As westerners we’ve generally developed a rather unhealthy attitude toward death and, more specifically, how we have come to “handle” the body of the recently departed. For the most part, we reject as much direct contact with the body as possible, turning those matters over to professionals. Of course we mourn, but it’s generally at arm’s length, cremating or burying the body as quickly as possible. We then try to normalize our life immediately, going back to work right away, or otherwise attempting to maintain a state of happiness. We generally have a low tolerance for death, dying, and grieving, as can be seen in all the advertisements promoting longevity and youthfulness.
My husband and my experience in Nepal, little over a year ago, really opened our eyes with regard to how westerners relate to death. While in Katmandu, we scheduled a recommended guided tour of the city that included a visit to a cremation site. We double-checked our itinerary with our Lonely Planet travel guide, and sure enough, that was a very popular place to go to.
Many thoughts ran through my mind about what witnessing a cremation would be like. Bodies burning everywhere and the smell of flesh and debris flying around! I had imagined quite the scene. While I was open to experiencing as much of this very different culture as I could, I was having a hard time imagining why I would want this particular experience.
As it turned out, it was a sacred place. We parked some distance from the temple, then walked up through a very active alleyway before arriving at the Pashupatinath Temple (Nepali: पशुपतिनाथको मन्दिर), one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world. We found the temple and it’s grounds to be stunning.
We arrived at the cremation observation area across the river from where six or so cremation platforms lined the opposite riverbank below the temple. When we arrived, three platforms were in use in one area and a fourth in an area we learned was set-aside for important people. Families and friends were there with the bodies of their loved ones, praying and preparing each body as they connected with their physical form for the last time. Some of the bodies were covered from head to toe with marigolds.
While family members and friends were paying homage to their loved ones; monkeys played in the river just below, as tourists walked on the opposite riverbank. Instead of the expected scent of burning flesh, what I was struck with was the power of the sacred feelings that permeated the air.
That experience was the beginning of a huge shift in my perspective on death and dying. When I ask others what they intend to do for their funeral, most, if they’ve thought about it, simply plan to do what their parents and other family members have always done. Until recently, I too was going the route of keeping with family tradition. My family has been very big on donating their body to science. They feel that even after death you can still help others. I was a card-carrying whole-body donor (not just organs). As a body donor, it was set that upon my last breath the medical school would come pick up my body. Along with this I believed that the soul leaves at death and that the body is immediately an empty shell.
A few after our trip to Nepal, Roger and I were in NYC visiting his daughter, Katie. While there we got news that a longtime friend of Roger’s, Robert Anders, had passed. As Robert was only 55 years old and had been in good health the last time we saw him, it was quite a shock to learn he’d passed. Robert’s wife, Amy, had arranged for the body to lie in state at their home for three full days – visitors were welcomed to spend time with the body any hour of the day. We were scheduled to return to Asheville at 11:30pm on the last night during which Robert’s body would be available, so we decided to drive right over from the airport.
We arrived at the house at midnight. We were surprised to find Amy and three others sitting in loving silence around Robert’s body, and we later learned that Amy had taken the opportunity to do that for all three days. The feeling can only be described as sacred! It was so precious to be a part of that experience. (Janese, took the last line out altogether, because in an upcoming paragraph, you say Robert did not leave his body until the third day.)
He was lying peacefully on a massage table that was decorated with beautiful fabric, and flowers lay around him. A friend of Robert’s had written a letter to him and placed it under his clasped hands that lay upon his chest. He wore white and radiated a calm that permeated the room. The room was dimly lit, and the silence we experienced allowed us to feel the love that had come through the past few days. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
Nowhere was there any official looking funeral home signs or the personnel you’d typically find at a wake. How was this possible? We found out that Amy was working with a local non-profit, Center for End of Life Transitions, which provides support for family members and friends who want to have home funerals. Amy talked about how the process had been so meaningful to her. She said during the first day that she kept waiting for him to wake up; on the second day, anger and grief came up; and on the third day, she knew that he was truly gone. She said that she experienced his life force pulling from his body.
