What Comes After Death?

— Clinicians can help young patients integrate existing belief systems to process grief

By Rebecca Morse, PhD, MA

I once attended a funeral during which the guests were invited to take a flower from atop a young mother’s casket as a memento. A little boy, her son, was being held by his father. He had been remarkably quiet throughout the funeral and interment process up to this point. Then, I began watching him, watch them. He was looking from the line of people to the casket, to his father, to the line of people, to the casket, to his father. He was starting to fidget. And suddenly, amid the silence, he asked his father “Daddy! Why are they taking mommy’s flowers? They are the lastest she’ll ever have?!”

The purpose of this story? To emphasize that this little boy, with only a handful of years on this earth, who couldn’t possibly have a full, contextual understanding of death, on some minute yet significant level got it. His mother would never get more flowers. At least, none she would be able to appreciate.

Last month, I wrote about how medical professionals should always provide honest and fact-based information when talking to pediatric patients about dying. Yet the question remains: What comes after death?

Children may not ask questions indicative of an existential crisis. They often ask very practical questions: What happens after we die? What will happen to me after I die? Is there a heaven? We must educate those who work with and around children: kids live in a world where death exists and we don’t help them if we don’t tell them, help scaffold their understanding, and better their ability to process difficult emotions.

Having established that children understand more than we recognize, how do we, as health professionals, discuss what comes next? First, the pragmatic recommendations: When discussing anything with a child, it’s best to ensure that the parents or legal guardians know what you will be sharing and why. Second, it’s critical to be mindful of culture. Depending on the family’s background there may be constraints or considerations integral to their belief system. And although the goal is transparency and honesty, to establish a trusting relationship with the child, it doesn’t help if the healthcare professionals and guardians are at odds with one another.

It can also be helpful to ask the child what they know already. What have they learned from their family? What does the child think? Children are remarkable observers. They “science” the world around them; correlation does imply causation to them. So, knowing and being able to understand their existing framework or cognitive schema(s) will help guide you in what to say. Even a child as young as 3 or 4 years old can make correlational connections, as did the young child in my story.

In my thanatology courses on children and death, I often require students to watch the movie “Ponette.” It’s a perfect example of what not to do. As each adult and older child gives Ponette different responses after her mother dies, she now must navigate conflicting narratives. And none of it makes sense to Ponette, who is engaging in a very healthy grief response: seeking proximity to her deceased mother and wanting to find ways to communicate with her spirit.

When discussing the afterlife and what comes next with kids, if you know the family’s belief or faith you can work with, not against, what the child has already internalized as their working model for their assumptive world. It’s not our place to undermine the child’s trust in their parents or guardians, or to question what the family has taught the child.

So, what might this look like in a clinical setting?

Step 1: Be honest about what you don’t know first-hand. Unless you are Frankenstein’s monster, it’s safe to assume you haven’t been dead yourself or returned from the grave. It’s okay to tell a child that you don’t know. In terms of sharing what you believe, there may be limitations on what you may or may not share based on professional ethical or legal guidelines, in addition to the need to respect the legal and moral rights of the parents.

Step 2: Ask. This is a good opportunity to ask the child what they believe. A child doesn’t need us to have all the answers. Children need a secure attachment base, and to know they can trust the adults in their world. Regardless of the child’s faith of origin (meaning their caregiver’s or cultural belief system that they are still internalizing), they need consistency in messaging, and their caregivers serve as a primary attachment figure. This can be challenging when the child or family has a different belief system than your own. This is where spiritual cultural humility is imperative; never undermine faith just because you don’t share it (e.g., thanatologists dealing with difference). By finding out what the client feels is salient, we can help them process their emotions around it.

Step 3: Help the child learn to label their emotions. Research has demonstrated that when parents have a more extensive vocabulary for emotion-related words, their children are more advanced in both their social and emotional development. Lev Vygotsky, an early developmentalist, was particularly interested in how we can structure learning in children; he posited that a child’s ability to learn and reach their potential is not limited as much by their own abilities, as it is by the ability of the “teacher” or more expert peer to “scaffold” learning. When children can have their emotion-related expressive language scaffolded (meaning built up or supported by a more experienced person), they show better emotional self-regulation. One final tip: children process through play, so don’t be surprised if they engage in imaginary playacting or games to practice what they are learning and to develop self-regulation. It’s perfectly normal if one moment they are crying or distressed and then minutes later they are laughing and silly. Children may also practice social scripts around loss through make-believe interactions with imaginary friends — this is healthy and adaptive as they are learning to adapt to their new world.

Talking with children about death is one of the most challenging things grown-ups must do. I know many parents who would much rather discuss sex than death and dying. Oftentimes, it may fall on healthcare professionals to provide support. Similar to discussing dying with a child, when discussing what comes after death it’s important to keep in mind the child’s cognitive ability, offer honesty titrated in language they can understand, and remember that grief may manifest itself in different ways such as upset tummies, headaches, irritability, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns.

Moral of the story? The best thing we can do to help children deal with death is to lean into those difficult discussions, work within their existing understanding, and allow them to process at their own pace.

Complete Article HERE!

How Death Gives Meaning to Our Lives

In her new book, Alive Until You’re Dead, Susan Moon helps us confront our fears around death and shows us why we should be grateful for our own mortality.

Susan Moon’s new book, Alive Until You’re Dead, is out now with Shambhala Publications.

by Alison Spiegel

The subtitle of writer and lay Zen teacher Susan Moon’s latest book may be “Notes on the Home Stretch,” but the wisdom on aging, and more to the point, death, in Alive Until You’re Dead is important for readers of any age. Weaving in personal stories, many about confronting the deaths of close friends, Moon turns her lived experience into tributes and guidance for facing mortality. She also brings a lightness to the subject that so many people fear above all else, but that Moon says actually brings meaning to our lives. Tricycle caught up with Moon to hear more about the intention and writing process of the book, and for further advice on facing death at any stage of life.

