Staring death in the face

By Chen Ximeng

As Song Hua (pseudonym) lay in her open casket, nearly a dozen people dressed in black stood above the 34-year-old shedding tears and paying heartfelt tributes. Incense burned from an altar flanked by wreaths as moving music played in the small, candlelit chapel in downtown Beijing. But this wasn’t any ordinary memorial service. After all, Song wasn’t actually dead. Inner Light Group

“I really wanted to experience what it feels like to die,” said Song, whose faux funeral was attended by 10 “mourners” playing the roles of family members, friends and colleagues.

Death might be a certainty in life, but it is a major taboo in Chinese culture. Visiting ancestors’ tombs for Qingming Festival, which falls on April 5, used to be the closest most people were comfortable with getting to death, but now a growing number of people are participating in educational activities that help them to develop a rational understanding of death.

Try before you die

Song’s fake wake last month was organized by the Inner Light Group (ILG), a Dongcheng district-based counseling agency that has provided the service to around a dozen people since last year. Each wake costs 100 yuan ($16.11) and runs for two hours.

Faux funerals have been popular in Japan and South Korea since 2010, but they are still relatively new in China. They give people like Song, whose battle with depression had caused her to contemplate suicide, a glimpse of the impact their deaths might have on loved ones while reminding them of their own mortality.

“I couldn’t accept myself and wanted to end it all. I knew it was wrong, but I felt trapped in an abyss of grief and despair. I thought, ‘Why not leave the world?'” said Song.

Before Song’s faux funeral, she was required to give a farewell letter to her “relatives” played by ILG members. She was then draped in a white sheet and laid in her casket at the center of the 30-square-meter chapel before the agency’s 45-year-old founder and mock celebrant, Jia Dao, told the somber audience of Song’s death by suicide.

“I lay face-up in the casket as my ‘parents,’ ‘siblings’ and ‘colleagues’ circled me,” explained Song.

Everything seemed to be progressing like any normal funeral until a ‘colleague’ who had apparently returned from abroad to attend Song’s ‘funeral’ held her hand and sobbed about being left heartbroken.

Upon hearing his words, Song was stirred from her motionless state and tears rolled from the corners of her closed eyes.

“Their words were so sincere and warm that it connected deeply with my heart. Since then, I haven’t thought about suicide once. I can now accept death naturally,” said Song.

Ashes to ashes

For those who want to take their near-death experience a step further from a funeral, the Life and Death Experience Center in Shanghai might be the best option. Visitors can write their own will and epitaph, as well as nominate organs they wish to donate.

The experience culminates inside a 4D “crematory” that shows the living what the dead never see, hear or smell: roaring flames turning skin, hair and bones to ash.

The center, which has attracted more than 400,000 yuan from over 200 investors since July 2013, is slated to open later this year.

Ding Rui, one of the center’s co-founders, was inspired to create the grisly tourist attraction after climbing into a real crematory himself in November 2011 while working as a trainer for volunteers at Hand in Hand, a Shanghai-based NGO that provides palliative care.

“When I was inside the crematory, I felt breathless for a moment and very close to death,” recalled Ding.

A 'mourner' holds the hand

Although Ding knew he was safe, staring at flame vents positioned above his head and at his sides was an unnerving experience.

“Being inside [the crematory] strengthened my resolve to open the center to teach people about death. I wanted to simulate the vivid feeling of being cremated and also experiencing rebirth,” said Ding.

Dying to experience the other side

His time spent caring for people nearing the end of their lives led Ding to realize problems with Chinese being “unable to openly talk about death.”

“After taking care of more and more dying patients, I found that people’s fear of death is infectious like a virus,” said Ding, adding that his biggest concern from experience in palliative care was seeing how few people – from the elderly to their family members – struggled to directly face death.

No one lives forever, but sometimes people can be uncomfortable at being reminded they are mere mortals.

