Friday, October 12, 2012

Birthdays and death

But death is real,
Comes without warning.
This body
Will be a corpse.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
The Four Reminders

My mom's birthday was this month. She doesn't like to fly, so I flew to her city, the first leg of a cross-country journey to visit extended family -- my brother, my aunt, cousins, and partners.

As soon as I got to her house, she started talking about some pre-funeral planning she'd recently done. She pulled out some paperwork from a funeral home, and we went over it. Cremation, so she'd take up only half of the remaining plot in the family gravesite (leaving the other half for my aunt). No viewing of the body. A memorial service. Would I do a reading? Of course. She'll choose it, along with the hymns.

Should I write this on my calendar? I asked.

No, no particular day, she answered.

For a few years my mom has marked every occasion with a sigh and "This could be the last time..." If I'm there, I reply, "Or you might live for another 30 years and celebrate many more times." Or I might get hit by a bus and die before you celebrate again. You never know.

She agrees. Death comes without warning.

- - - 

VICE: So, Caitlin. Death to a lot of people is a bad thing. A bummer, at least. What exactly is a 'good death’?
Caitlin Doughty: A good death starts when you're still young. You have to live your life acknowledging that death is inevitable and let it affect your relationships and view on the world. A good death is about planning your death and what you want done with your body and taking delight in it. It's about the quest to have everything in place – literally and emotionally – when you die. Preparing for death doesn't mean preparing for some kind of afterlife. Preparing for death is to enhance the life you're living right now.

Vice magazine interview with Caitlin Doughty is a 28-year-old mortician from Los Angeles. Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, which includes filmmakers, poets, musicians, artists, and writers exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality. Its website says:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fear -- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.
- - - 

 We've been talking about death for a while, me and Mom. Death and disposition of her collection of Hummel figurines.

At my aunt's house, we were sitting in the yard, chatting. I admired the flowers next to my chair and was told that the very large planter they were in was the burial ground for a beloved cat. Death, literally, is all around.

But not sadness, not grief. Of course, I'll grieve when my mom dies. Walking through a tunnel in the Detroit airport, standing still on the people mover as passengers in a hurry speed-walked past and trying to protect my mom from getting bumped by their suitcases, my heart burst open with a fierce protective love for her, a feeling that previously rose mainly around my own children. I would do anything for them. And looking at the impatient passengers around me, I couldn't be angry or annoyed with any of them. Everyone is worthy of being loved fiercely, and everyone should know the feeling of having their heart simply lose its boundaries and flow over the world.

That's the ultimate gift of this life and the reason we grieve when it ends. If you live a good life, then what happens after will be taken care of, mom and I agree. And you might as well spend the time luxuriating in the beauty that's around you rather than mourning its eventual loss.

Joyful to have
Such a human birth,
Difficult to find,
Free and well-favored.


  1. Nancy, thanks for this. I see Caitlin's point, and it's in the right direction for me, but from the quip it looks like death becomes an end unto itself for her. I prefer the view a wise woman once expressed, " live so that if I do die today, or someone important to me dies, I am at ease with how we lived in relationship." I think she would agree that grief is greatly excerbated by unresolved relationships, and that being at ease with each other has the healthy side-effect of lessening our respective grief when one or the other dies. The trick then is how to live so that we are at ease with each other, which is a whole other subject.