Why did you want to write Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch? I wanted to write about my ongoing concern with what it means to be mortal and the idea that our condition of mortality and impermanence, which we are constantly fighting against, actually gives us life. Death is very hard and painful but it’s also what gives meaning to our lives. I really wanted to talk about how we actually can be grateful for our mortality, and that the fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.

You wrote this book during the pandemic. How did that unique time impact your work? I think of it as my pandemic book, in a sense, because the pandemic provided me time and space and simplicity of life to write. I’ve been on writing retreats, I’ve been to writers’ residencies, and weirdly, this horrible tragedy was also kind of a perfect writer’s retreat for me. But at the same time, I think all the tragedy and fear added to the relevance of my subject in a way. I have to add that I’m grateful to my sister and brother-in-law who live with me and who supported and encouraged me as this was going on.

Early in the book, in a story about a friend of yours who died in the hospital after suffering a stroke, you say that “the Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong.” Can you explain what you mean by that? Death is not one separate thing that’s coming after us. In Buddhism, birth and death are kind of conceived as a hyphenated thing. Life is the realm of birth and death, and there’s a sense that before we were born into this body, and after we leave this body, there’s this other realm of the absolute, which is a mystery to us. People often worry about what will happen to them after they die, but we never think about where we came from before we were born. We don’t even think about that as a parallel thing. 

Though you don’t shy away from the hard parts of aging, you also describe the upsides. Referencing a dharma brother who gave a memorable talk at Berkeley Zen Center, you write, “In his old age, it came naturally to him to put himself aside and not think about what he needed all the time.” How have you experienced this? It’s about letting go of self clinging. I’m not building a life anymore so there’s some freedom there to attend to the needs of others, like my own children and grandchildren. How can I just be present with loved ones? I love the example in that essay when the man said when he was playing with his grandson, and they would build a tower, his grandson would knock it over again and again, and they would just laugh and build it again. You don’t have to worry about building a tower that stays up.

But letting go of self-clinging is appropriate for anyone at any stage of life. If you’re grasping for your own happiness at the expense of others, that’s not going to bring you happiness. I really feel that the path to joy is to let go of self-clinging in whatever way you can, and I think Buddhist practice has been helpful for me in that. But there’s many other routes, like being in community and continually remembering that we’re all in this together, we’re all interconnected, and your happiness isn’t separate from anybody else’s happiness.

“The fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.”

Throughout the book you reference beautiful moments with your grandchildren, who you connected with frequently over Zoom during the pandemic. These stories speak for themselves, but you also talk about the term “grandmother mind.” Can you explain what that means? It’s connected to letting go of clinging. Dogen uses the phrase when he tells a young male monk, who is different from a grandmother in every possible respect, that he won’t be able to have a mind of compassion and be a true Buddist practitioner unless he can develop “grandmother mind.” Dogen is speaking, I believe, about what he calls “the mind of great compassion.” So it’s that spirit, but I think as I’m using it, it’s also about a certain kind of love. If you’re not one of the grandparents who are raising your own grandchildren—an amazing thing that a lot of people are doing—and you’re able to just be a grandparent and not be responsible for all the hard parts, the kind of love that you can have for your grandchildren is unencumbered, unconditional. I see “grandmother mind” as an obligation to apply that feeling to all children. All of us need to have “grandmother mind” about children.

On the subject of death, you say, “When I deliberately consider my own death, I feel more alive,” and you offer some contemplations on death. Could you describe one of them? One that pops into my head—it’s not harder or easier, or more important or anything—is walking in cemeteries. To walk in a cemetery, and to actually look at the gravestones, read the names and think of all these people who have died, to look at the dates and think about the generations, gives me a sense of how there’s a flow of time and generations. For some reason I’m comforted by the thought that I am a leaf in the generations of leaves that keep turning over. I’m part of the turning over. There are many people who were born and died before me and hopefully there will be many who are born and die after me. I’m just one person and I’m not all that important. It’s just amazingly fortunate that I should be walking there, alive and looking at some bird singing in a tree, and life is going on. It’s the same feeling I get from looking at the stars in the sky and thinking of the vastness of the universe, or by reading about physics or cosmology. It’s the idea that there’s this vastness of time and that my life is just a little blink, and I don’t even know what part of the great cosmic consciousness my life is, but it’s a miracle that I have this consciousness in this one little tiny person on the planet. Here I am, and what a great miracle.

Do you think it’s wise or essential to prepare for death? What about preparing for the death of loved ones? When I think about it as a practice myself I resist it because it feels unnecessarily harsh. But should we prepare for the greatest moments of suffering? What I realized when I was writing this book—and I realized it before when thinking about my own loved ones, and particularly my children—is that accepting my own death is a hard job, but accepting that the people I love will die is even harder. Having people leave you is terrible, and then the worst possible fear of all would be to have your children die. I can’t imagine anything worse. I remember when I first became a mother, all of a sudden when I read the newspaper and the war in Vietnam was going on, I would see these pictures of children in the war and the whole thing took on a different meaning. It was much more personal to me, and it became unbearable. It’s the same even now, when I think about the war in Ukraine and the children there.

I think preparing for the death of loved ones is something that one can do. You can prepare for the death of somebody who is old, where the death won’t be such a tragedy. You can just try to appreciate the person and have so much gratitude for this person being in your life. You can try to help them see that their life has been full and rich and help them find some peace. And for children, take as much joy as possible in what’s going on. Don’t let fear rob you of your joy.

I also think that we can trust that sometimes people who are dying find a way to accept what’s happening. Maybe they’re in pain, maybe they want to be released, but it’s important to know that while your pain and your loss is so real and acute, you don’t have to take on their suffering, because you don’t really know what they’re suffering is.