“The deep impact of Chinese culture is a major reason why few people are comfortable talking about death,” said Wang Zuoji, deputy director of the Beijing Folklore Committee and a member of the capital’s non-tangible cultural heritage committee.

In Chinese culture, the number four is considered unlucky because its pronunciation in Putonghua is close to “die.” Similarly, a clock is never given as a gift because it sounds similar to the word for “end.” Even the sight of chopsticks placed upright in a bowl of rice can cause superstitious Chinese to shudder due to its resemblance to incense.

“Some customs and taboos have no scientific reasoning, existing only to reject anything related to death or bad luck,” said Wang.

Preserving dignity at the end

Grim Reaper imitator

Ding said he shared a feeling of powerlessness with those he cared for in palliative care, noting that medical apparatus used to extend people’s lives often came at the cost of individuals’ dignity.

“People dying don’t have the right to decide matters relating to their death, which are instead handled by relatives often influenced by others’ opinions,” said Ding.

Most people spare no effort to give their loved ones the best medical care possible, even if it means extending their life for a short time only. Life-support machines and medical ventilators are often used to keep alive patients unable to talk or move out of bed.

In a society that values filial piety, many relatives don’t dare assist or speed up a parent’s death. Despite a December 2013 survey by Shanghai Jiao Tong University finding that more than two-thirds of Chinese have an open, tolerant attitude towards euthanasia, the practice is banned under Chinese law and there are no signs it could be legalized any time soon.

“In some regards, palliative care doesn’t work in educating people about death,” said Ding.

“We want to put it in the spotlight by letting people experience the closest thing to it. Death education is important because no one knows when their number is up.”

Learning about death

Wang Yifang, a professor at Peking University’s Health Science Center, recalled how one of his colleagues learned after teaching a class in 2009 that his father was terminally ill. Accepting fate gave both father and son peace of mind.

“My colleague shunned technology and medical care that would extend his father’s life, choosing instead to provide palliative care at home. His father died graciously,” said Wang Yifang.

Since 2009, Wang Yifang has taught a course about life and death that helps students come to grips with an issue avoided most of their young lives.

“My course provides theory-based education, while death simulation is a more radical version of interactive education,” said Wang Yifang.

Approaches to death education vary in China. It currently isn’t included in curriculums of schools, with opinions among experts divided over whether it should be added.

Medical students in Taiwan are required to lie in a coffin and read farewell letters, while students at a high school in Hainan Province visit funeral parlors to inspect how ashes are stored after cremation.

Chen Yue, a counselor at the Sunshine Psychological Counseling Corporation in Beijing, has taught a class since February about death education.

Attendance is low, however, with even some fellow counselors unable to sit through classes due to the grim nature of its subject.

“Parents need to take the initiative in teaching their children about death. The subject of death is horrible, but neglecting it makes it even more terrifying to children,” said Chen.

“China has a long way to go in death education, which can not be achieved in the span of one or two generations. People need to dramatically change their perception of death, but this can only be done little by little.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cemetery Art – 03/24/14

The task of interpreting the symbols on a headstone or memorial is a daunting one. Although most of the symbols that you will see DO have a textbook meaning, it is quite possible that the headstone or memorial you are looking at was put there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased or those left behind to morn. The point is that many people choose a memorial motif not for its textbook meaning, but simply because they like the ornamentation or design, because it feels “right” or appropriate.


Seattle company makes art from ashes of the departed

By Lindsay Cohen

You can spend the afterlife anchoring a coral reef; give your loved ones a show as part of a fireworks display; even have your remains pressed into a vinyl record.

And now, a Seattle company will even take the ashes of a loved one – and create art.Artful Ashes1

“The memories will be there forever. That’s about all I can say,” said Kurt Murphy of Tacoma, who spent Monday morning watching the cremated remains of his daughter and father be swirled into glass hearts. “My daughter was a fireball and she was a ball of fire down there.”

