In the last few weeks we have been discussing dying with grace and coping with loss. Now we will look at how to achieve both of these with relation to both our own death and those of our loved ones. Death in Western countries is rarely spoken of but in India it was quite common to see dead bodies being taken down the street on stretchers on shoulders of family members, when I was growing up in Mumbai. We lived near Banganga and parts of the building overlooked the burning ghats which were almost always burning, and depending on the wind one could get a whiff of the smoke. There was also the Parsi Tower of Silence at Malabar Hills, and the vultures that cleaned up the bodies, were a common sight. This encouraged me even as a child to think about death and the process of dying. These days we rarely see dead bodies, as they are taken by hearse or ambulance, and the electric crematoriums make the final process rapid and quite impersonal.
Why should we prepare? Because sooner or later we will face death and just like when you are going to an unknown place, if you go through the route in your mind before hand, check the maps out, and maybe ask someone who has experience then quite a lot of your fear is dissipated.
Buddhism has long considered death as one of the greatest teachers for living our lives well. And there are many, many teachings on impermanence and in the Tibetan tradition there is a very detailed meditation on the stages of death, which correlates quite well with the stages of sleep. So a practitioner is taught to initially watch the various sensations of his body and get an insight into the transitoriness of these sensations, followed by watching emotions, etc, and seeing how they come and go. On the grosser level, the practitioner brings her attention to the nature of all living things and is encouraged to look deeply into how they actually exist. Are they permanent? Are they solid and unmoving? Are they existing as they appear to us? This kind of meditation slowly lets us see, first intellectually and then at a deeper level, that everything that is born has to die. Slowly over time, there is sense of letting go and enjoying the moment and the person in the moment, for what it is.
Osho once said that the greatest regret and sorrow is felt by the person, who has the most unfinished business with the deceased, as there is now no way to finish it.
On the more practical level, one could make a will and clearly mention the beneficiaries so that there is no bad feeling as the time of death is near. There is a superstition that if one makes a will, they will soon pass away but this is ludicrous – it makes it so much easier. Better still, would be to give what one wants to give others when one is alive. How wonderful to see their joy when they receive a legacy. If we have certain wishes, example, not to be put on a ventilator then it helps to clearly let our family members know these wishes – nowadays one can make a living will which can take care of these things. You could also let loved ones know if you have any preferences on the method of disposal of your body; whether a cremation or a burial. Of course one can do this if there is time, but what if there is a sudden death. A friend suddenly passed away in his early forties leaving his family not only in great grief but with great financial burdens as well. As we don’t know when and how death will call on us, it is always good to be prepared, whatever our age, and keep our affairs in order. It helps to think about the people dependent on us and consider their well being. So does all this thinking and planning for death make us morbid? The answer is a big no – on the contrary it frees us completely to live.
A young man, with teeth for the future,
With plans for months and years ahead, died,
Leaving but scant traces. Where is he how? Passed away!
My mind turns to thoughts of my death.
(Meditations on the ways of impermanence – the 7th Dalai Lama)