A friend of mine, who I loved very dearly, died of cancer in 2018. I miss her terribly. She was a Buddhist, and she knew she was dying for quite a long time. At first she was still functioning well and then she needed to care, and I was one of the people who took turns to help her at home, making meals for her and things like that. Then she was in some pain and I said, “How do you do this? How do you tolerate this?” She said, “I just say to myself, ‘This is how it is right now.’” This is how it is right now. That became a kind of mantra for me that I bring into a lot of other situations in my life. It’s about being present in the moment, accepting things as they are and then moving from there. It’s not resigning yourself, but being present with things before you go on to the next thing. It’s knowing, thanks to impermanence, that things won’t stay this way, for better or worse. I think that is very helpful.

Complete Article HERE!

The psychedelic drug that could explain our belief in life after death

Scientists have discovered DMT, the Class A hallucinogenic, naturally occurs in the body, and may contain a clue to what happens when we die and why people see fairies

By Caroline Christie

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is the most powerful hallucinogenic drug around. The class A psychedelic is so potent that under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances its manufacture is strictly for scientific research and medical use and any international trade is very closely monitored. But it also naturally occurs in the human body. Now a Senior Psychologist at Greenwich University, Dr. David Luke, is trying to undercover a link between DMT and ‘near death experiences’ to explain elves, tunnels of light and centuries old folklore. On July 8th he’ll talk about his research at an event in conjunction with SciArt collaboration Art Necro at The Book Club in London.

Tell me about yourself

I am a psychologist at the University of Greenwich and I teach a course on the psychology on the exceptional human experience, which looks at extraordinary phenomenon of human beings. It’s all about mythical experiences, psychedelic experiences, personal paranormal experiences, mysticism, spiritual experiences, those sorts of things.

I do research on altered states of consciousness and exceptional human experiences, including psychedelics, medication, hypnosis as altered states and the experiences people have in the states such as out of body experiences, possession, telepathy, and clairvoyance – all your usual stuff.

How did you end up focusing on DMT?

I’m interested in DMT is because of my interest in psychedelics and the phenomenology of psychedelic use. DMT is of particular interest because it’s an extremely powerful psychedelic substance. But what’s more interesting than that, is that DMT naturally occurs in many plants, animals and in humans. It’s endogenous, meaning it’s made within the human body. So it’s more than just a natural plant psychedelic – it’s in us. That makes it extremely curious.

Wait – we naturally produce DMT? Why?

We don’t really know. It was first isolated as a chemical about 100 years ago in various plants. For example in ayahuasca, (a hallucinogenic brew from South America) the other chemicals that were isolated in a plant were named telepathine because users reported telepathic experiences. DMT was later found to be naturally occurring in the human body, found in large quantities in the cerebral spinal fluid. It’s thought to be produced in the lungs and in the eye. It’s also speculated, but not proven, that it’s made in the pineal gland.

What’s the pineal gland?

The pineal gland is a weird organ. During the daytime it produces serotonin, which we know keeps us happy and buoyant, and at night the serotonin gets converted into melatonin. It’s also thought that the gland produces DMT, which is converted from serotonin because they’re similar, it just an enzyme that converts it. The gland is part of the brain’s structure, situated just outside in the spinal fluid in a cavity. It’s really interesting. Why would we have an extremely strong psychedelic substance being produced in our brains? What is its ordinary function in humans? It’s not very well understood, largely because there’s not much done into it. The initial speculation thought that it was perhaps responsible for psychosis, in that people with schizophrenia may have an overproduction of DMT. There was some research conducted into it in the 1960s, but that didn’t get any consistent findings. So that idea was abandoned. Shortly after that, the research with humans stopped because psychedelics became illegal. It didn’t really stop people from taking them, but it did stop researchers from reaching the affect in humans.

Recently, research has begun again. A pioneering medical doctor in the 1990’s called Rick Strassman , started injecting people with DMT as part of a medical research project. About 50 to 60 participants were given high doses and they reported some extremely bizarre phenomena. Approximately half of the participants on a high dose reported being in other worlds and encountering sentient entities, i.e. beings of an intelligent nature which appeared to be other than themselves. The experience was so powerful that participants were convinced of the reality of experience with these other beings. It poses some very interesting questions.

What do these beings look like?

The beings themselves took on various forms. Sometimes they took on the form of little elves or imps or dwarves, sometimes they’re omniscient deities, other times they’re angelic beings. But they’re specifically not humans. Rick Strassman also speculated that the DMT experience had a lot of similarities with what we know about the near death experience.

How is being on DMT similar to having a near death experience?

The near death experience is a type of experience syndrome, whereby people perceive themselves to be near death or in danger of dying. Typical experiences include the sensation of leaving the body, entering into a tunnel of light and flashbacks of their lives. People typically meet some kind of being, sometimes a deceased relative or a powerful other, like an angelic being. The being will tell them it’s not their time to die and that they should return. Then the person who’s having the experience will return back to their body. Sometimes it coincides with them being resuscitated if they are having a genuine near death experience, like a cardiac arrest.

Research has suggested that there is an overlap between that experience and the experience people have when on DMT. In that there’s often encounters with beings, out of body experience, life changing experience, which is often said of near death experiences. But there are dissimilarities as well.

Why are these experiences particular to DMT?

That’s a five and half million dollar question. It’s not well understood. Why do people have this reoccurring theme of apparently sentient entities? It could be that it’s a hallucinatory experience, and for some reason DMT triggers the sense of encountering another being. Or perhaps it’s a misfiring of the brain’s neural network that’s reasonable for those kinds of experiences ordinary.

But it’s curious that the experience occurs in the absence of any kind of objective sentient being in the presence of the person. The other thing is that people quite adamantly testify to the reality of the experience. They say it’s more real than this world. Although we can explain it as a neurochemical misfiring, people who have the experience typically feel dissatisfied with that explanation because it feels so real. But to say it’s a hallucination isn’t satisfactory either.

