The Spirituality of Death and Dying

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When my father died in 2000, he’d left a yellow legal size envelope with a bunch of papers inside. They were logical — his will, title for the house, info on the car lease, and the receipt for the burial plot he’d purchased in advance of his death. He told us kids about the existence of this file, which he called “In The Unlikely Event That I Should Prove To Be Mortal” file. While somewhat grim in its simplicity and studied orderliness, it also made things very easy for my mom, brother and me as we navigated the details of closing up a life.

What was not in the file was a receipt for a casket. Somehow, in all his orderliness, he never purchased one.  He was adamant that he not be cremated and that he wanted to be buried in a certain Brooks Brothers suit. A long-time member of A.A., he requested that his 30-year sobriety coin be placed in the casket with him. We had a list of all the things he wanted and we executed on them all… except knowing what he wanted in a casket. Ugh. We were going to have to choose it.

So off we went to the casket company that was attached to the funeral home that my Dad had chosen to take care of things. It was somber, sober, hushed, and very weird to walk into a large room which was cluttered with caskets. I mean, like, 50 to 60 of them. It was shocking and breathtaking. My mom and brother and I just stopped in the middle of the room, surrounded by bronze and silver and titanium and wood boxes. Some of the caskets were heartbreakingly tiny, designed to hold an infant or young person who died an untimely death.

Sometimes, in moments of intense feeling (grief, sorrow, loss) people can have what others consider to be inappropriate reactions.  We did. Upon entering the casket show room, all three of us just burst into hysterical laughter, the kind where you’re crying and heaving and choking and howling. We simply could not get it together to act like somber adults, soberly choosing a casket for our passed relative. The funeral home employee looked aghast, not certain how to respond.  The three of us kept saying, “oh my God, I’m so sorry!” as we bent over again in gales of laughter.

Finally, we were able to stop.  Wiped our eyes. Cleared our throats. Put on our big-girl and boy panties and got back to the task at hand.  Since Dad was a practical guy, we thought that our number one priority in selecting a casket should be price.  This criteria made the selection easy, as most of the caskets were hideously expensive.  I mean, $30,000 or $40,000 expensive. Silk lining, gold trimmed handles, top of the line pillows for the deceased’s head to rest upon. Several of them looked as though they were designed for Elvis.  The funeral employee earnestly described the benefits of each casket. Apparently, most of their customers wanted the casket to be air-tight, impenetrable by insects, rodents, or even the ravages of decomposition of the body. Those bodies would get placed on the silk fabric, the lid would shut and be locked tight, and then lowered into the ground for eternity while the mourners wept at the grave site.

We were most definitely not going to purchase that kind of a casket. We ended up choosing a somewhat plain, nice, subtle coffin. It was dignified and classic and appropriately sedate. My father’s body, in his Brooks Brothers suit and AA coin, went in.

The next night was the visitation. In the manila folder, Dad had been very specific that he did not want an open casket — I never really  understood why. While not vain, Dad was good looking, well-kept, and always crisply dressed. The illness that took his life had not ravaged his looks. But he wanted it closed — so it was closed.

Except I wanted one last look.

I was sure a great hand was going to reach down from the heavens and smite me for this desire; after all, it was completely against Dad’s wishes.  But I had to have one last look. My girlfriend and I snuck into the room where the casket was a half hour before the visitation and we were going to take a look.

But as much as I wanted to see him, I was a big weeny and was totally afraid of actually lifting up the lid and seeing my father, dead.  So I closed my eyes tight, and asked my girlfriend if she would do it. God bless her, she did. And yes, the lid actually creaked as it was opening. Just like in the scary movies. I squinted my eyes open so they would be easy to shut if the sight was too ghastly (or ghostly). But it wasn’t. With open eyes, I saw my father, looking just about like he always did, perhaps a little paler and gaunt. But it was Dad.  It wasn’t so bad to look at him. It wasn’t so bad at all.

Then I wanted to touch him. There was something about daring to bust through social norms and my own fear that made me reach out my hand to touch his. It was cold, a kind of cold I had never imagined. Bone cold. Dead cold. He was, definitely, dead.  I pried open his fingers and slipped the A.A. coin in his palm, cried, and wished him a safe journey to the other side.  I did not tell my motor brother that I’d done this verboten thing.

As I walked into the receiving room later to greet the mourners and look at all the flowers that friends had thoughtfully sent, I felt a true sense of closure. I was able to say goodbye in a way that made sense to me, that felt true to me, and that taught me a lot about facing fears. No boogie man descended. No white-haired, angry God came down to punish me. It was, in the end, just fine.

My Grandmother, (Dad’s mom) committed suicide when I was 27 years old. She’d been diagnosed with Parkinsons disease, and just didn’t want to endure the drawn out debilitation that it would bring. So she ordered literature from The Hemlock Society (an organization who helps people take their own lives), followed the directions (pills, alcohol and a large, plastic garbage bag placed over the head) and ended her life. My father, when planning her funeral, absolutely would not let us see her. He grimaced and said, “Believe me, you don’t want to look.” It scared me. Was she green? Or blue from lack of oxygen? Had she marred her face by clawing at the plastic bag?  I’ll never know.

