In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.
Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.
Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.
Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”
Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”
Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”
Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”
I remember the first time I touched a dead body. It was at my grandfather’s funeral. You know the scene: attendants in boxy black suits, the cloying scent of flowers, tissue boxes, breath mints, dusty funeral parlor furniture. As the sad murmur of relatives droned all around, I stepped up to the coffin and quickly reached in to touch his embalmed hands, folded nicely on his belly. They felt like cold, soft leather.
That was when death was still an anomaly to me, an outlier. Now it has become familiar, a recurring pattern in recent weeks and months. For the past several years, I’ve served as a pastor in a suburban parish, an evangelical who made his home in a mainline church. I don’t run the show, since I’m a lay pastor, but I’ve been there for most of the funerals. In the past few years we’ve had almost 40 in our parish. Those are a lot of faces I won’t get to see any more on Sunday mornings. Death is no longer a stranger to me; it is a regular part of my life.
This has been one of the more difficult parts of being a pastor, seeing people who faithfully served our Lord over decades take ill and start a steep decline. These deaths don’t have the shock of tragedy, of teenagers hit by cars or babies born without breath. Still, the dull ache of sorrow is there.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a thriving megachurch (by Canadian standards, anyways), and I took it for granted that slowly and surely our congregation would continue to expand. And it did, all through my teen years. As I looked out over the congregation on Sunday mornings, I could see a diverse group of people from ages 15 to 60. But children were most often annexed to their age-appropriate ministries, seniors were few and far between, and funerals were not a constant. The bulk of our congregants were in the prime of life.
Later, when I began my pastoral ministry in a congregation that skewed to those over 65, I became frustrated as our church struggled to thrive. Growth no longer just seemed to happen. And though we saw many young families drawn deeper into the life of Christ, we also lost many veteran saints. I learned to care for the very young as our nursery filled up, and I learned to walk with the aging as they lost the strength to sit in our pews.
Though I looked longingly at congregations that seemed to expand effortlessly, I learned to love the slow work of pastoring a struggling congregation. I took in the beauty of a woman in her 80s dancing with toddlers and singing worship songs. And I remember the 70th wedding anniversary of a couple that faithfully attended worship for just as many years. These quiet miracles don’t have the same luster as other “vibrant” ministries I’ve been a part of, but nonetheless, they witness to the patience and love of God. I came to appreciate the church as the body of Christ formed of the whole people of God, from young to old—even those heading to their graves.
Pastoring an Aging Congregation
Death does not fall outside the life of Christ’s Body; it is a threshold through which we all must walk. Recognizing death as part of our common Christian life allows for a more expansive vision of God’s redemption, which begins the day we are conceived and carries us into our dying
I’ve come to appreciate my close experiences with death. When I look at large, booming churches or hip, thriving church plants, I wonder if their pastors experience the regular privilege of burying octogenarians. I’m glad for these growing churches, insofar as people are having encounters with Christ and his Word. I wish so many of the churches in my denomination would thrive like that. Yet I’m learning to appreciate aging congregations like my own in which the whole community of faith mourns with the death of each faithful servant.
I recently read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35. She was enjoying a vibrant career, academic success, and a wonderful home with her husband and toddler. The news of her cancer seemed to crush all of that. Life had to be put on hold for chemo, rest, and preparation for dying.
She writes in her memoir about churches in which blessings come as the direct result of fierce faith. She writes, “The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart. … The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.” Bowler writes that she tacitly held to a tamer form of prosperity gospel logic. She expected that, if she followed Jesus, things would go pretty well because God loves her and wants her to have a good life.
I often find myself believing the same thing about my church: if we worship Jesus and do his will, he will bless us with new members and increased vitality. Stagnant membership and death in the congregation feel like punishments for lack of faith.
But God throws wrenches in the wheels of our theological systems. We get fired. We get divorced. We get sick. We die.
Our local congregations lose their liveliness. They suffer from conflicts. They struggle to raise funds. They shrink
Christians believe that “death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:54). Our faith is built upon the fact that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. But our experience of death is not always so straightforward. Our sojourn still leads to our bodies being cremated or placed in a coffin.
Helping People Reckon with Death
In many churches I’ve attended, death was pushed to the margins. It was treated like an interruption to God’s work in the world, not as an instrument by which God draws people more fully into his own life. I’m not saying we should love death—after all, it’s still “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). But part of living as disciples is learning to die well.
Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, writes,
“To die well” is to locate what is good somewhere outside our control—in the God who gives and receives our lives. It is also to allow that alien goodness, the goodness of God’s transcendent superintendence over life and its temporal duration, to inform the very meaning of our vulnerability to illness, suffering, and death.
In other words, by embracing death in our churches, we allow our creator to give meaning to our human weakness.
Stanley Hauerwas notes in God, Medicine, and Suffering that Western culture shifted from preparing Christians to die well in the medieval period to franticly attempting to cure us from death in contemporary society. He writes, “We have no communal sense of a good death, and as a result death threatens us, since it represents our absolute loneliness.” According to Hauerwas, we need to learn once again how to grapple with our mortality.
Stories like Bowler’s, then, make me wonder about the kind of church we ought to be. What might it mean to be a church where people regularly come face to face with death? How can we present the gospel in a way that changes hearts, but also ministers to people whose earthly lives will never return to “normal?”
One way in which pastors can deal with death is by talking about it openly in sermons and in conversation. I remember talking with a friend who has since passed away from cancer. He told me that many of the Christians he encountered didn’t want him to talk about the possibility of death. They wanted him to stay positive, focusing on things he could do to get better. He knew that he wouldn’t, but he felt the pressure to stay positive for the sake of others. When I talked frankly with him about the possibility of death, he seemed to breathe easier. In naming death, he allowed the grace of God to come to him even there.
We talk about illness and aging as “battles”; to die is to lose these battles. But staying alive is a battle we all lose eventually—some quickly, some slowly—so we might as well invite God’s presence into our dying. In the cross we understand our living and our dying. What better place to learn this than the church? Who better to initiate these conversations than pastors? Sure, I want my church to be dynamic, vibrant, growing; I pray to God for this. But I also want to cultivate a church where people can reckon with death, worshiping a savior who won his victory hanging from nails pinned to a wooden cross.
Those who work with dying people are familiar with patients seeing long deceased loved ones, angelic beings, even hearing music and comforting voices as the patient nears death. Deathbed phenomena have been documented in the days, weeks, and months before death since the 1500s. Often confused with hallucinations, deathbed phenomena can bring comfort to patients and caregivers if those involved know what they are experiencing. This talk will explain deathbed phenomena and present on-going research about the topic. Accounts from the dying and bedside witnesses will be shared.
[M]y cat, Osiris, is lying at my feet as I type this article. That’s his normal nook while I’m in my office, which doubles as our guest room—the futon behind me is also a suitable sleeping option. Celebrating his eighteenth birthday soon, I’m thankful he’s stayed healthy and vibrant for this long. The same was not the case for his namesake.
On Sunday many Christian faithful celebrated the resurrection of their savior. Yet the story of Christ is an oft-repeated motif in mythological literature. Resurrection tales abound across the planet. This was first brought to broader attention thanks to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, an exhaustive survey on world mythologies that was originally written to show their inadequacies by a skeptical Frazer, yet turned out to influence entire academic departments in the comparative mythology and comparative religion fields that grew from his work.
While much speculation has been offered as to why resurrection cycles persisted, the annual birth, death, and rebirth of the soil provide an important clue. The plants that grow, wither, and die seasonally only to return to nourish us once again makes for a convenient segue to the concept of souls. Frazer consciously linked this fact with the cults of Persephone, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus. As he writes,
It remains to see whether the conception the annual death and resurrection of a god, which figures so prominently in these great Greek and Oriental worships, has not also its origin or its analogy in the rustic rites observed by reapers and vine-dressers amongst the corn-shocks and the vines.
Easter Sunday, known as Resurrection Sunday to the faithful, marks the third day of Christ’s burial after his death on the crucifix. Missionary Christianity spread Christ’s story across the planet; over the course of centuries those other resurrected gods were discredited, rewritten, or forgotten. The uniqueness of Christ’s story has been challenged by modern scholarship, notably by tablets such as Gabriel’s Revelation. Frazer just brought that reality to the forefront.
Unlike many older stories, the Christ motif was unlinked at some point from sexuality and regeneration to focus on the soul. This speaks in part to the establishment of Christian ethics, yet the desexualization of Christ did a disservice to our understanding of ecology and the environment. The below figures are all in some way connected to fertility and nutritional sustenance, two necessities for the continuation of life. The Christ story is mainly metaphysical, unchained from the earthly cycles even though those annual renewals provide the foundation upon which the Christian mythology was founded.
