Death - The Final Frontier
by Lindsay, for SOL, December 2002
The three things in life that you reasonably
can expect: Marriage, Taxes, And Death!
It is interesting to note that
phobias about death and dying are up there in the 'Nations Top
Ten Favourites'. OK, it is well beaten by the more common phobias
such as heights, spiders, the dark and snakes, but still manages
to hold a pretty impressive position in the hierarchy. I believe
that fear and wanting control are the key negative factors around
death: the more we fear being out of control, the bigger issue
death is likely to be for us. Death is the control freaks nightmare.
As far as attracting taboos in
society, death is up there with the big ones and is possibly the
biggest. And even seeing my few words, I am sure that there will
be some of you that will read no further, somehow being of the
opinion that 'If I don't bother it, it won't bother me'. Wrong.
Not considering the possibility of its occurrence is not guaranteed
to keep anything away. (As the recent British tourist found out
when he stepped outside his African hotel for an after dinner
cigarette, and bumped into a lion!)
In the tape of 'The Tibetan Book
of Living and Dying', John Cleese says a similar thing: lots of
people go through life thinking that death is quite natural (which
it is) so therefore I'll be OK when it happens (which you may
not be). The problem with this according to John is that you never
know when it will happen and you may find yourself less prepared
than you might be. Now some of you will say, 'How can we prepare
for death' and those of you who are scientifically biased may
ask, 'Show me the proof that preparing ever did anyone any good'.
All are valid points and like most things in life, comes down
to the innermost belief systems of the individual. If you haven't
got John's tape, copies of the book are available at most libraries
and it is an illuminating and worthwhile read. You don't have
to take it all on board, but it is likely to open up possibilities
that had not occurred to you before.
Another interesting story from
the same source is about a lady who sought out the Buddha after
her child had died, hoping that the Buddha would be able to bring
the child back to life. The Buddha agreed to do it if the woman
could bring him a seed of mustard from a house that had never
known death. So the poor woman went round her village, banging
on all of the doors and asking her two questions. All of the houses
had mustard seeds in the kitchen - but all of them had known death
at some time and in some way. Eventually the woman got the message
that death is a part of life (the bum end probably) and had her
child buried. She then went back to the Buddha for his teaching
and it apparently, she achieved Nirvana herself before she died.
All cultures without exception
develop beliefs and ritual around death. The ancient Egyptians
seem to have agreed with the Christian Church with regards to
the resurrection of the body, the former spending a lot of money,
time, and effort undergoing elaborate procedures to facilitate
the survival of death including mummification, the opening of
the mouth etc. Even today, Anglicans while saying the Apostolic
Creed state that they believe in the 'resurrection of the body'.
I remember being taught this as a child and frankly it was the
first of many things that I questioned. The last thing I want
back should I be resurrected is my present body - I was at least
hoping for Jane Fonda's with Grace Kelly's face and Cyd Cerise's
legs! It is remarkable to think that cremation was only given
the OK in the last fifty years and the many of the elder generation
still have frank misgivings about it. In addition, the Egyptians
and the Catholics also agree on some sort of judgement, weighing
of the heart for the Egyptians and Judgement Day for the Christians.
The Aztecs and Mayans, in common
with a lot of the Scandinavian tribes believed that the bloodier
your death, the more happy their gods will be to receive you,
and that dying in battle was guaranteed to throw open the pearly
gates. Muslims also think that dying while fighting in a 'Holy
War' is a good way to gain entrance to heaven. A number of religions
seem to think that doing good works can affect your chances of
a happy hereafter: one of the pillars of Islam instructs it followers
to give money to those less fortunate, as does the Jewish religion,
actually specifying the giving of 10% of your earnings. The Jewish
faith, along with the Catholics and the Muslims, have a lot of
strict codes and rules that have to be adhered to ensure your
eternal bliss. These include a lot of rules about how and when
you pray, what you do on a Friday, and what days in the year you
fast and celebrate. I should think that if you put your energy
into upholding this lot, it is unlikely that you will have much
energy left to get into 'mischief' - and I guess that this is
probably the general idea. As far as I can see, most religions
have their pound of flesh in exchange for promised and eternal
A lot of cultures supplied grave
goods to see the deceased through the next world and extreme examples
include the execution of your servants and family just so that
you could all be kept together. While most of us will agree that
this is not the best of ideas, there is clearly a bit of logic
in the equation. And how about human sacrifice: the idea that
you send one of the most precious things that you have, back to
the gods either early or bearing messages? Again, I don't fancy
it personally, but I can see where they were coming from. If you
believe in reincarnation and the validity of human sacrifice,
here's a tip: avoid remaining beautiful / courageous and a virgin.