At the funeral home where the service was going to take place (no church service for HER!), my family members (uncles, cousins) were awkward and uncomfortable. No one really wanted to acknowledge the fact that she’s killed herself. It was a bold act, yet completely in concert with my grandmother’s spirit and independence. I don’t remember the funeral or the burial or anything from that experience except the weirdness that was at the funeral home.

What does any of this have to do with spirituality? Plenty.

After these deaths, and a few more, I decided to become a hospice volunteer. That was in 2000. Since then, I’ve helped well over 100 people die. I have been privileged to sit bedside with patients, and their families, during what is often a very challenging time in addition to being a very sad time.In America, we don’t do death well. And we are even more unskilled at managing grief, ours and another’s.

As part of my Masters program in spiritual direction, we had to write a thesis. I wrote 100 pages on “The Spirirtuality of Death and Dying” and interviewed hospice chaplains in addition to doing a comprehensive literature review.  I also interviewed about 20 of our most popular spiritual teachers, asking one question: What are the spiritual tasks at the end of life?

I talked to: Father Thomas Keating, Angeles Arrien, Brother Richard Rohr, Thomas Moore, James Hollis, Rabbi Zalman Schlater-Schlomi, Rev. cynthis Bourgeault, Larry Dossey, MD, Rabbi David Cooper, Roshi Joan Halifax, Llewellyn Vaughn Lee, KAthleen Dowling Singh… as many as would reply to my letter of invitation.

I was so excited when I started setting up the phone interviews. I just knew that I was going to get “the secret” from these giants of the inner life.

I did one after the other, after the other… and not too far into the process, something became clear; no matter their religion, their psychological perspectives,or their spiritual practice, they all said the exact same thing:  be here now.  They all said that we need to die daily (as St. Paul remarked so many centuries ago). That we have to die to the ego, we have to “let go” as the 12-Step programs encourage, we have to practice dying so that when we actually die, we will go simply and peacefully.

All that time on the phone, and that’s what I learned?

Yes, many of them commented on the need to make amends, tell people that they were loved, to have good palliative pain medicine, to do a life-review. But the real thing was to surrender daily.

After completing the last interview, I sat on the material for several years. Some of it made it into my masters thesis, but most of it slept on my computer. I don’t think I was reay to truly embrace the power of this idea, and its immense possibilities.  Be here now. Ram Dass said this in the 1960s. And here I was, hearing it again and again in the 2000s.

I turned my attention next to the way we face dying in America. And the answer was, not very well. I recalled my early experiences with death (see above) and how certain etiquette and social mores were concretized into a prescribed way of behaving at funerals and during the dying time. It felt cold and heartless, prescribed, contained and uptight. What is so wrong  with looking death straight in the eye, and wailing about loss? Are we still so guided by a Puritan perspective and a WASP-y ethos that mandates we be neat and tidy about death and grief?  I remembered sitting in a movie theater in Rye, New York in 1981, watching the film, Ordinary People. Mary Tyler Moore, in a complete 180 switch from her TV persona as Mary Richards, played a mother of a family who’d lost a child.  When you watch her portray the mother, you can feel the tenseness and tightness of her body, her smile, her affect. This was a person who needed to mourn, but she just couldn’t. That movie made a big impression on me; I could see even then that this was not the way to be.

One of the things I love very much about the Jewish tradition is the way they handle death. Family “sits shivah”. Mourners sit for seven days, not doing anything celebratory, which friends and family stop by with food and support. The Jewish faith suggests that by slowing down long enough to FEEL the grief, you will help HEAL.  I think this is wise.

But for most Americans, overwhelmingly Christian of some sort, we want to get it over with. While I’m very grateful than many workplaces now give paid time off for a death, it makes me grimace to think that by suggestion, we should use those three days and then plop back into our office chairs and get on with it.

Obviously, grief and death go hand in hand. Without a solid connection to your source of inspiration, be it God or the Goddess, Buddha, Allah, God the Father,  or just nature, facing mortality — either ours or someone else’s — is almost unbearable. What do we do? Stuff our feelings and bury our dead and… get on with it. Perhaps we run the shower a little longer to allow time to cry where no one will hear us. Or sit in the car to have a few stolen moments of contemplation and mourning before greeting the kids. Or, we just get really busy to keep our minds off it.

No one likes to grieve. It’s painful, messy, unpredictable, makes our faces look bad, is inconvenient, and hurts like hell.  Who in their right mind would welcome it?

What I know now is that there is profound spiritual growth and connection by diving RIGHT into the feelings, and welcoming it.  We think grief is going to kill us if we let it in … and sometimes, it feels as though we are dying. In a way, we are; things will change after a significant loss. Most of us don’t want change.  Again, it’s unpredictable and scary. But letting go (see above!) and surrendering to loss and grief is, I promise, an amazing way to deepen our connection to God and to ourselves.

We live in a culture that really still allows us to grieve a little, and then go on. Let’s buck that trend.

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