Beyond the cited figure in each historical mythology is the theme, which is essentially more relevant to the living than the dead. Sure, we discover emotional comfort by the notion of life beyond the grave, but what really matters is picking ourselves up after deaths during lifetime—divorce; the death of relatives and loved ones; losing a job; watching a child leave the nest. Our character is defined by our response to tragedy and suffering.
As the characters below demonstrate, some achieve greater glory after the tragedy while others are trapped in an unforgiving underworld for eternity. What unites them is the human imagination that dreamed up each figure to communicate a primal idea about how to navigate life.
The Egyptian deity of the afterlife, underworld, and dead is the classic tale of regeneration. There are many variations on his theme, but each poem centers around his love for his sister-wife Isis, a jealous brother that murders him, Set, and his son, Horus, who avenges his father’s death. In every variation, Isis copulates with Osiris’s briefly resurrected body before he once again perishes. In one telling, his body parts are scattered across the planet, which Isis has to collect before stitching him back together. The agricultural connection is clear: Osiris was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile River and the crops dependent upon its rising. He was also linked to the positioning of the stars, Orion and Sirius, at the beginning of each new year, another resurrection motif.
The Greeks offer the most famous mythological motifs in the West, unsurprisingly as they’re the basis of our culture. Maybe the drunken god of grape harvest, wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, and ritual madness waking up the morning after was enough of an impetus to make him a resurrected being—sulfites pack a punch. Dionysus was never crucified, but torn to bits by cannibalistic titans; he was somehow reshaped from the remaining heart, which flies in the face of anthropological data that our ancestors were organ eaters. Regardless, mythology is not about facts. Rituals celebrating his prowess remain beloved to this day.
In one of the world’s oldest pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king references Tammuz, an ancient Mesopotamian lord of shepherds, as an ex-lover of Ishtar who was turned into a bird with a broken wing. The scorching Mesopotamian summers needed a hero to resurrect the fertile soil every year—the link between sex/fertility and vegetation, noted above with Dionysus, is another common motif—and that duty fell onto Tammuz, who was also known as Dumuzid. A midsummer month was even named in his honor. Tammuz’s legacy lived behind himself, as gods do. He was incorporated into myths in the Levant and Greece, where he became known as Adonis.
Being the mortal lover of Aphrodite is no small task. As his harbinger, Tammuz, was already firmly secure in his sexual prowess, Adonis has echoed through the generations as the ideal lover. Born from a myrrh tree and raised by Persephone, whose own myth centers on the regeneration powers of vegetation, Adonis’s good looks created a feud between Aphrodite and Persephone. Zeus declared that the boy would spend one-third of each year with each of them, then choose where to spend his final third term. He must not have been a fan of Hades, as he chose Aphrodite. Then he was gored by a wild boar, dying in Aphrodite’s arms. Adonis is reborn with gardens planted in his honor each summer, the result of his dying blood mixing with Aphrodite’s tears to form an anemone flower.
This Geek deity’s story went down over a millennia before the Christ figure appears. His first cult was linked to a Phrygian trading outpost, Pessinos, whose great mountain was thought to be a daemon. Attis’s mother, Nana, became pregnant by laying an almond from a mystical tree on her bosom. She had second thoughts about this motherhood job, though, as upon his birth she abandoned him. Attis was subsequently raised by a he-goat. He fell in love with Cybele, but his foster parents sent him to Pessinos, where he was forced into an arranged marriage to King Midas’s daughter. Eventually, he went mad and cut off his genitals, so that he would not betray Cybele. He too died and was reborn, concurrent with the spring planting and autumn harvest the locals experienced every season.
[I]n the Halloween season, American culture briefly participates in an ancient tradition of making the world of the dead visible to the living: Children dress as skeletons, teens go to horror movies and adults play the part of ghosts in haunted houses.
But what if the dead played a more active, more participatory role in our daily lives?
It might appear to be a strange question, but as a scholar of late medieval literature and art, I have found compelling evidence from our past that shows how the dead were well-integrated into people’s sense of community.
Families offered commemorative prayers to their ancestors, whose names were written in “Books of Hours,” prayer books that guided daily devotion at home. These books included a prayer cycle known as the “Office of the Dead,” which family members could perform to limit the suffering of loved ones after death.