An Anglo-Saxon warrior recently
discovered a Lakenheath, Suffolk, had been buried in full armour,
sword and shield and lying next to him was his slaughtered horse.
If you are planning to go on fighting in the afterlife, you'd
best have be well prepared! And yet this burial, so painstakingly
prepared, was less than two thousand years old. When his face
was rebuilt, he looked just like any handsome young man you might
see out shopping on a Saturday, wearing designer jeans and a Sony
Walkman. How could his and his peoples beliefs have been so different
from ours in such a small passage of time?
For those of you who have such
bad taste (including me and Rod) as to be totally hooked on the
rather sick but hysterically funny American serial, 'Six Feet
Under', it is quite clear that even between England and America,
the subject of death is treated very differently, and it is likely
to be as different in every other part of the world. One major
difference is that Americans seem to go in for a more 'hands on'
approach, for example, 'viewing the body' - all filing past and
having a good gawp at the deceased. In England, you might go to
say a private goodbye if the deceased was a close relative or
friend, but that is about it. The rest of 'death' in the UK has
been completely sanitised and we do our best to keep it at arms
length and yet not so long ago, this was not how it happened.
We grew up with death around us and knew whose job it was to lay
out the corpse - it was somehow more 'hands on', too. Experts
disagree whose way is best. I am tempted to think that 'hands
off' may be easier to cope with in the short terms while maybe
'hands on' help us thought the grieving process in the long term.
It is interesting to note that
the traditional 'viewing' within American culture has apparently
led to a whole industry of make-up, hairdressing and makes overs
for the deceased. I am slightly concerned to think that, were
I an American, I might get to look my best lying in my coffin!
And yet a lot of cultures do there best to keep the 'good and
the great' looking good for as long as possible -for example,
look at Lenin (and you still can, trust me!). There is a sense
that if s/he can be preserved, somehow their presence and their
virtues will also be around, and yet like many items associated
with death, when this is explored, there is little logic in it.
In the paper this week there
was a very interesting article on how a near-death experience
can be successfully reproduced by stimulating a specific part
of the brain. The subject reported being able to see herself from
a long way up: the ceiling. Although she could still move her
feet when asked to do so, she was totally disconnected from the
physical happening. To some people this is proof that life after
death is all rubbish and eventually we are at the mercy of our
waning brain functions, just before eternal nothingness sets in.
On the other hand, is it not possible that the death process may
begin with a sensation of leaving the body for the last time?
And what part of the body should be more responsible for this
than the brain? Another interesting thought is how even a traumatic
death often carries with it an unexplainable sense of peace at
the end: 'Endorphins' shout the disbelievers. 'God's mercy' shouts
The truth of the matter is that
there is no consensus of opinion and certainly no proof about
what happens around and after death. Ask any number of wise or
religious or even sensible individuals, and you will get as many
different answers as the number of people you have asked. There
is no proof - there are many beliefs. So does that give us a reason
to do nothing in preparation for death? Sure it does, if that's
how you feel. On the other hand, if you are the type of individual
who prefers to be on the safe side, or one for whom the idea of
everlasting nothingness is too much to bear, or even one who has
'a sneaking suspicion', there are a number of things you might
consider. You might find a religion whose beliefs around death
either coincides with yours, or whose different beliefs are appealing.
(It is worth remembering here that however much an individual
or a group of individuals may hold a belief - that is exactly
what it is - a belief. There is not 'safety in numbers' argument.)
