Saturday, April 24, 2010

On death

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a prayer from the Preliminary Practice (which is recited each morning) goes as follows:

"We who are fearless and hard-hearted, despite having seen so many sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, are wasting our human lives, endowed with freedom and opportunity, on the paths of distraction. Grant your blessing, so that we may continuously remember impermanence and death."

Every morning, before the sun has even risen, before the birds begin their familiar song, the practitioner is encouraged to face the certainty of death. We have seen it over and over, the prayer reminds us. Death is nothing new. In fact, as the sun rises, as the birds sing, the prayer goes on to explain that even these things are transient. "If you do not achieve an undaunted confident security [in this knowledge] now, what point is there in your being alive, o living creature?"

The truth is, we know that death is always there. Death is as much a part of life as, well, life – and so it must be, no matter how tragic. But our modern society has tried, and largely succeeded, at separating us from the reality of death. We are cordoned off from witnessing it, and so when we do – mostly by accident – it is all the more difficult to bear. It is unexpected.

In our not-so-distant human history, death was accepted as a given. Death came so often, came within such close proximity, that humankind was forced to find all manner of ways of dealing with it – from the practical (disposal to avoid the spread of disease) to the spiritual (religious doctrines which allowed us to eventually overcome our grief). Regardless of the "truth" or "falsity" of such responses to death, their value was determined by their success; when one has other mouths to feed, other tasks which necessitate the continuation of daily life, one cannot spend all one's time mourning the loss of a friend, clansman or family member. It was necessary that we have these things available to us, so that we ourselves could continue living.

But our recent history has quarantined death; has confined it to sterile hospital beds and made it a clean, painless, almost theatrical ordeal. And we still turn to these same old ways of confronting that death, but we find ourselves continually disenfranchised with them – not because of their intrinsic efficacy, but because our entire experience of death has changed. We as a society have fundamentally altered our perception of death, and thus have fundamentally altered the applicability of those old "tried and true" methods for coming to terms with death.

Perhaps what we need now is a "top-down" approach. Perhaps we need to return to the old methods for dealing with death, and work backward from there. If I wake tomorrow morning and remind myself of the certainty of death, of the transience of all things, will I be even just the slightest bit more capable of dealing with the very recent death of a good friend? If I re-familiarize myself with death through the old practices and old prayers, will I be better equipped to face it head-on when it next comes?

Surely I will mourn and I will cry – oh God, Joe, how I miss you – but perhaps I will also find that my tears are tears of catharsis instead of anger, disbelief or guilt. Or perhaps I am just fooling myself with all this sophistry, and like Hume would find it better to completely throw off the shackles of a religious approach to death. Either way, the truth of the matter is that death must be acknowledged. Death is real and it is certain, and if nothing else, it must not be ignored.


  1. Yes, it is a weird situation, death being such a rare and unwelcome visitor. But we should be glad of it as well- that this rarity is real, that our culture assumes not just life but long life, and that it focuses relentlessly on life over death. Whatever its source, whether Christianity, the cult of technological progress, etc., it may have gone overboard in pushing the old and dying out of sight, but at the same time, a culture with less actual death is better than one with more, I think. Perhaps we could right the balance with a day of the dead, as practiced in Mexico.

    I am sorry for your loss

  2. Burk - you're right, it's certainly better to have progressed to an age with longer lifespans and less infant mortality, etc. But I do think that in this case, as in many things, we've let the pendulum swing too far to the other side, and we've made death into something that is almost unreal. Life must always be a balance.
    Thanks for your condolences. My thoughts are with his family.

  3. The older I get the more I think about how little time I have left here. The hands on the clock weem to be speeding up , it has something to do with the same concept of the cicitrization of wounds, can't remember the exact idea. But our perception of time changes as we age. On the one hand I look forward to find out what lies beyond, but at the same time I want to live forever and think that we go kicking and screaming when our time is up. I think because we can imagine eternity that it must really await us.I hope there are some big trout there...then we can fish and mush our brains together afterwards in an orgy of the minds.

  4. Julio, I like that imagery - to mush our brains together after death. What is death but becoming an indistinguishable part of our environment? Is death, like the Eastern religions would suggest, merely an opportunity to meld our individual minds with the great Mind behind and beyond the universe?

  5. Now that I think about it, will we be disembodied entities? I should like to think that at some point we will put on immortal bodies. Perhaps I should have stated that the mushing of minds would result in the orgiastic cacophony of pure cosmological thought, maybe resulting in another big bang somewhere. Maybe we should do lunch sometime after that, somewhere in the new world.

  6. The prayer (in the original post) goes on to say that sentient beings will "suffer the severing of body and mind." Perhaps it is difficult to understand an "immortal body" being no "body" at all, as people seem to believe their physical bodies to be part of who they are. "Will I recognize my grandmother in heaven? What will she look like?" - this sort of thing.
    If nothing else, I hope that in this future age, late-night kebab vendors don't exist. Yuck.


Think carefully before you post. I reserve the right to moderate any comments posted to my blog.