Hallucination is a bit of a waste basket term for odd experiences we don’t really understand or can’t explain. It’s just a label really.

What’s even more baffling is that people seemingly independently have similar types of encounters. They may not know about other people’s experiences of little people, elves, gnomes or dwarves.

We’ve found reports of them right back to the very first DMT experiments conducted by a psychiatrist in Hungary during the 1950’s. He first tested it on himself and then gave it to his colleague.They all reported the same thing.

My colleagues and I think these experiences aren’t culturally mediated. This is when people are primed to expect something i.e. elves and dwarves and so on, because they’ve heard about it. We think people have been having these experiences on DMT naively, ever since it was first isolated and taken by humans. There’s something about DMT itself which cultivates these experiences. We’re just not sure how or why.

So why do you think DMT is present in the human body?

Rick Strassman tried to use it as a way of explaining the near death experience. He suggested that what happens when you have a near death experience is that your brain releases its store of DMT into the brain and it’s this chemical release that gives the experience.

No one has done a particularly thorough job of mapping the classic near death experience to the classic DMT experience. People have attempted crude compassions but no one has looked at it closely. When you do there are some overlaps but there are a lot of differences.

Although the DMT experience broadly contains all the elements of a near death experience, near death experiences are not like DMT ones. You have the experience of being out of the body or a tunnel of light, like you have with DMT, but there are things we find in the DMT experience that we don’t find in the near death one, such as geometric patterns and alien and bizarre experiences, whereas near death ones are typically very earthly.

What’s more Interesting is if you look at the folklore in literature around 100 years ago. People documented verbal accounts of people who had experiences with pixies. Typically in the folklore literature there were most often associated with spirits of the dead, which has some alliances with the idea of DMT being related to near death experiences. How and why that is, that’s anyone’s guess really.

Are we close to finding any answers?

Scientifically it’s somewhat tricky. I’ve been researching in this area for about 10 or 15 years. DMT struck me as being extremely curious because there’s no other psychedelic we know of that naturally occurs in the human body. I mean the human neural system has endocannabinoids which are related to cannabis THC, but there’s a big difference between that and the presence of DMT.

What’s the role of DMT in the body and why do people have such extraordinary intense and bizarre experiences when they take it? Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be. That’s a quite ambitious speculation from a scientific perspective. Because you can’t really know what happens after death.

Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be.

Current mainstream scientific thinking is that the brain dies and consciousness ceases. New research and evidence is beginning to challenge that. If you’re looking at the near death experience research that’s going on, people are reporting having experiences of conciseness and conscious awareness even when there’s no apparent brain activity. When the heart stops beating for about 20-30 seconds, all brain activity that we can detect stops because the brain is starved of oxygen.

In theatre operations when people have had their heart stopped and the blood drained from their brain have reported conscious experience throughout the whole procedure, sometimes lasting an hour or more, during which there is no brain activity that we can detect. This challenges the notion that you can have no consciousness experience without brain activity. Now we can’t be certain that they’re actually having a consciousness experience, because we can’t be sure it’s taking place at the same time as their stops working. They could just conflate the experience when they recover brain activity. Or it could be that there are some parts of the brain that we can’t detect, which still remain active. But there’s no evidence for that. So we’re in peculiar territory here, scientifically speaking.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to test for signs of consciousness after death?

We always like to think we’ll have a better understating in the future and science does tend to progress but it’s quite a tricky area. Experimentally it’s very difficult. We’re not in a position to experimentally put people into a death state and see what happens. Although we can take note of people who have surgical procedure and are put into a state of clinical death.

We don’t even know if DMT exists in the pineal glands. We have discovered it in the pineal glands of rats, which are anatomically similar to humans. So there is possibility but we have yet to discover what the pineal glands’ actually function is. It seems to be important as a neurological transmitter on certain, little understood, nerotransmitter sites in the brain. It also seems to have important indications in the immune system. But the question remains why we have an extremely potent psychedelic chemical floating around in the human body. Can this account for spontaneous mythical and spiritual experiences?

Complete Article HERE!

Penance and plague

— How the Black Death changed one of Christianity’s most important rituals

Confession, circa 1460/1470. Artist unknown.

By

The 14th century is known for catastrophe. By midcentury, the first wave of plague spread through a Europe already weakened by successive famines and the Hundred Years War between England and France. And crises just kept coming. After the first wave, which has come to be called the Black Death, the disease returned at least four more times before 1400. All the while, fresh conflicts kept erupting, fueled in part by the rising number of soldiers available for hire.

As a medieval historian, I study ways that community leaders used Catholic practices and institutions to respond to war and plague. But amid the uncertainty of the 14th century, some Catholic institutions stopped working the way they were supposed to, fueling frustration. In particular, the unrelenting crises prompted anxiety about the sacrament of penance, often referred to as “confession.”

This uncertainty helped spark critics like Martin Luther to ultimately break from the Catholic Church.

Saints and sacraments

During this era, European Christians experienced their faith predominantly through saints and sacraments.

In art, saints were depicted as standing near God’s throne or even speaking into his ear, illustrating their special relationships with him. Pious Christians considered saints active members of their communities who could help God hear their prayers for healing and protection. Throughout Europe, saints’ feast days were celebrated with processions, displays of candles, and even street theater.

Fourteenth-century Christians also experienced their faith through Catholicism’s most important rituals, the seven sacraments. Some occurred once in most people’s lives, including baptism, confirmation, marriage and extreme unction – a set of rituals for people who are near death.

A medieval manuscript with colorful illustrations depicts rites for people who are dying.
A 15th-century manuscript depicts deathbed scenes: doctor’s visit; confession; Communion; extreme unction; and burial. From the Bedford Hours of John, Duke of Bedford.

There were two sacraments, however, that Catholics could experience multiple times. The first was the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion – the reenactment of Christ’s Last Supper with his apostles before his crucifixion. The second was penance.