Medieval culture also had its ghosts, which were closely linked with the theological debate concerning purgatory, the space between heaven and hell, where the dead suffered but could be relieved by the prayers of the living. Folk traditions of the dead visiting the living as ghosts were thus explained as souls pleading for the prayerful devotion of the living.
When, how practices changed
The Reformation in Europe radically changed this cultural interface with the dead. In particular, the idea of a purgatory was rejected by Protestant theologians.
While ghosts persisted in folk stories and literature, the dead were pushed from the center of religious life. In England, these changes were intensified in the period after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. Thereafter, the veneration of saints and commemorative prayers associated with purgatory were banned.
The dead were also removed from view in more literal ways: Reformation iconoclasts, who wished to purge churches of any association with Catholic practices, “whitewashed” hundreds of church interiors to cover the bold, colorful murals that decorated the medieval parish churches.
One of the more popular mural subjects that I have studied for many years was the Dance of Death: over 100 mural paintings of the theme, as well as dozens of manuscript illuminations, have been identified in England, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
A powerful metaphor
Dance of Death murals typically depicted decaying corpses dancing amid representative figures of late medieval society, ranked highest to lowest: a pope, an emperor, a bishop, a king, a cardinal, a knight and down to a beggar, all ambling diffidently toward their mortal end while the corpses frolic with lithe movements and gestures.
When modern viewers see images like the Dance of Death, they might associate them with certain well-known but frequently misunderstood cataclysms of the European Middle Ages, like the terrible plague that swept through England and came to be known as Black Death.
My research on these images, however, reveals a more subtle and nuanced attitude toward death, beginning with the evident beauty of the murals themselves, which endow the theme with color and vitality.
The image of group dance powerfully evokes the grace and fluidity of a community’s cohesion, symbolized by the linking of hands and bodies in a chain that crosses the barrier between life and death. Dance was a powerful metaphor in medieval culture. The Dance of Death may be responding to medieval folk practices, when people came at night to dance in churchyards, and perhaps to the “dancing mania” recorded in the late 14th century, when people danced furiously until they fell to the ground. But images of dance also provoked a viewer to participate in a “virtual” experience of a community. It depicted a society collectively facing up to human mortality.
A healthy community
In analyzing the murals in their broader social context, I found that for medieval cultures, dying was a “transition,” not a rupture, that moved people from the community of the living to the dead in stages.
After death, groups prepared the corpse, sewed its shroud and transported the body to a church and then to a cemetery, where the broader community would participate in the rituals. These activities required a high degree of social cohesion to function properly. They were the metaphorical equivalent of dancing with the dead.
The Dance of Death murals thus depicted not a morbid or sick culture but a healthy community collectively facing their common destiny, even as they faced the challenge to renew by replacing the dead with the living.
Many of the murals are irretrievably lost. However, modern restoration work has managed to recover some of them. Perhaps this conservation work can serve as inspiration to recover an older model of death, dying and grief.
Acknowledging the work of the dead
In the modern era entire industries have emerged to whisk the dead from view and alter them to look more like the living. Once buried or cremated, the dead play a much smaller role in our social lives.
Could bringing the dead back into a central role in the community offer a healthier perspective on death for contemporary Western cultures?
That process might begin with acknowledging the dead as an ongoing part of our image of community, which is built on the work of the dead who have come before us.
[I]t was a surprise to enter the Abbey of Gethsemani’s church and see a body lying on a bier. Br. Harold was dressed in a white cowl and his face bore no signs of being made up by a mortician. He did not look like he was sleeping. He looked like what he was: dead.
He was not alone. The community had kept vigil with Br. Harold all night, each monk taking turns at the bier, praying the psalms with him one last time, prayers he knew so well from decades of saying the Divine Office.
As the funeral Mass began, Br. Harold’s bier was carried directly in front of the altar. There was no casket and his face was not covered. He simply lay there, a monk among his brother monks, albeit a now silent and unmoving participant in the Eucharistic feast.
After the Mass, his bier was carried out the doors of the church to the cemetery, filled with hundreds of identical white crosses. Here are buried monks from more than 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey. Among them is Thomas Merton, known in the community as Fr. Louis, buried beside Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom he so often clashed.