Some traditions do believe that it takes three days for a soul to leave the body, and Amy said that was certainly her experience of Robert’s. With this information, I was beginning to change my thinking about how to deal with death, but was nonetheless still planning on donating my body to science. The real change came for me a few months later.
Roger and I had planned a group bike trip across New York State. My 13-year-old, 115 lb malamute, Zapherys, had been declining in health but did not appear to be leaving anytime soon; I didn’t want to risk being away from home for too long. I returned after celebrating Roger’s birthday, and as it turns out, sadly, it right thing to do. I found Zapherys in pain, and I spent the next two days with him at the animal hospital before bringing him home again. I held him as he howled nonstop in pain. With Roger still on the ride in NY, I wasn’t sure what to do.
A dear friend, who is a veterinarian, helped with the decision. Once I explained the situation to her, she strongly suggested that I have him put to sleep. Since Roger would not be able to make it home for two days, I called the End of Life transition group that worked with Robert’s body and asked if they worked with pets. They said yes!
Words cannot describe the beautiful connection and precious experience of being with and helping Zapherys through that transition. I held him, cried, prayed, and watched him move from days of howling in pain to peace. They helped me move his body to a more private space, cleaned him up, and decorated his space with flowers and prayer objects. We kept his body there for three days, and Roger returned home in time to spend one day with him in a loving and completing way.
What I experienced in those three days really shifted my thinking. I too experienced what Amy described with Robert’s passing process. On day one Zapherys seemed there in his body and asleep, then by the last day it felt like he was gone, leaving behind an empty shell. I remember walking in on the morning of the third day knowing that he had moved on. Being a part of that process was a blessing to experience, and I am grateful for it.
I would like to say that this experience was my last loss, but sadly a few months later my mother in law, Charlotte, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had been in pain for months and went into the hospital just before Christmas. Thankfully, under hospice care, she was able to go home. Her diagnosis was a shock to everyone, as she was so vibrant and alive for an 88-year-old woman.
Blessedly, we had time to talk with her and family members about doing a home vigil after she passed. Everyone agreed, and the Center for End of Life Transition women came in to explain the process with her and answer any questions. During what would be her last two weeks, Charlotte was able to participate in the planning of her memorial. I will never forget rehearsing the songs chosen for her memorial, with her and other members of her family. She sang the hymnals and received visitors in her home until she became unresponsive two days before her last breath. That last breath passed her lips as all five of her children, a couple of her grandsons, and I surrounded her with open hearts and love. We held hands and sang, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” a song she dearly loved.
The three-day vigil was precious. I sat in the room with her often while her friends and family came into the room to say their goodbyes. Many stories were shared as we sat around Charlotte drinking our tea. People came in, touched her, held her hand, and found their personal way to say goodbye. Some even talked about others that they had lost in their own lives. Her body was draped in a beautiful dress on her bed in the middle of the room, a space that radiated love and healing for all who came in to say goodbye.
Any questions that I had remaining in my mind about donating my body to science were now gone. I called the medical school and took myself off the list. Although this past year’s losses were profoundly sad and challenging, I was blessed to have been gifted with new tools that helped me to be more present and conscious with each loss. (My 15 year old dog, Akasha, whom I’d had for 11 years, also struggled with life threatening illness while Roger’s mom was sick and passed away the day before Charlotte died. Death is inevitable, and I believe that when we treat it as the natural part of life that it is, instead of avoiding it and seeing it as something bad, we can grow as a culture and support one another in a true and more thoughtful way — in all areas and through all the cycles of life.
I’d like to end with a quote from Socrates ~ To fear death is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not.
For it is to think one knows what one does not know.
No one knows whether death may not even turn out to be
the greatest blessings of human beings.
And yet people fear it as if they knew for certain it is the greatest evil.
Thank you Roger Derrough and Jillian Wolf for helping with the editing.