Catholic doctrine taught that priests’ prayers over bread and wine turned those substances into the body and blood of Christ, and that this sacrament creates communion between God and believers. The Eucharist was the core of the Mass, a service which also included processions, singing, prayers and reading from the Scriptures.

Religious Christians also encountered the sacrament of penance throughout their lives. By the 14th century, penance was a private sacrament that each person was supposed to do at least once a year.

The ideal penance was hard work, however. People had to recall all the sins they had committed since the “age of reason,” which started when they were roughly 7 years old. They were supposed to feel sorry that they had offended God, and not just be afraid that they would go to hell for their sins. They had to speak their sins aloud to their parish priest, who had the authority to absolve them. Finally, they had to intend to never commit those sins again.

After confession, they performed the prayers, fasting or pilgrimage that the priest assigned them, which was called “satisfaction.” The whole process was meant to heal the soul as a kind of spiritual medicine.

Broken up by Black Death

Waves of plague and warfare, however, could disrupt every aspect of the ideal confession. Rapid illness could make it impossible to travel to one’s parish priest, remember one’s sins or speak them aloud. When parish priests died and were not immediately replaced, people had to seek out other confessors. Some people had to confess without anyone to absolve them.

A manuscript depicts people burying victims of the Black Death plague.
An illustration in the Annales of Gilles de Muisit, from the 14th century, depicts people burying victims of the Black Death.

Meanwhile, Europe’s frequent wars posed other spiritual dangers. Soldiers, for example, were hired to fight wherever war took them and were often paid with the spoils of war. They lived with the constant weight of the commandments not to kill or steal. They could never perform a complete confession, because they could never intend not to sin this way again.

These problems caused despair and anxiety. In response, people turned to doctors and saints for help and healing. For example, some Christians in Provence, in present-day France, turned to a local holy woman, Countess Delphine de Puimichel, to help them remember their sins, protect them from sudden death, and even leave warfare to become penitents. So many people described feeling consoled by her voice that a medical doctor who lived near the holy woman set up meetings so people could hear her speak.

But most people in Europe did not have a local saint like Delphine to turn to. They looked for other solutions to their uncertainties about the sacrament of penance.

Indulgences and Masses for the dead proved the most popular, but also problematic. Indulgences were papal documents that could forgive the sins of the holder. They were supposed to be given out only by the pope, and in very specific situations, such as completing certain pilgrimages, serving in a crusade, or doing particularly pious acts.

During the 15th century, however, demand for indulgences was high, and they became common. Some traveling confessors who had received religious authorities’ approval to hear confessions sold indulgences – some authentic, some fake – to anyone with money.

Catholics also believed that Masses conducted in their name could absolve their sins after their death. By the 14th century, most Christians understood the afterlife as a journey that started in a place called Purgatory, where residual sins would be burned away through suffering before souls entered heaven. In their wills, Christians left money for Masses for their souls, so that they could spend less time in Purgatory. There were so many requests that some churches performed multiple Masses per day, sometimes for many souls at a time, which became an unsustainable burden on the clergy.

An eagle's-eye photograph shows a graveyard being exhumed.
A Black Death burial trench under excavation between rows of individual graves and the later concrete foundations of the Royal Mint in East Smithfield, London.

The popularity of indulgences and Masses for the dead helps scholars today understand people’s challenges during the Black Death. But both practices were ripe for corruption, and frustration mounted as a sacrament meant to console and prepare the faithful for the afterlife left them anxious and uncertain.

Criticisms of indulgences and penance were a focus of reformer Martin Luther’s famous “95 Theses,” written in 1517. Though the young priest did not originally intend to separate from the Catholic Church, his critiques launched the Protestant Reformation.

But Luther’s challenges to the papacy were not ultimately about money, but theology. Despair over the idea of never being able to perform an ideal confession led him and others to redefine the sacrament. In Luther’s view, a penitent could do nothing to make satisfaction for sin, but had to rely on God’s grace alone.

Complete Article HERE!

A skate geezer ruminates on death and dying

by Michael Brooke

There are literally millions of articles, books, videos, podcasts, and pieces of art dedicated to the ideas surrounding death and dying.

But I’d wager a large fortune that very few of them give a perspective of death and dying through the lens of a skateboarder.

The book “The Endless Wave: Skateboarding, Death & Spirituality” aims to do just that – or at least start a conversation or two.

Firstly, I am by no means an expert in skateboarding, but I enjoy it immensely.

I’ve been joyfully riding since 1975 and pride myself on riding all types of terrain with all types of skateboards.

I enjoy street, vert, transition, longboarding, freestyle, and I’ll even run slalom cones.

My journey writing about skateboarding started in 1995 with this article: dansworld.com/michael.html

Dansworld was one of the first websites on skateboarding, and I was fortunate to be able to write about my experiences.

Full disclosure: I got the date wrong. I started riding in 1975, not 1976, but everything else is pretty much spot on.

The site inspired me to create my own website. I called it The SkateGeezer Homepage.

Its aim was to publicize older skateboarders and get them thinking about the nostalgic side of riding.

Visit the page – interlog.com/~mbrooke/skategeezer.html – if you dare, but I warn you, the graphics are pretty brutal.

Then again, what do you expect? It was created over 25 years ago!

The SkateGeezer Homepage led to a book contract and, in 1999, “The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding” was published.

It sold 42,000 copies and launched a 52-part TV series.

After this, I launched International Longboarder Magazine in the summer of 1999. This magazine eventually became Concrete Wave, and I published and edited it until the summer of 2018.

Here’s a collection of issues: issuu.com/concretewave

The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding: a book by Michael Brooke

From Publisher to Funeral Director’s Assistant

When I decided to sell the magazine, it was because I felt that it was time to do something else.

Originally, I thought I’d move into working at a non-profit. It turned out that my life was going to go in a different direction.