The idea is the brainchild of Greg and Christina Dale, a Sammamish couple, who faced tough end-of-life questions a few years back when Greg’s father needed surgery. Greg’s dad survived – and so did the conversation.

“We just realized that everyone is looking for a way to hold onto the memories of their lost loved ones,” Greg Dale said. “The clients that buy these – it brings up the happy thoughts and the happy times.”

Together, the couple created Artful Ashes, which will create a glass heart or orb in a variety of colors and incorporate the remains of a loved one. Customers can go in person to see the object being created by a team of glassblowers in a Fremont studio.

Artful Ashes2Each object takes about six minutes to build. Artists use long steel rods to mold the glass, and then press each object into a tablespoon of the remains of a loved one. The contents are then spun together, creating a swirl of different colors.

Murphy was at the company’s studio Monday, which would’ve been his daughter’s 42nd birthday, watching artists mold several hearts for his family. His daughter, Tami, died in January after a long battle with brain cancer. His father passed away one hour earlier.

“The two of them together were just a huge part of my life,” said Murphy’s sister, Sharon Storbo. “We believe dad went ahead of (Kurt’s daughter) to show her the way to heaven.”

The Dales said they can create up to 100 hearts and orbs each day, and typically are in the studio twice a month. Orders require at least one week’s advance notice.

Teacher Crystal Flint of Seattle chose two hearts for her grandparents, who died within about a week of one another. Flint often brings the heart she made for her grandfather to work, because he was a huge supporter of education. She brought the heart made for her grandmother, Linda, to the Super Bowl, fulfilling a longtime dream for a lifelong Seahawks fan.

The back is stamped with a raised ’12’ – for the ultimate 12th Fan.

“I think the Seahawks may have been the most important thing in her life. (I was) second,” Flint joked. “The first couple of days (before the Super Bowl), I took her all around New York and saw all the sights. Luckily all went well, and she got in (to the game), no problem.”

Each object costs $185. Artful Ashes recently expanded to offer a similar service for pets called Rainbow Bridge Hearts.

“We created something in the symbol of love that would feel like a hug in their hands,” Christina said. “They see all the love that they feel in their heart.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cemetery Art – 03/07/14

The task of interpreting the symbols on a headstone or memorial is a daunting one. Although most of the symbols that you will see DO have a textbook meaning, it is quite possible that the headstone or memorial you are looking at was put there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased or those left behind to morn. The point is that many people choose a memorial motif not for its textbook meaning, but simply because they like the ornamentation or design, because it feels “right” or appropriate.

The History of Christian Death Rites


In the world in which Christianity emerged, death was a private affair. Except when struck down on the battlefield or by accident, people died in the company of family and friends. There were no physicians or religious personnel present. Ancient physicians generally removed themselves when cases became hopeless, and priests and priestesses served their gods rather than ordinary people. Contact with a corpse caused ritual impurity and hence ritual activity underworld ferrymanaround the deathbed was minimal. A relative might bestow a final kiss or attempt to catch a dying person’s last breath. The living closed the eyes and mouth of the deceased, perhaps placing a coin for the underworld ferryman on the tongue or eyelids. They then washed the corpse, anointed it with scented oil and herbs, and dressed it, sometimes in clothing befitting the social status of the deceased, sometimes in a shroud. A procession accompanied the body to the necropolis outside the city walls. There it was laid to rest, or cremated and given an urn burial, in a family plot that often contained a structure to house the dead. Upon returning from the funeral, the family purified themselves and the house through rituals of fire and water.