Along with the monks and members of Br. Harold’s family, I processed to a freshly dug grave. Although I’ve come to know quite a few of the monks of the abbey, I didn’t know Br. Harold. He was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer’s when I moved to Kentucky. I learned, though, that I missed out on a beautiful and simple man who breathed God in deeply, particularly when looking at a flower in bloom.
To allow Br. Harold’s brother monks, family members, and friends to be near the graveside, I found a spot on an outlook near the church that stood above his final resting place. Cistercians dig their graves very deep and they bury their dead without caskets. From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower. There was also a ladder leading into the grave.
After graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier. The sheet he was on had six long straps attached by which he was lowered into the ground. As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk standing in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold’s head.
There was love and gentleness in the way the monk did this. I was reminded of the care with which my wife and I would put each of our newborn sons into the crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn’t disturbed. When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother monk almost tuck him in for his rest. He carefully laid Br. Harold’s head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over his face, and then ascended out of the grave, pulling up the ladder behind him.
From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, and then, shovel by shovel, being covered in dirt. Truth be told, it was disconcerting to see a human body—not a body in a casket, but simply a body—be buried. But never before had the words Christians recite on Ash Wednesday—remember you are dust—been as real to me as they were at that moment.
More importantly, I had never experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral. What I witnessed was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the very depths of the grave.
On Ash Wednesday we are reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others. However, there’s something about my experience at Br. Harold’s funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community—to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighborhood and city.
Br. Harold lived a life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others. In his life, he gave himself to his community. In his illness and death, the monks in the community gave themselves to him. At his funeral I learned that to confront our mortality is to come face to face with the reality of how deeply and truly we need one another.
The Buddha said the greatest of all teachings is impermanence. Its final expression is death. Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains why our awareness of death is the secret of life. It’s the ultimate twist.
[W]hether we fight it, deny it, or accept it, we all have a relationship with death. Some people have few encounters with death as they are growing up, and it becomes personal for them only as they age and funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Others grow up in violent surroundings where sudden death is common, or see a family member die of a fatal illness. Many of us have never seen a person die, while people who work in hospitals and hospices see the realities of death and dying every day. But whether death is something distant for us or we are in the thick of it, it haunts and challenges us.
Death is a strong message, a demanding teacher. In response to death’s message, we could shut down and become more hardened. Or we could open up, and become more free and loving. We could try to avoid its message altogether, but that would take a lot of effort, because death is a persistent teacher.
Teacher death met up with us the minute we were born, and is by our side every moment of our life. What death has to teach us is direct and to the point. It is profound but intimate. Death is a full stop. It interrupts the delusions and habits of thought that entrap us in small-mindedness. It is an affront to ego.
Death is a fact. Our challenge is to figure out how to deal with it, because it is never a good plan to struggle against or deny reality. The more we struggle against death, the more resentment we have and the more we suffer. We take a painful situation and through our struggles add a whole new layer of pain to it.
We cannot avoid death, but we can change how we relate to it. We can take death as a teacher and see what we can learn from it.
Facts are facts: everyone is going to die sooner or later. No magic trick or spiritual gimmick will make it go away. Distancing ourselves from death or putting off thinking about it does not work.
I have noticed that the more distant we are from death, the more fear arises. Death becomes alien, other, scary, mysterious. People who work regularly with the dying, who are closer to death, seem to have less fear.
We each have our own unique relationship with death, our own particular history and circumstances, but one way or another we all relate to death. The question is: how do we relate with this reality and how does this color our lives? It is possible to come to terms with the fact of death in a way that enriches our lives, but to learn from death we must be willing to take a dispassionate look at our experiences and preconceptions.
Reflecting on our own mortality and the reality of death is practiced in many contemplative traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, the contemplation of death is said to be the “supreme contemplation.” It encompasses reflecting not only on physical mortality, but on impermanence in all its dimensions.
By means of meditation and by developing an ongoing awareness of death, we can change our relationship with death and thereby change our relationship with life. We can see that death is not just something that pops up at the end of life, but is inseparably linked with our life moment to moment, from the beginning to the end. We can see that death is not just a final teacher. It is available to teach us here and now.
When we contemplate in this way, our many schemes for getting around the reality of death, such as coming up with interpretations to make it more palatable, are exposed one by one and demolished. Death is the great interrupter, unreasonable and nonnegotiable. No amount of cleverness will make it otherwise.