I wound up answering a job advertisement at a local funeral home. I had done some volunteer work at a nearby hospice and retirement home.

After my interview, they asked me to come in for a day to try things. This was late June 2018, and something about the job felt right.

So, for the last three years or so, I’ve been working as a funeral director’s assistant. It was quite a transition from publishing.

I pretty much do everything but arrange funerals.

From premature babies to those over 100 years old, I’ve experienced death up close and personal.

I’ve done dozens of house calls to transfer the deceased back to our funeral home and assisted at well over 500 funerals.

It’s been over three years since I wrote about skateboarding and over 25 years since I connected with Dansworld to write my first piece.

It feels wonderful to be writing again.

I want to thank my family, my wife Michal, daughter Maya and sons Jonathan and Ethan. They have been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done.

They’ve also been monumentally patient and understanding too. Without them, I’d be nowhere.

I’d also like to thank Nathan Ho for inspiring me and being a catalyst for me to start writing again.

My hope is that this book inspires my fellow skateboarders to think about death and dying from a different perspective – a perspective that is uniquely ours.

Skateboarders: they value the time put into riding a skateboard | Photo: Shutterstock

1. Balancing the Risk vs. Reward

Think about the first time you stepped on a board. Were you a little bit scared or anxious?

Chances are you might have had some trepidation, but it was mitigated by the sheer joy and freedom you saw other skaters experiencing, and you wanted some of that!

So, you took a chance, jumped on the board, and were hopefully rewarded.

It is not just a question of balancing on a skateboard, but how you balance the risk vs. the reward.

Skateboarders know that falling can produce painful and sometimes lethal consequences.

But all those worries and fears are cast aside for the reward that is riding. Now think about the first time you learned to drop in on a mini-ramp or bowl.

Again, you probably felt a little anxious but knew instinctively that the reward would be truly worthwhile.

It is the combination of risk vs. reward that forms the first part of a skater’s lens, and we carry this throughout our life.

What I have learned in my 57 years of living and 46 years of riding a skateboard is that sometimes you have to jump right in, despite the difficulty or risk.

Built into the DNA of skateboarding is risk, and I know for a fact that it has changed the way I look at death and dying.

While it can be risky to skateboard, I feel that the greater risk is not living a fulfilling, joyful life.

The countless hours spent with friends skateboarding create a unique bond.

Sure, there are times you are competing in a game of skate or who can go the fastest down a hill, but mostly the ride is the reward.

Think of the road trips you’ve been on with your fellow skaters. That first push can lead to a lifetime of freedom and exploration.

For me, skateboarding was a catalyst to lead me to people, music, art, and ideas that I normally wouldn’t have discovered.

The more you commit, the greater the reward.

Skateboarding tricks: the more you commit, the greater the reward | Photo: Shutterstock

The Formula for a Joyful Life

Skateboarders know all about quality time – especially if you’re living in a climate that is not sunny all the time.

We cherish the opportunity to ride with friends. But most importantly, we value the time put into riding a skateboard.

We know that at any moment, a pebble, car, or crack in the pavement could stop us in our tracks.

When I attend a funeral, I can tell almost immediately what kind of eulogies I will hear.

If the family is tight-knit and supportive of one another, the eulogies will often be about the time the person put into people.

While hearing about a person’s business or academic accomplishments can be impressive, it is the anecdotes about the time spent with family and friends that really leave an impression on me.

I have never once heard, “I wish my father would have spent less time with us” or “I wish my mom would have spent more time at the office.”

Ultimately, life is about balance.

If you are obsessed with skateboarding to the point that it leaves you penniless, you’ve gone too far.

Conversely, there are so many millions of people afraid to take that first push or to drop in.

They firmly believe that life is scary and meant to be cautiously navigated. Their fears can lead to frustration, anger, and depression.

It makes for a joyless life.

Skateboarding has a magical way of creating a sense of freedom in your mind. Once your mind is free, anything is possible.

After all, you have a 100 percent chance of dying. The question is: what are you going to do about it?

Skateboarding: like life, a balance between risk and reward | Photo: Shutterstock

2. Reality Doesn’t Just Bite – It Spits!

Before I start this next chapter, I wanted to preface things with a small warning. The truth is that discussing death and dying can be very difficult for some.

Nathan and I are going to hit on some very challenging and somewhat painful ideas over the course of this book.

But if you picked up on what I was writing about in Chapter One, I think you’ll do just fine.

The following incident happened about three years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

I had been at my job as a funeral director’s assistant for less than a week.

It was a blazing hot day in July, and I was getting to know my fellow co-workers. At the cemetery, we had spied someone lurking about 200 feet away.

We were told that it was an estranged brother who was not invited to the funeral but had somehow found out the time and place and was making his presence known.

It created a little bit of intrigue, but none of us were concerned that he would do something to disrupt the funeral.

As this was literally my second or third time attending a funeral at a gravesite, I wasn’t really sure if having a lurker was a normal occurrence or something completely uncommon.

It turned out to be something else – it turned out to be completely off the rails. The funeral service took about 30 minutes to finish.

The family left the grave, and slowly the brother walked up to the grave.

He stood in front of the grave and spat on it. Then he said, “I’m glad you’re dead, you f*****g c**t.”

He promptly left, and I stood there with my jaw dropped. As he left, I could feel the tension and anger just swirling around him.

I was literally stunned into silence.

Skateboarding: your skateboard will outlive you | Illustration: Brooke/Ho

Gaining Appreciation for Life

I am happy to report that a scene like this is not a common occurrence. The amount of visceral hatred that seethed in this man’s veins was both intense and shocking.

While I will never know what led up to this moment, it is forever seared in my brain.

A fellow staff member remarked that he’d been working in funeral services for over 25 years and had never encountered something like this before.

I guess in some crazy way, my timing was pretty good.

There is no doubt in my mind that you gain an incredible appreciation for life when you are surrounded by death.