Beyond such more or less shared features, funeral rites, as well as forms of burial and commemoration, varied as much as the people and the ecology of the region in which Christianity developed and spread. Cremation was the most common mode of disposal in the Roman Empire, but older patterns of corpse burial persisted in many areas, especially in Egypt and the Middle East. Christianity arose among Jews, who buried their dead, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were its defining events. Although Christians practiced inhumation (corpse burial) from the earliest times, they were not, as often assumed, responsible for the gradual disappearance of cremation in the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries, for common practice was already changing before Christianity became a major cultural force. However, Christianity was, in this case, in sync with wider patterns of cultural change. Hope ofsalvation and attention to the fate of the body and the soul after death were more or less common features of all the major religious movements of the age, including the Hellenistic mysteries, Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, Manichaeanism, and Mahayana Buddhism, which was preached as far west as Alexandria.

Early Christian Responses to Death and Dying

In spite of the centrality of death in the theology and spiritual anthropology of early Christians, they were slow to develop specifically Christian responses to death and dying. The most immediate change was that Christians handled the bodies of the dead without fear of pollution. The purification of baptism was permanent, unless marred by mortal sin, and the corpse of a Christian prefigured the transformed body that would be resurrected into eternal life at the end of time. The Christian living had less need than their neighbors to appease their dead, who were themselves less likely to return as unhappy ghosts. Non-Christians noted the joyous mood at Christian funerals and the ease of the participants in the presence of the dead. They observed how Christians gave decent burials to even the poorest of the poor. Normal Roman practice was to dump them in large pits away from the well-kept family tombs lining the roads outside the city walls.


The span of a Christian biography stretched from death and rebirth in baptism, to what was called the “second death,” to final resurrection. In a sense, then, baptism was the first Christian death ritual. In the fourth century Bishop Ambrose of Milan (374–397) taught that the baptismal font was like a tomb because baptism was a ritual of death and resurrection. Bishop Ambrose also urged baptized Christians to look forward to death with joy, for physical death was just a way station on the road to paradise. Some of his younger contemporaries, like Augustine of Hippo, held a different view. Baptism did not guarantee salvation, preached Augustine; only God could do that. The proper response to death ought to be fear—of both human sinfulness and God’s inscrutable judgment.

This more anxious attitude toward death demanded a pastoral response from the clergy, which came in the form of communion as viaticum (provisions for a journey), originally granted to penitents by the first ecumenical council at Nicea (325), and extended to all Christians in the fifth and sixth centuries. There is, however, evidence that another type of deathbed communion was regularly practiced as early as the fourth century, if not before. The psalms, prayers, and symbolic representations in the old Roman death ritual discussed by the historian Frederick Paxton are in perfect accord with the triumphant theology of Ambrose of Milan and the Imperial Church. The rite does not refer to deathbed communion as viaticum, but as “a defender and advocate at the resurrection of the just” (Paxton 1990, p. 39). Nor does it present the bread and wine as provisions for the soul’s journey to the otherworld, but as a sign of its membership in the community of the saved, to be rendered at the last judgment. Thanks, in part, to the preservation and transmission of this Roman ritual, the Augustinian point of view did not sweep all before it and older patterns of triumphant death persisted.

However difficult the contemplation (or moment) of death became, the living continually invented new ways of aiding the passage of souls and maintaining community with the dead. In one of the most important developments of the age, Christians began to revere the remains of those who had suffered martyrdom under Roman persecution. As Peter Brown has shown, the rise of the cult of the saints is a precise measure of the changing relationship between the living and the dead in late antiquity and the early medieval West. The saints formed a special group, present to both the living and the dead and mediating between and among them. The faithful looked to them as friends and patrons, and as advocates at earthly and heavenly courts. Moreover, the shrines of the saints brought


people to live and worship in the cemeteries outside the city walls. Eventually, the dead even appeared inside the walls, first as saints’ relics, and then in the bodies of those who wished to be buried near them. Ancient prohibitions against intramural burials slowly lost their force. In the second half of the first millennium, graves began to cluster around both urban and rural churches. Essentiallycomplete by the year 1000, this process configured the landscape of Western Christendom in ways that survive until the present day. The living and the dead formed a single community and shared a common space. The dead, as Patrick Geary has put it, became simply another “age group” in medieval society.

