This year – in a year of mass casualties – I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about death. The dying process, stories from hospice volunteers and the visions that many people have of ancestors calling them how, the rise of green burials, how different cultures handle bodies over time, who digs graves with their hands and who leaves bodies to be eaten by crows or butchers bodies to toss into the air for a sky burial and who unshrouds and brushes off skeletons that are becoming mummies every few years, the emergence of death doulas in our death defying culture and the yearning to fill an emptiness that represents, how people around the equator keep memories of the dead alive, the ofrendas, who is put into bentwood cedar boxes and put on platforms until the time comes for ceremony on the ochre cliffs, the world’s religions and how they each view the cycle of life, who laughs at death, who is wrapped in beaver skin robes, who is buried in mounds with the remains of abalone, clam, mussel, oyster, cockle and the bones of other mammals, how science has ultimately taught us very little about death, who throws coins to the four corners to ward off evils in an afterlife, who repeats a mantra to focus the dying mind, who uses chopsticks to gently pick up the bones after cremation to place them in the urn.
It’s a raw time to be thinking about death, when I have a new life in my house. But who isn’t thinking about death, living with it, having it visit in their dreams and night terrors?
If the poet Barry Lopez says that “all that’s holding us together are stories, stories and compassion,” I’d add to that breath.
In this tour of death, I stumbled upon the 9 contemplations of Atisha, an 11th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar….”Every breath brings us closer to death…Our life hangs by a breath…So I abide in the breath….So I attend to each inhalation and exhalation.”
But what if I don’t? What if I forget?
What if seeing a last deep, long exhale and a first shallow inhale – all in one trip around the sun – is not enough?