hellenic Pagans may see the afterlife as Hades.
For those Pagans who don’t have a defined name or description of the afterlife, there is still typically a notion that the spirit and the soul live on somewhere, even if we don’t know where it is or what to call it.
Tawsha is a Pagan in Indiana who follows an eclectic path. She says, “I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I like the idea of the Summerland. It seems peaceful, a place where our souls can regenerate before they reincarnate into a new body. But my husband is a Druid, and his beliefs are different and focus more on the Celtic view of the afterlife, which seems a little more ethereal to me. I think it’s really all just different interpretations of the same place.”
Deities of Death and the Afterlife
Cultures have, since the beginning of time, honored deities associated with the process of dying, the act itself, and the journey of the spirit or soul into the afterlife. Although many of them are celebrated during the harvest season, around Samhain, when the earth itself is slowly dying, it is not uncommon to see them called upon as someone is approaching their last days, or has recently crossed over.
If you follow an Egyptian, or Kemetic, path, you may choose to honor Anubis, the jackal headed god of death. Anubis’ job is to determine whether the deceased is worthy of entering the underworld, by taking the individual’s measure. To help ease their passing, you may choose to sing or chant to Anubis about the dying or dead person’s accomplishments.
For Pagans who follow an Asatru or Heathen belief system, prayers and chants to Odin or to the goddesses Hel and Freya might be appropriate. Half of the warriors who die in battle go to spend the afterlife with Freya in her hall, Folkvangr, and the others go to Valhalla with Odin. Hel takes charge of those who have died from old age or sickness, and accompanies them to her hall, Éljúðnir.
A Maryland Heathen who asked to be identified as Wolfen says when his brother died, “We had this huge ceremony with a big bonfire, lots of drinking and toasts, and song. My brother had already been cremated, but we added his ashes to the fire, and we sang a song honoring him and his accomplishments, and introducing him to Odin and Valhalla, and then we continued it by calling upon our ancestors, going back about eight generations. It was what he wanted, and probably the closest thing to a Viking funeral that you can get in suburban America.”
Other deities you may wish to call upon as someone is dying, or has crossed over, include the Greek Demeter, Hecate, and Hades, or the Chinese Meng Po. Be sure to read more about: Deities of Death and the Afterlife.
In many countries in the modern world, the practice of burying the dead is common. However, it’s a relatively new concept by some standards, and in some places, it’s almost a novelty. In fact, many of today’s contemporary funeral practices might be considered a bit strange by our ancestors.
In other societies, it is not uncommon to see the dead interred in trees, placed on giant funeral pyres, closed up in a ceremonial tomb, or even left out for the elements to consume.
One trend that is increasing in popularity in the Western world is that of “green burial,” in which the body is not embalmed, and is simply buried in the soil with no coffin, or with a biodegradable container. While not all areas permit this, it is something worth looking into for someone who truly wishes to be returned to earth as part of the cycle of life and death.
Memorial and Ritual
Many people – Pagans and otherwise – believe that one of the best ways to keep someone’s memory alive is to do something in their honor, something that keeps them alive in your heart long after theirs has stopped beating. There are a number of things you can do to honor the dead.
Rituals: Hold a memorial ritual in the individual’s honor. This can be as simple as lighting a candle in his or her name, or as complex as inviting the entire community together to hold a vigil and offer blessings for the person’s spirit as they cross over into the afterlife.
Causes: Did the deceased person have a favorite cause or charity that they worked hard to support? A great way to memorialize them is to do something for that cause that meant so much to them. Your friend who adopted all of those shelter kittens would probably love it if you made a donation to the shelter in her name. How about the gentleman who gave so much time to cleaning up local parks? What about planting a tree in his honor?
Jewelry: A popular trend during the Victorian era was to wear jewelry in the deceased’s honor. This might include a brooch holding their ashes, or a bracelet woven from their hair. While this may sound a bit morbid to some folks, bereavement jewelry is making quite a comeback. There are a number of jewelers who offer memorial jewelry, which is typically a small pendant with a hole in the back. Ashes are poured into the pendant, the hole is sealed with a screw, and then the friends and family of the dead can keep them nearby any time they like.
Be sure to read the following articles on death, dying and the afterlife:
Caring for Our Dead: Every society, throughout history, has found some way to attend to the proper care of their dead. Let’s look at some of the different methods in which various cultures have said farewell to their loved ones.
Ray Buckland on Death and Dying: Wiccan author Ray Buckland recently did a presentation on a Pagan view of death and dying. He has graciously allowed us permission to share that presentation here on the Pagan/Wiccan website.
What Happens to Your Magical Items After You Die? Since so many members of the Pagan community work as solitaries, and may never come into contact with other Pagans during their lifetime, one issue that comes up as our population ages is that of what to do with magical tools and other items after death.
A Pagan Blessing for the Dead: This simple memorial ceremony can be performed for a deceased loved one. It invokes the powers of the earth, air, fire and water to send the departed off to their next destination.
Prayer for the Dying: This prayer is one which may be said by or on behalf of a dying person, and addresses the need we have to feel at home in the last moments of life.
Prayer to Hel: In Norse mythology, Hel features as a goddess of the underworld. She was sent by Odin to Helheim/Niflheim to preside over the spirits of the dead, except for those who were killed in battle and went to Valhalla. It was her job to determine the fate of the souls who entered her realm.
Prayer to Anubis: This prayer honors the Egyptian god of the underworld, Anubis. He is honored as the god who takes our measure when we cross from this life into the next.
Prayer to the Gods of Death: At Samhain, the earth is growing cold and dark. It is a time of death, of endings and beginnings. This prayer honors some of the deities associated with death and the underworld.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With cremation on the rise, cemetery space dwindling, and cryogenic freezing around the corner, the Vatican is facing some tough decisions.
By Leah Thomas
[T]he 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 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.”
[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.
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.
[W]hether 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.
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.
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.
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.