You may choose your own method of preparation such as a death
pathworking, writing a will to ensure the financial security of
your nearest and dearest, or taking out life insurance (what a
silly term - more like dead-cert death insurance!). You might
choose to read around what people that you respect have to say
about death and decide to throw your lot in with theirs. You may
choose to work in a hospice and continue to look death in the
eye until it looses its impact or you may choose to 'do good works'
in order to earn you some sort of Brownie Points in heaven. You
may choose to be the best person that you possible can - and I
rather like this one. Even if it doesn't help you in the long
term, it may well prove to be a blessing to those around you in
the short! The options are huge. My personal opinion is that any
of the things that may help you to be OK around death are worth
As I get older I am more and
more OK with not knowing: when I was younger, not knowing used
to drive me mad. Now I realise that there are lots of things in
this world that I will never get to grips with, let alone the
next and I fully accept that I will never have all of the answers
that I would like. Maybe there are no reasons for a lot of things
that happen, including death? I find the idea of my own death
relatively easy to deal with now. Were my life to end in this
moment I could completely accept and be OK with it - I may spare
a passing thought for those people who love me, but I am OK about
my own death. What is harder is being able to accept the death
of those I love. But even here, my tears would be for me and for
loosing them and for all of the times and potential that would
now be impossible - my tears are not for them. How could they
be? At the best they will be enjoying themselves much more than
I am and at the worst they are well out of it. I am quite clear
that any tears I shed would be for me and me alone.
One of the things that I would
like to know is why we die at all. What makes it necessary? Some
people would say that we need some sort of celestial de-briefing
before we are allowed loose on the world again and others would
say that it is just a unfortunate glitch of nature, like the design
of our spines. And like a lot of car parks I can only think that
a student designed both - yet another thing that I will promise
to share with you if I ever get any inside info!
When I was working in a hospice,
one of the things I was taught was that unless I personally come
to terms with death, it has the power by its inevitability to
wreck my life. And for some people it does just that - see my
opening paragraph on phobias. Working were I did, it was quite
clear that there was such a thing as a 'bad death' and a 'good
death' and I don't necessarily mean when the condition would have
made life too full of pain to carry on living.
A 'bad death' was easy to spot
and yet the most surprising individuals seemed to go for it. This
includes (as my memory allows) a woman who had worked as a missionary
all of her life, an Anglican Cannon, and a very rich man who was
a well known philanthropist and had given a lot of money for 'good'
works. A bad death happened in the presence or fear and resistance
to the inevitable conclusion. It happened when the patient was
full of "If Only's" and "What If's". It happened
to those who judged themselves and their lives and found themselves
wanting in terms of personal relationships and / or activities.
It happened to those who had rejected traditional belief systems
and had not bothered to replace it with any other thoughts. It
happened to those who unlike Frank Sinatra, had not done it 'Their
Way' and were full of resentment and regrets. It happened in the
presence of anger, that having judged themselves to be OK, this
terrible fate had befallen them. I remember that it was very hard
to be around these people - I just didn't have the answer to their
questions. Out of kindness, they people were often sedated to
spare them any more traumas, while nature took it course. And
I remember that these deaths were often a horrible experience
for us all, leaving us winded, exhausted and sad.
A 'good death' happened to the
most unexpected individuals. The atheist who was looking forwards
to his eternal rest, the X-prostitute who had risen from the slums,
worked hard and achieved everything she had dreamed of as a girl,
and more besides, and the churchwarden who simple faith really
was everything for him. A good death happened when all the personal
business that could be completed, had been and there was nothing
left outstanding. It happened when the person was able to open
their arms to death and accept it. It happened when a person was
OK with the life they had led, however untimely its end. A good
death happened in the presence of love rather than grief, and
while the patient might be aided by the strongest analgesia, consciousness
and clarity of thought were present, inspiring and truly remarkable.
These I remember were wonderful experiences for us all, leaving
us uplifted and in awe.
Every month, the hospice held
what they called, 'A time to remember'. I went to some of them,
partly to spend time thinking about my old patients and partly
to understand the grieving process better. One piece of learning
I shall never forget came from the medical director (an admirably
wise woman). She and myself were talking to a woman who had lost
her beloved husband. She was inconsolable and said something like,
'I loved him so much and it was such a waste'. The medical director
answered, 'Well there is no reason why you can't go on loving
him now, is there? Just because he had died, love does not stop.
Love goes on - so it's OK to go on loving him, just as you do
and just as you always did'.
How ingrained is this feeling
about death - that death has somehow got the power to get in the
way of our love or indeed has the power to negate it?
It doesn't: love is never wasted.
Have a good month,