“Do you often think about dying,” asked a friend after I told him that I was writing a blog post about death.  The poet, Billy Collins, has joked that if you major in English, you are majoring in death. I majored in English, and that is a funny observation – and at least partially true.

I read someone writing on death who said that death gives life meaning. I don’t think I completely agree with that, but it may come from the fact that death and the afterlife plays such a large role in religions and philosophies.

Surely, the first people thought about death once they saw it happen. I can’t imagine that it took too much time before some ideas emerged about life and death and then about the idea of immortality. We have come so far and yet probably not much farther in our thinking than people a few hundred years ago when it comes to dealing with the death of others or ourselves. Current day medicine tries to prolong life and avoid death even when it is inevitable and when a person may want to die. Transhumanists are trying to extend life by merging ourselves with machines.

I have written here about life after death or the afterlife or simply about death after life but I don’t know that it has helped me get any closer to reaching any final decisions about things final.

I still think about there being a “bridge” from this life to what comes after, even though my ideas have changed since my younger days about what is on the other side of that bridge. I have gone from my Catholic upbringing and heaven, through reincarnation, science, death as the end of all, to believing in a life force that continues but not with a self or consciousness.

I gravitate towards books and movies that address the topic, which might seem morbid, but I consider a healthy approach to coming to terms with the topic. The TV series, Proof, that came on this summer is about doctors who become involved in studying near death experiences (NDE) and trying to “scientifically” determine if there is any proof of something to come after death. I can’t say the show is light because the topic is heavy, but it is probably a gentler way for some people to enter into a discussion with others or into an inner monologue about these ideas.

To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK “a radio show about big ideas”) recently replayed a series of shows on death after life covering a range of topics related to how we deal with topics around death. The show titles themselves reflect on those considerations.

“THE MYSTERIES OF LIFE ARE MORE PRESENT” includes a story about a man who has been documenting life in a village in Nepal for 20 years and the death of one young man there that he found profound and unexplainable.

“NOT KNOWING IS ITSELF LIBERATION” with a Zen Buddhist abbot who has been sitting with dying people since 1970. She is comfortable with the mystery of what comes after.

In “DEATH AFTER DYING” they look at cultures that believed that dying was a kind of trial which didn’t begin until you left your physical body and entered the supernatural world.  Is death not the destruction of the body, but the annihilation of the personality and its transformation into something new?

In “MOURNING IN THE DIGITAL AGE” they address things that might seem trivial like what happens to your digital self when you die, Facebook memorial pages and virtual remembrances. But are these changing the way we mourn and remember departed loved ones?

“HUMANITY BEYOND THE HUMAN” jumps into the future to consider a potential end to the end.

The fifth program is “DEATH DOESN’T BOTHER ME, ANYWAY” which includes the final episode in one story that runs through the series about one person’s death journey.

Anne Strainchamps is the host of TTBOOK and she posted a personal essay after she had spent three months going to work every day and listening to people talk about death and dying, which left her feeling “haunted by death.”

I remember one weekend afternoon, when I was driving home after spending the day alone in the office editing death interviews. The sun was setting, the streets and buildings and people were all tinged with gray, and I could still hear Caitlin Doughty’s voice in my head, her matter-of-fact tone as she described the odor of a rotting corpse, and the small changes in a human body after death. My hands on the steering wheel looked older to me, the skin over my veins stretched and thin. I watched younger people walking and biking in the early, ashen twilight, busy with their lives and pursuits, and thought, “We each have a silent, invisible companion – death – walking with us.”

 

I identified with her tiring of people she interviewed always saying that “everyone dies” as if that made it any easier to be a temporary “walking corpse” headed to death. And I identified with her looking at the stars one night and thinking that if there is any comforting truth to that phrase, that perhaps it is in accepting that “Death isn’t so terrifying, it’s just… normal. The ancestors whose genes swirl inside me, the billions of people who made this planet home… they all took a last breath and died. We don’t go alone into the darkness, because they showed us how.”

Today, as I type these words, I am not ready to die. I don’t mean I am not prepared because I haven’t done any preparation. I have. But that I am not ready to end this living portion of the journey. Of course you’re not, you might say – who is? But I have been ready several times in my life to end the living. I felt surprisingly content with the conclusion occurring then and there. I’m glad I didn’t follow through on ending my life, but I hope when the time comes to leave life that I will be ready.

So, to my friend or reader who asks “Do you often think about dying?” I answer, Yes.  I find comfort in reading, watching, thinking and talking about it. I wish I had more conversations about it with my grandparents and parents before they died.

Even with people I know who believe that what comes after life is greater than life, I don’t know that any of them are eager for the end. That’s also the case for people I know who believe there is nothing after death. If death gives life meaning, it is perhaps because when we encounter the deaths of others or even the “small deaths” around loss when no person dies (pets, a child leaving home, friends moving far away etc.), it makes life and the now seem more precious. Unfortunately, that feeling is too often very temporary and we fall back to the unmindfulness we were living before.

painting

Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch – often associated with aspects of the near death experience

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