Emergence of a Completely Developed Death Ritual in the Medieval Latin Church

However close the living and dead might be, it was still necessary to pass from one group to the other, and early medieval Christians were no less inventive in facilitating that passage. The centuries from 500 to 1000 saw the emergence of a fully developed ritual process around death, burial, and the incorporation of souls into the otherworld that became a standard for Christian Europeans until the Reformation, and for Catholics until the very near present. The multitude of Christian kingdoms that emerged in the West as the Roman Empire declined fostered the development of local churches. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, these churches developed distinctive ritual responses to death and dying. In southern Gaul, Bishop Caesarius of Arles (503–543) urged the sick to seek ritual anointing from priests rather than magicians and folk healers and authored some of the most enduring of the prayers that accompanied death and burial in medieval Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) first promoted the practice of offering the mass as an aid to souls in the afterlife, thus establishing the basis for a system of suffrages for the dead. In seventh-century Spain, the Visigothic Church developed an elaborate rite of deathbed penance. This ritual, which purified and transformed the body and soul of the dying, was so powerful that anyone who subsequently recovered was required to retire into a monastery for life. Under the influence of Mosaic law, Irish priests avoided contact with corpses. Perhaps as a consequence, they transformed the practice of anointing the sick into a rite of preparation for death, laying the groundwork for the sacrament of extreme unction. In the eighth century, Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionary monks began to contract with one another for prayers and masses after death.

All of these developments came into contact in the later eighth and ninth centuries under the Carolingian kings and emperors, especially Charlemagne (769–814), but also his father Pepin and his son Louis. Together they unified western Europe more

st francis:brother leo

successfully around shared rituals than common political structures. The rhetoric of their reforms favored Roman traditions, and they succeeded in making the Mass and certain elements of clerical and monastic culture, like chant, conform to Roman practice whether real or imagined. When it came to death and dying, however, Rome provided only one piece of the Carolingian ritual synthesis: the old Roman death ritual. Whether or not it was in use in Rome at the time, its triumphant psalmody and salvation theology struck a chord in a church supported by powerful and pious men who saw themselves as heirs to the kings of Israel and the Christian emperors of Rome. Other elements of their rituals had other sources. Carolingian rituals were deeply penitential, not just because of Augustine, but also because, in the rough-and-tumble world of the eighth and ninth centuries, even monks and priests were anxious about making it into heaven. Although reformers, following Caesarius of Arles, promoted the anointing of the sick on the grounds that there was no scriptural basis for anointing the dying, deathbed anointing came into general use, often via Irish texts and traditions. Carolingian rituals also drew liberally on the prayers of Caesarius of Arles and other fathers of the old Gallican and Visigothic churches.

The ritual experts of the Carolingian age did not just adapt older rites and provide a setting for their synthesis, however; they made their own contributions as well. In his classic 1908 study on ritual, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep was surprised by the lack of elaboration of the first phase of death rites in the ethnographic reports he studied. People generally ritualized burial and commemoration, but gave little attention to the dying. Unlike other rites of passage, few rituals prepared people for death. Familiarity with European Christian traditions may be the source of van Gennep’s surprise, for well-developed preliminal rites are one of their most characteristic features. Around the year 800 certain clerical communities introduced a ritual for the death agony. To aid the dying through the struggle of the soul’s exit from the body, the community chanted the names of the denizens of paradise. Rhythmically calling on the Trinity, Mary, the angels, the prophets and patriarchs, the martyrs and confessors, and all living holy men and women, they wove a web of sung prayer to aid the soul’s passing. This practice quickly became part of a common tradition that also included rites of penance, absolution, anointing, and communion, each of which helped cut the ties that bound the dying to this world, ritually preparing them for entry into paradise.