It seems oddly counter-intuitive, and yet I encounter it constantly. What can we learn from my story about this man?

I think you could spend many years trying to unpack a scene like this, but I think it boils down to just one crucial thing.

“You gotta handle your shit, or shit will handle you.”

Clearly, this man (who appeared to be in his mid-60s) and his mother (along with the rest of the family) needed help.

He clearly carries a burning resentment that was overwhelming. Whatever history is between the family, it would appear that it was never dealt with.

This man needed help. Maybe he got it, but I sense it never really helped sufficiently. Or maybe, in the last three years, he did receive some help.

I can only hope that he did. Sadly, I will never know.

Skaters come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are rich, some are poor, and some are middle class.

I would venture a guess that a number of skaters turned to skateboarding because it was a path to freedom from an issue.

These issues or problems can range from mild to severe.

No matter what a skater tries to leave behind (i.e., an abusive home, inattentive parents, abusive sibling, or some other problem), the fact remains that skateboarding can’t fully erase the problem.

Coming to terms with this can be both alarming and painful, but it is necessary.

Make no mistake – I am glad I had skateboarding when I was younger. It wasn’t just a creative outlet; it provided me with a great deal of support.

But in truth, I never dealt with certain s**t until I reached my 50s.

Of course, things change with time, and nowadays, people are a lot more open to dealing with mental health issues.

But the reality is that if you use skateboarding as your only path to freedom, you aren’t dealing with the problem.

This can have a substantially negative impact as you move through life.

If you carry with you hatred against people who don’t look like you or skate like you, it is you who has the problem.

Skateboarding: if you use it as your only path to freedom, you aren't dealing with the problem | Photo: Shutterstock

Skateboarding Will Never Love you Back

Skateboarding promotes the idea of freedom, but if you are running away from an issue that needs to be dealt with, you will never be truly free.

This is a hard truth, but it is critical to accept.

As much as we love skateboarding or any other activity, it can’t truly replace family or close friends.

A skateboarder knows instinctively to value each moment riding – whether alone or in a group.

But as you start to move from adolescence to middle age and beyond, you realize that skeletons in closets have a peculiar way of rearing their heads.

Whatever demons you may carry, skateboarding has proven to be a great way to keep them at bay.

But the demons won’t fully be exercised until you face reality.

I have tried yoga, cooking, gardening, and conversing in another language.

At some point or another, these activities have let me down, oftentimes with ridiculous and embarrassing results.

I used to say that skateboarding never let me down. But the fact is that skateboarding is an activity, not a person.

No matter how much you love your skateboard or the act of skateboarding, it will never love you back.

It can’t because a skateboard is an inanimate object. An object that certainly improves your life, but it is only an object.

Skateboarding will be the catalyst for you to have experiences that you will love.

Often, it will bring you people who you might grow to cherish (and respect).

But the fact remains your skateboard will outlive you. A hundred years from now, your descendants might know that you skated.

But one thing is for certain: if you don’t handle your shit eventually, your descendants will have to.

Complete Article HERE!

How Preparing for Death Makes Life More Meaningful

by Tom Rapsas

Is there ever an appropriate time to contemplate your own death? Like grief, death is a topic most of us prefer not to talk about or even think about. Most of us assume our own deaths will happen at some point in the distant future. Yet, as Wayne Dyer once said, the future is promised to no one.

Most of us will wait until we are at the brink of death’s door to contemplate death. It might happen after a terminal medical diagnosis, a sudden heart attack or illness, or an automobile accident. Or you might live in a warzone, where the specter of death visits you on a daily basis.

But the fact is, no matter your station in life, death is a constant presence. We are nearer to death this year than last year, closer to death today than we were yesterday. During our whole lives we are moving inextricably closer to death. We are not allowed to stop the clock or to go more slowly. Old and young, rich and poor, all are propelled toward death with equal speed.

There are some who regularly practice for their own death.

They are not suicidal—in fact, just the opposite. They contemplate death so that they can better appreciate life. It’s part of an ancient Christian tradition called memento mori (translation: “remember your death”). It has received renewed attention thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of Saint Paul, a Catholic religious order.

Noble has written a book titled Remember Your Death, where she asks us to become aware of our impending death so that we can become better focused on what is real and important in our lives. In her words, the practice “is more about living than it is about dying.” It’s about living each moment not knowing if it’s our last.

Sister Theresa believes that the practice of memento mori is essential because “only God knows when each person will die.” That does not mean going about your day thinking you will die, but recognizing “the possibility that this could come to pass. One day will be our last, and the great majority of us do not know when.” She continues:

No matter how many surgeries we undergo, how much we exercise, or how many vitamins we take, our bodies will break down slowly over time. Indeed, no matter what we do, our bodies will succumb to old age and die.

Spring is an appropriate time to remember our death.

Noble calls out the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday. It kicks off the 40-day season of Lent which ends three days before Easter Sunday. During Ash Wednesday, a priest or pastor dips their finger into a tray of ashes and spreads it on a congregants’ forehead in the shape of a cross. While doing this, they quote the Bible, saying “from dust you came and from dust you will return.” Dust is a metaphor for death.

Sister Thersa tells us that “as Christians, when we contemplate our own death, we also enter into the death of Jesus Christ. We remember death not from our own perspective, but from Christ’s perspective.” And from that perspective, death has been conquered. With the resurrection of Jesus, he has shown us that we all have the ability “to rise with him” and in essence, survive our own death.

You don’t need to be a Christian, for this work for you. Noble informs us that “even if one does not believe in the Christian message of salvation, the rich ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life.” What follows are three compelling notions pulled from Remember Your Death.