Contemplating death is not an easy practice. It is not merely conceptual. It stirs things up. It evokes emotions of love, sorrow, fear, and longing. It brings up anger, disappointment, regret, and groundlessness. How tender it is to reflect on the many losses we have experienced and will experience in the future. How poignant it is to reflect on life’s fleeting quality.
How we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.
In this practice, we deliberately bring our attention back again and again to our relationship with death. We examine what we mean by death and what it brings up for us. We reflect on our experiences and reactions to it.
It is a bit like going for marriage counseling. “When did you two first meet? Tell me a little about your history. Do you spend much time together? What is it about him or her that has offended you? How do you see your relationship moving forward?” You could say that death is your most intimate partner. It is with you all the time, completely interwoven into your daily activities. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make a relationship with it?
But our relationship with death is not that simple. In order to understand it, we need to slow down and systematically examine our ideas about it, what it brings up for us, and what it means to us. Death stirs up all kinds of thoughts. And hidden within those clouds of thoughts is a small, unspoken, deep-rooted, yet persistent notion—that we will come through it intact, as though we could come to our own funeral.
The more closely you look into all these ideas, the more you see how inadequate the conceptual mind is in the face of death. Nonetheless, how we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.
Contemplative practice challenges us to look deeply into our thoughts and beliefs, our fantasies and presumptions, and our hopes and fears. It challenges us to separate what we have been told from what we ourselves think and experience. We have all kinds of thoughts about what happens when we die and how we and others should relate with death, but through meditation we learn to recognize thoughts as thoughts. We learn not to mistake these thoughts and ideas about death for direct knowledge or experience. We learn not to believe everything we think or everything we have been told.
We are in a dance with death at all levels, and each level influences and is influenced by the others. We are influenced by what we have been told about death and dying, by our personal history, by our cultural biases, and by what we have observed. We are also influenced by inner habits of thought and conditioned responses. Our most subtle views and reactions to impermanence may be quite hidden, but they touch on our view of life altogether, and on our personal identity.
If we want to understand our relationship with death, we need to explore its broader as well as its more subtle dimensions. If we are willing to take an honest look at how we personally deal with this reality, we can develop a deeper understanding of impermanence and even befriend it.
One way to begin is by reflecting on your personal history with death. What have you been told about death? What are some of your earliest experiences of it?
In my case, when I was about five, I was told my babysitter had died, and that was it. For me, she just disappeared, and children did not go to funerals. A bit later, when my aunt died, I was told that she would go to heaven, a very beautiful place. But I didn’t think people really believed that, because all I saw were people upset and crying. When pets died, I was told they “went to sleep.” It didn’t look like sleep to me.
As a child, I observed that dead animals did not breathe or move about like live ones. I saw that they shriveled up and began to smell funny, or were squashed beyond recognition. I saw that dogs hit by cars screamed in pain and that animals looked sick before they died. I saw that people became old and frail. I saw that when you killed a bug, you could not make it come back to life, even if you felt sorry. My friends and I thought it was funny to sing ditties, like “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…” Death was not that real to us; we made it into a joke.
I observed many such things on an outer level, but on an inner level, I did not have a clue as to what death was about or what it all meant. I did not know how to make sense of it, or to link it to other experiences in my life.
Death is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.
In our encounter with mortality, it is this inner dimension, the relationship dimension, that we need to explore. It becomes obvious that to get to a more uncluttered relationship with death, we first need to plow through a surprising number of ideas, presumptions, and speculations, some of which are very deep-rooted. Through this process, we can become aware of the many concepts that are floating around in us, and try to figure out where they come from and what effect they have on us.
When we look into where all this comes from, we encounter a paradox. We usually consider death to be the end, but it begins to seem that death is in fact the beginning. It is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.
We can begin our exploration right where we are. We have already been born, we are alive, and we have not yet died. Now what? We might connect to our life in terms of a story or a history. For instance, we were born in such and such a time and place, we did this and that, and we have a particular label and identity. But that story is always changing and in process; it is not all that reliable. However, when our story is combined with a physical body, we seem to have something more solid, a complete package. We have something to hang onto and defend. We have something that can be taken away.
But what do we have to hang onto, really? Our story is not that solid. It is always being revised and rewritten. Likewise, our body is not one solid continuous thing. It too is always changing. If you look for the one body that is you, you cannot find it.