LazarusLike most human groups, Christians had always used rites of transition to allay the dangers of the liminal period after death before the corpse was safely buried and the soul set on its journey to the otherworld. The same was true of post-liminal rites of incorporation, which accompanied the body into the earth, the soul into the otherworld, and the mourners back into normal society. But medieval Christians placed the ritual commemoration of the dead at the very center of social life. Between 760 and 762, a group of churchmen at the Carolingian royal villa of Attigny committed themselves to mutual commemoration after death. Not long afterward, monastic congregations began to make similar arrangements with other houses and with members of secular society. They also began to record the names of participants in books, which grew to include as many as 40,000 entries. When alms for the poor were added to the psalms and masses sung for the dead, the final piece was in place in a complex system of exchange that became one of the fundamental features of medieval Latin Christendom. Cloistered men and women, themselves “dead to this world,” mediated these exchanges. They accepted gifts to the poor (among whom they included themselves) in exchange for prayers for the souls of the givers and their dead relatives. They may have acted more out of anxiety than out of confidence in the face of death, as the scholar Arno Borst has argued, but whatever their motivations, their actions, like the actions of the saints, helped bind together the community of the living and the dead.

The Carolingian reformers hoped to create community through shared ritual, but communities shaped ritual as much as ritual shaped communities, and the synthesis that resulted from their activities reflected not just their official stance but all the myriad traditions of the local churches that flowed into their vast realm. By the end of the ninth century a ritual process had emerged that blended the triumphant psalmody of the old Roman rites with the concern for penance and purification of the early medieval world. A rite of passage that coordinated and accompanied every stage of the transition from this community to the next, it perfectly complemented the social and architectural landscape. Taken up by the reform movements of the tenth and eleventh centuries, this ritual complex reached its most developed form at the Burgundian monastery of Cluny. At Cluny, the desire to have the whole community present at the death of each of its members was so great that infirmary servants were specially trained to recognize the signs of approaching death.

The Modern Ageextreme-unction

Christian death rituals changed in the transition to modernity, historians like Philippe Ariès and David Stannard have detailed in their various works. But while Protestants stripped away many of their characteristic features, Catholics kept them essentially the same, at least until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Like the Carolingian reformers, the fathers of Vatican II moved to restrict ritual anointing to the sick, but they may be no more successful in the long run, for the symbolic power of anointing as a rite of preparation for death seems hard to resist. And while the secularization of society since the 1700s has eroded the influence of Christian death rites in Western culture, nothing has quite taken their place. Modern science and medicine have taught humankind a great deal about death, and about how to treat the sick and the dying, but they have been unable to give death the kind of meaning that it had for medieval Christians. For many people living in the twenty-first century death is a wall against which the self is obliterated. For medieval Christians it was a membrane linking two communities and two worlds. In particular, Christian rites of preparation for death offered the dying the solace of ritual and community at the most difficult moment in their lives.

Reconnecting with the Past

The Chalice of ReposeThe Chalice of Repose Project at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana, is applying ancient knowledge to twenty-first-century end-of-life care. Inspired in part by the medieval death rituals of Cluny, the Chalice Project trains professional music thanatologists to serve the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the dying with sung prayer. With harp and voice, these “contemplative musicians” ease the pain of death with sacred music—for the dying, but also for their families and friends and for the nurses and doctors who care for them. While anchored in the Catholic tradition, music thanatologists seek to make each death a blessed event regardless of the religious background of the dying person. Working with palliative physicians and nurses, they offer prescriptive music as an alternative therapy in end-of-life care. The Chalice of Repose is a model of how the past can infuse the present with new possibilities.

Complete Article HERE!



{Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, w bya gtor}, lit. ”alms for the birds” is a funerary practice in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia and in Mongolia proper wherein a human corpse is incised in certain locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements {mahabhuta} and animals – especially predatory birds. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana traditions as charnel grounds.


The majority of Tibetans and many Mongolians adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose.


The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible {the source of the practice’s Tibetan name}. In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to its increasing use by commoners.