3 Reasons to Prepare for Your Own Death

  1. It can cleanse your soul. When we remember death “it can motivate us to clear grudges, anger, and a desire for retaliation for our souls.” When we are able to forgive others, it can “heal relationships but most importantly, our souls. Forgiveness clears away what stands in the way of our union with God.”
  2. It can lead to greater humility. When we remember our death, we “truthfully admit we need God’s help,” and are more apt to accept God’s grace. By contrast, when we puff ourselves up with pride, we push away this grace. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” ~Bible, Genesis 3:19
  3. It can give you greater focus. Through the knowledge that the gift of life can be taken from us at any time, we gain a greater appreciation for our lives. As Sam Harris reminds us in a podcast titled The Lessons of Death, no one knows how much time they have left. “We’re all going to lose everything we have—and we don’t know when.” Since we don’t know how many moments we have left, it makes sense to be mindful of the limited amount of time we do have—and treat these moments like the treasures they are.

Complete Article HERE!

On Death, Dying, and Disbelief

BOOK BY CANDACE GORHAM
PITCHSTONE PUBLISHING, 2021

by Nicole Carr

As humans, most of us—especially after the last couple of pandemic years—have experienced the loss of a loved one. As humanists, we know how difficult it can be to grieve as a nontheist in a world that is designed for the religious. Many of the rituals our society uses to mark the end of life are built around belief in the afterlife, and that can leave nontheists feeling stranded and alone at a time when they especially need support. Candace R. M. Gorham offers that support with her book On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, published last year by Pitchstone Publishing.

When my mother died (much too young), I was still a believer. I had already stopped regularly going to church, but I believed in god and the sentiments that the people around me uttered were actually comforting: “She’s in a better place,” “You’ll be together again someday,” “She’s looking down on you.” I knew the rituals and they worked for me.

Twenty-five years later, when my husband died (again, much too young), I hadn’t found humanism yet, but I definitely considered myself a nontheist. Grieving was different this time, and I needed to find new ways to mark his death and find a way to live without him. I wish I’d had this book then.

As a licensed mental health counselor and a former ordained minister turned atheist activist, Gorham is uniquely suited to write this book. She also draws on her personal experience with grief. As she writes in the book’s introduction,

The ten tips I offer in this book were selected based on common questions and conversations I have had with nontheists and are things that have helped me personally. In this regard, I combine my personal awareness of issues unique to nontheists with my professional expertise in mental health counseling, and I try to address this deeply personal subject with the tenderness of one who can fully commiserate with the target audience.

And she succeeds. The book is deeply personal and yet still applicable to the reader’s own situation and experience. The chapters are organized as ten tips, and each one begins with a poem written by the author when she was coping with her own grief.

On my own journey from religion to nontheism, the idea I found hardest to let go was that loved ones who had died were in some other—better—place, where they were somehow watching over me. I held on to that idea tightly after all my other religious beliefs had fallen away. In fact, I held on to it for quite a while after I called myself non-religious. Gorham’s first chapter deals with just that concept, and how to reconcile a sometimes deep desire to believe that a loved one is still with us with our understanding that there is no heaven.

There’s a lot of important advice included about taking care of yourself physically, psychologically, and emotionally. There are the basic things, of course: eating, drinking, sleep, exercise. But there are also tips about things you might not think about in the midst of grief, like the importance of establishing new routines to help you move forward.

Gorham also includes information about when to seek out a therapist, the beneficial possibilities of medication, how to identify when grief has passed into a danger zone of potential self-harm or pathology, and the healing qualities of nature to help create a “restorative environment.”

And there’s a whole chapter on the need to “Cry. Cry. And then cry some more” which the author describes as “the most cathartic activity I have ever done.” Since humanists tend to like science and evidence, Gorham details, for instance, studies that point to the beneficial hormones and proteins that crying produces, along with the stress-relief and cathartic effect of the physical act.

In the same chapter, however, she reminds readers to “embrace the times when they are not crying” and find moments of enjoyment in the midst of grief. After all,

As a nontheist, you very likely do not believe that your loved one is watching you from the great beyond. So, it is not like they are there judging the extent of your grieving. And you are not competing with friends and family to see who can grieve the hardest and longest.

One powerful chapter is Tip #8: Do something in their honor. Gorham sets out several options for rituals that one can create to remember and memorialize a deceased loved one. In some humanist circles, “ritual” can be a bad word, but many people do feel a need to mark an important loss. As Gorham writes,

As nontheists, we might not like the word “ritual” because of its close ties with religion. However…synonyms include custom, fashion, habit, pattern, practice, and second nature. As you can see, a ritual is certainly more than just a religious activity. Rituals are extremely powerful tools that, when controlled and properly applied—as opposed to letting them control us—can provide the most healing of all of the activities, tips, actions, and recommendations I discuss in this book.

Her suggestions range from “Visit the Gravesite” to “Complete a Project.”

This is a compact book at just 152 pages, and its structure is perfectly suited to dipping in to find just the right tip for where you are in the process of grieving. With a final chapter devoted to advice for people who want to support those who are grieving, the book covers a lot of ground.

Everyone will find sections of the book useful to them. For instance, Gorham stresses the restorative power of nature, but not being an “outdoorsy” person, that advice doesn’t really speak to me. Instead, the sections that resonated most with me were Tip 8 (on ritual) and Tip 9 (on crying), described above. For others, it might be the opposite.

For me, the best passages are the ones that remind the reader that, though we must grieve, grief is not all there is:

You are alive and you must keep living. If you wake up crying, cry while you are getting dressed, cry while driving, cry when music is playing, cry anytime you are alone, cry in the shower, cry in bed, cry at meal time. If you cannot help yourself, then cry, cry, cry. However, it is also absolutely critical that you let yourself experience joy whenever possible….When you are able to break free from its hold and peek your head above water for even ten minutes to breathe the pure air of laughter and smiles, you must take it in as fully as you can.

Most importantly, Gorham stresses that each journey is unique and each person grieving is on a different timeline. The most repeated advice in the book is to be patient with one another—and yourself.

Complete Article HERE!