The closer you look, the less solid this whole thing seems. When we investigate our actual experience, here and now, moment by moment, we see how fleeting and dynamic it is. As soon as we notice a thought, feeling, or sensation, it has already happened. Poof! It is the same with the act of noticing. Poof! Gone! And the noticer, the one who is noticing, is nowhere to be found. Poof! When we contemplate in this way, we begin to suspect that this life is not all that solid—that we are not all that solid.
This may seem like bad news, but in fact this discovery is of supreme importance. As we begin to see through our mythical solidity, we also begin to notice all sorts of little gaps in our conceptual schemes. We notice little tastes of freedom and ease in which our struggle to be someone dissolves, and we just are. In such moments, at least briefly, we are not being propelled by either hope or fear. We see that continually holding onto life and warding off death as a future threat is not our only option. There is an alternative to our tight-jawed habit of holding on and defending.
After each little insight or pause, there is a regrouping, and we find ourselves reconstructing our world. Each time we put it back together, we are also putting together the threat that it cannot be maintained. We do this over and over again. We are repetitively and continuously fueling the pretense of solidity and the fear of death that comes with it.
To undo this harmful habit, we need to see it more clearly. We need to recognize that we ourselves are responsible for perpetuating it, and therefore we have the power to stop.
In looking at the seeds of our relationship to life and death at a subtle inner level, we uncover how we set ourselves up for a struggle with death from the beginning—at the very personal level of identity and self-definition.
The more solidly we construct ourselves, and the more rigidly we identify with this construct, the more we have to defend and the more we have to fear. Looking at death in terms of such subtle underlying patterns may seem inconsequential, but it is not.
When we drop the battlefield approach—that life and death are enemies—we become open to an entirely new way of viewing things. Instead of this vs. that, us vs. them, something much more inspiring can take place. Experiences can arise freshly because they are immediately let go. Because they are dropped as soon as they arise, there is nothing to hold onto and nothing to lose. There is no battlefield, no winner and loser, no good guy and bad guy.
Simple formless meditation is a very powerful tool for relaxing this pattern of holding and defending. Working with death through our awareness of momentary arisings and dissolvings is a profound practice. It shows us that the life–death boundary is an ongoing and quite ordinary experience, and that this unsettling meeting point colors all that we do. If we can become more grounded at this level, we can become more open to what death has to teach us altogether.
Although death is an ongoing reality, there are times when it hits us particularly hard. It may be when we have a health scare or a near accident. At such times, we really wake up to the presence of death, and its teachings come through loud and clear. The heart pounds, the senses are heightened, and we feel extra alive. There is a stillness, as though time had stopped.
When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.
Times like this are so simple and straightforward, so immediate. “This is it,” we think. “It’s actually happening.” In such moments, the heightening of our awareness of death simultaneously heightens our feeling of being alive.
In fact, in the face of death, we feel more fully alive than ever. We are shocked into thinking more seriously about what to do with the time that we have. Usually, though, we don’t maintain that awareness, and the feeling of heightened aliveness fades away. We revert to the default pattern of avoiding death, and, along with that, our dulled down approach to life.
Maintaining an awareness of death makes life more vivid. In the light of death, petty concerns fall away and our usual preoccupations become meaningless. It is as though clouds of dust that have covered over something shiny and vivid have been blown away, and we are left with something raw, immediate, and beautiful. We have insight into what matters and what does not.
Awareness of death—hearing its teaching—cuts through the subtle clinging at the core of our experience. It cuts through our self-clinging and our clinging to others. This may sound harsh, but all that clinging has not really helped us or anyone else. Our clinging to others may have the appearance of real caring, but it is based on fear and an attempt to freeze and control life. It is a way of tuning out death and pulling back from the intensity of life. But if we develop more ease with our own impermanence and struggles with death, we can be more understanding of others and their struggles. We can connect with one another with greater genuineness and warmth.
Death turns out to be the teacher who releases us from fear. It’s the teacher that opens our hearts to a more free-flowing love and appreciation for life and one another. When we get stuck in self-importance and earnestness, death steps in. When we get caught in self-pity, death steps in. When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.
Death spurs us forward with a sense of urgency and puts our preoccupations in perspective. Death lightens our clinging and mocks our pretensions. Death wakes us up. It is our most reliable teacher and most constant companion.