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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. Interesting, eh?

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 bliss.

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 their opposites.

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 considering.

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,


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