Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Birth of Death

Death. For many it is a topic we are but all too familiar with, and the word itself peels back the unhealed wounds of the past, of loved ones we have lost and the ordeals that surrounded it. For others, it is more of a place only reached in passing thought, for which our end and the end of the ones we love shall only come in some remote time in the extreme future. It is a difficult thing to discuss, and understandably so, as the emotions of fear, denial and terror from the loss of self can leech out like a river that has over flowed its banks. However, death is the ultimate expression of anicca or impermanence and I think it is quite important for us to understand death, accept it for what it is and pass on across to the other side of loss and sorrow before that dramatic moment we all must face comes.

Anthropologists often say, if you really want to learn about a foreign culture examine how they treat there dead. For us, here in the West, our rituals are no less odd or queer than many other cultures that we may define as morbid or bizarre. We place such a high value on the idea of self and it is so clearly expressed in the entire process we put bodies through to prepare them for burial. Long plastic tubes are inserted into the large arteries and the blood is drained into some hole in the floor, then the body is thoroughly scrubbed and washed and the physical marks of death are then erased or hidden away as best as possible. Next, we fill the corpse with formaldehyde or some other embalming fluid to hinder the natural process of decomposition. For many, they will be viewed before burial, so a small team of people apply make-up, cut, comb and style the hair and fit the deceased in there Sunday best to make the appearance of who they were before death. It is not said often, but often thought how plastic or artificial the entire process is, from the McDrive Through Funeral Homes to the very unreal appearance and feel of the body itself.

The headstones we use come in various sizes and shapes, built from rock and mark dates of birth and death, full names and sometimes a religious inscription. It is good we cherish life so much as to place so much stock into death, but I am afraid it is this illusion of self that is the cause of so much of the hurt and pain death brings. Like a dark shadow that follows us around the city at night, so death waits to meet us around any corner, unpronounced and unstoppable in its entrance in to our lives. I fear because of this I think a lot of us protect ourselves by not getting involved in life, not getting in close relationships with others because we all know at the end it must conclude. Beneath all our words, our deeds, our actions; after all our moments have past, and our lives are spent like a candle with no more wax, we all, unremarkably and inevitably must wither and burn no more.

Perhaps death may not be what we really think it is; maybe it is neither nihilistic (non-existence) nor materialistic (unchanging eternal soul) but ultimately something that resides somewhere in-between. This belief in creation and destruction, this albatross of coming into this world and hence leaving this world weights down the heart and wears down the mind. When we can accept who we think we are, is only thoughts and an ever changing body, we can see that there maybe something deeper, something, some would say, that is always there and always switched on, something that is fully engaged and engrossed in every scene and every character.

Then again, perhaps I am wrong and maybe definitions don't or can't apply here.

Death, as we know it, is only the conclusion to the beautiful gift of this life, whose pulse and breath, whose wonder and amazement can only be fully realized because of this temporary nature. The Buddha urged that we overcome this desire of self, this illusion of time and creation and to fully understand the true nature of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. I think we should make some effort in this life to try and pry off this grotesque mask of death and see the emptiness from where it comes.

A raindrop does not begin in the sky and does not end in the ocean.


  1. I agree with most of your comments about accepting and understanding death. Most people are in fact rather cowardly when it comes to death in my opinion and would probably live much different lives if they spent any time at all reflecting on just how short of a time we are in possession of consciousness.

    My only qualm is with your attempt to put any sort of positive spin on death. That may make sense to do because we are always taught to "look at the bright side" of things. However, I believe death _is_ an albatross, and a rather big one at that. Sure, it weighs on my heart and mind occasionally but I am willing to face that since I have absolutely no choice.

    Looking at death from a sane perspective in my opinion means acknowledging what a complete disappointment it is that we must experience it so soon. I have already spent at least 1/3 of my life for example.

    I hesitate only a little to say that even the most enlightened Buddhists do not welcome this unfortunate event.

  2. Interesting post. Death is something I think about almost constantly. I want to be aware that it's impending, and live my life as well as I can, while I can. But I also fear it - of course, not death itself, but the not-being, all that I'll miss.

    For me, my existence was preceded by the earth and I'll scatter to become a part of the earth again, feeding animals and the soil with my molecular self. This brings me peace and is, ultimately, all the afterlife I feel that I need.

    But I used to be Mormon and I treated death very differently back then. Those fake plastic people are the way its done in most Mormon funerals, though the corpse is also dressed in temple robes to be properly prepared to rise again at the Resurrection. In many of my church meetings it seemed that we focused as much on the afterlife, if not more, than the life we were living, and indeed we were often reminded that this temporal life was just a blink of an eye in the perspective of our pre- and post-mortal eternal selves. Everything in our lives was to be focused on attaining celestial glory, and this imperative necessitated constant discussion, speculation and for some, near obsession with one's conduct as well as others', lest a person be cast off from their family and God's presence after death. Such a narrow-minded focus was ultimately one of the issues that put me off the faith.

    For these reasons, it was a relief to discover Buddhism. I feel that this philosophy allows me to be matter-of-fact about death, to express my fear of the loss of my existence but also to explore what it really means to exist, within my own experience, free of dogma.

    (That was long and boring, sorry!)

  3. David - Thank you. You are quite correct that death is an albotross to self. Also, I do not think anyone, even the enlightened welcome death. However, I think if we took a closer look at what death is and how this fear of loss of self propigates we can have new or better understanding of it. I wouldn't say it is either positive nor negative, just open.

    Chandelle - I understand about you growing up a mormon as I was raised a Catholic and the structure and dogma are pretty intense.

    I try to think of our lives like this,(though a very poor metaphor)think each of us as a volcanic island in the South Pacific, 1,000's upon thousands, all close together all seemly seperate. If we, however if we follow these islands to the bottom of the ocean we will instantly see we are not the seperate islands we thought we were, but all connected together by the ocean and more over the earth. If an earthquake hits the ocean floor its not just one island that gets affected, much like tragic event that happen to one person.

    Excellent comments both, thank you.

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