What a strange theme for the holiday season, huh? Death.
The word itself sounds like an assault on our ears, a slap to our soul. We all know that it is something that will happen to us…and yet, we also fear it, dread it, or hide from it. Many people get offended whenever it is mentioned.
My mother was one of those. Throughout my teen-aged years (and beyond) our family experienced the death of many who were close to us…friends and relatives. Every time, my mother would shut herself off, and refuse to speak about the person who had died.
When her closest friend, Velma, passed away, my mother was particularly effected. If we even mentioned Velma’s name, she became upset and would isolate herself from us. We had to beg her to go Velma’s funeral - she did not want to go. However, she gave in, and reluctantly pulled herself together and went with us to the funeral home.
When we arrived, at first she refused to go to the casket and view Velma’s remains (a truly bizarre ritual that also makes sense in helping those of us left behind to accept the loved one’s passing). When she got there, and looked at Velma, she began to exclaim “she’s breathing, she’s breathing!” We tried to tell her that Velma was not breathing, but mom would not be convinced. We had to remove her from the funeral service before she made a scene.
For days after, she was strangely detached from all of life. It began to occur to me that - for my mother - death resulted in an incapacitating sense of loss. And that sense of loss was directly related to the fact that she was profoundly unhappy with her own life, and any thing that disturbed her carefully crafted mask of happiness would just freak her out and cause her to feel a sense of desolation.
As a pastor, I dealt with many, many deaths, officiating at dozens of funerals and helping literally hundreds of people work through the issues of grief and loss. I began to understand that how a person responds to death is actually determined by how they relate to life - their own life. Yes, there is always sadness and grief…but beyond that, death says more about us, the living, than any thing it may say about the deceased.
Death is part of life, just as breathing, eating, sleeping or sex. We all know that. Our response to death is based on two issues: (1) how does the death of another impact us, and (2) what do we believe happens when we die? Is there life or consciousness after death…for them, and for us?
Death is a great reminder that nothing lasts forever. All is impermanence, and everything changes. I have a meditation altar that I use every day to assist me in meditating. On that altar, I have placed several reminders of things that I believe are important to hold before me in mediation. One is a reminder of fear…and to meditate on the reality that fear only holds power over me if I allow it. The other reminder is of death…I have the jaw bone of an animal and a scythe. Both remind me that death comes to all living things; that I am impermanent and passing away.
Both of those reminders help me to meditate on this truth - Life is Now, and has to be lived without fear. Death reminds me to value every moment of Now. My own death…and the death of those I love…is coming. I cannot stop it. But I can prepare how it impacts me by choosing to live Now, without fear.
That is Beauty for me…living life large, without fear. Fear is the opposite of Love; if I live without fear, I increase my ability to live with and in Love.
As for life after death? That is the Big Question and the Mystery. No one knows. There is scientific evidence to indicate that somehow, our consciousness exists after death. There are thousands of recorded “life after death” incidents. But none of those can conclusively show us what happens after we die. Religion, in an attempt to control us in the name of power and government, created the concept of Hell so that it could exploit that mystery. But religion’s attempt to scare us about death and hell is as uncertain as any other speculation about life after death.
Beauty…and Mystery. Both reside with death. If we embrace death, and let it remind us to cherish life here and now, then we overcome the fear of death and are empowered to live our lives with Love. It is worth it…and I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the holidays and the year’s end than to be empowered to live without fear and fully in the moment, with Love.