Death is not a dirty word. Nor is it something we should fear, ignore or steep in mystery. I often see people at funerals or memorials struggle to speak freely about the person who has just died. I watch them stammer, look down at their feet, unable to talk above a whisper. Or conversely, to treat the whole gathering as if its very purpose is not about death -- but rather about the quality of the nibbles served, or the alcohol, or how much more haggard Cousin So-and-So is looking these days. At some funerals, there's a lot of laughter. I wonder sometimes if it's forced -- whether it's choking down the surge of unexpressed tears.
When I tell people about my sister's death at the age of 44, they often don't know how to reply. I feel the need to reassure them; to explain that it's okay, I'm fine, to keep at bay the upwelling of sadness or sobbing or even the momentary silence that can accompany the mention of her name. But what if it was acceptable to sit together in that deep silence, to weep, hug each other tightly, and for that response to also be okay?
There is a denial of death in our culture. It is sanitised, smoothed over, preferably happening to someone else, over there. In the postmodern, affluent West, we don't see people die, wash their bodies, dress them lovingly, and watch over them for a day and night in our homes. Instead we call the undertaker or the coroner and they're whisked away, to be kept in fridges or opened up for autopsies. Often there's not even a 'viewing' before burial or cremation -- and if there is, the dead person is so plastered with makeup or injected with chemicals they're unrecognizable as the living, breathing, warm-fleshed loved one they once were.
When my mother was growing up in a Greek village in the 1940s, death was both familiar and mundane. The beloved was no less so when dead than when alive. They were tended to, perfumed and chanted over. Beeswax candles were lit, flowers picked from gardens and fields and strewn on the body. No coffins to hide the reality, no euphemisms to gloss over the beauty and terror.
When my sister died of melanoma metastasis, I remember speeding across town to the hospital where she lay and being peripherally aware of advertising billboards flash past; images of youthful curves and bee-stung lips, shoes and handbags, blank ageless bodies. It was then that it cut me to the heart: We really don't believe in death.
Statistically, more people over 65 in Australia are dying in hospices than in hospitals. But we're still a long way from the tribal or village model. The hospice care people are receiving is only in the two to three days before death, when all medical avenues have been exhausted. So a dying person is still subjected to treatment that doesn't prolong life or ease pain, but exists so that the underlying denial can be perpetuated. This non-acceptance of death is so endemic to our Western ideals of 'push harder, be positive, don't give up.' In the process, our entire society suffers, and so does our relationship with our own mortality and the infinite possibilities of our own transcendence. Even my sister, on the very morning of her death, called out from the ambulance to her gathered family: 'I'll be back in a few days!'
Part of this denial manifests itself in lack of planning for the non-practical aspects of dying. We all draw up a will as we get older or experience failing health (or at least think repeatedly about doing it). We know the value of putting our house in order. We think about how to fairly divide up our earthly assets and care for our loved ones financially when we're gone. But what of our emotional 'will'? What memories, dreams, reflections and real closure do we leave behind when we die? What do we leave behind that actually lasts forever? It's a nebulous list, these myriad experiences and impressions that make up our lives. But they're equally -- if not more -- important than the tally of bank accounts and land titles.
There is value in setting aside time while we are healthy and well to contemplate our emotional 'will' or legacy. This can be done through meditation, prayer, conversation, writing or any repetitive task like running, swimming, weeding the garden, or washing dishes. Many Buddhist cultures send their monks to the charnel-grounds to meditate on the corpse and the inevitable dissolution of the body. We would benefit from doing the same. But let's work with what we have. Be present. Breathe. Be acutely aware of our body, the bones and muscles and skin, and the animating force within that gives it life. Feel what it would be like to cease being here, to exit this body. I often contemplate how I can grasp this brief, precious life -- and also have it enriched by my acceptance and understanding of death: an inevitable death that can be expressed and joyously inhabited.
Death is not a dirty word. It's more like an opening; a flying leap into wholeness. Let's fling ourselves into it and in fully embracing our dying, we can then be fully alive.