As we approached the cadaver lab, I was filled with trepidation. The smell hit me first: an acrid odor of formaldehyde permeating everything it touched. It was so overpowering that even our toughest-looking classmate, covered head-to-toe in tattoos, got woozy and had to step outside. We were at a local community college, and my colleagues in a yearlong Buddhist chaplaincy training and I were about to come face-to-face with two corpses.
We were there to gain a deeper understanding of what it would be like, as chaplains, to be with death and dying, and to hone our own practice of death contemplation.
The truth is, I’d been quietly dreading this moment. In the year prior, one of my housemates had passed away suddenly due to complications from an autoimmune condition, leaving our household shocked and grieving. My mind often flashed back to the call with the hospital, and the nurse blurting out, “I hope you’re sitting down,” before they delivered the incomprehensible news. I couldn’t seem to let go of the memory of seeing my friend’s body in the ER devoid of the life I had witnessed just hours before, or the nagging question, “Is there anything I could have done?” After all that, what would it be like now to intentionally be with the dead?
If you had told me as I walked into the cadaver lab that this would be one of the most beautiful and life-affirming experiences I would ever have, I would never have believed it. But that morning, so much changed. In spending the day contemplating the bodies of the dead, I discovered a sense of wonder and amazement—and a deeper connection to my own impermanent and precious life.
Facing the truth of our own death can bring us back to life.
While death contemplation, or maranasati, is a pillar of Buddhist practice and a core element of the first foundation of mindfulness, this practice had typically left me feeling unsettled. More often than not, death contemplation yielded a sense of impending loss and grief, rather than the acceptance of impermanence one might hope to find. But here at the lab it was different.
As I looked around the room, I saw something I definitely hadn’t expected: There were posters and cards created for the cadavers by students, celebrating and thanking them. The walls were plastered with messages of love and gratitude. There was a warmth and reverence here that was so different from my own experiences of death. This was the first of many surprises.
As our day at the lab unfolded, we were taken to the body of a woman. While a student showed us the corpse’s organs, tenderly pointing out the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and so on, a sense of awe overcame me. It was nothing short of profound—not only to see the intricate and beautiful inner workings of a human body for the first time, but also to be surrounded on all sides by people I knew and trusted, all teeming with life, while we stood in amazement over this body. What had once been animate, alive, full of something mysterious and vital, no longer was. The contrast between us and her was astonishing.
Questions of life and the mystery of death swirled through my mind. Where does consciousness go once it leaves the body? What is the animating force, and how can it leave a person so completely? What dies? There was something in the stark difference between my living body and her deceased one that jolted me into a distinct state of awareness.
Instead of grief or fear, I was filled with joy and an immense sense of love. The life force that had once filled this woman’s body and connected her to family, friends, purpose, and meaning felt miraculous. And so did the force that lived within me. All of that life ultimately had left her body, and one day it would leave mine too. What happened after that remained a mystery, but suddenly, not a scary one. It felt boundless and beautiful.
For the first time, death contemplation filled me not with the dukkha (suffering) of clinging to a life I could not fundamentally control or protect, but with the sense that I had been given a great and precious gift. To experience the mystery of life inside a body, right here, right now.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha provides careful instructions on a cemetery contemplation practice in order to establish mindfulness of the body. He guides the monks to whom he is speaking on how to observe corpses in various states of decay, while contemplating the existence and impermanence of their own bodies. For a monk (“he” in the quote below) to accomplish this, the Buddha explains:
Furthermore, as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground—one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering, he applies it to this very body. ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate’…
My body, too, will die. Depending on our context and history, this can be a terrifying reflection or an inspiring one. For me, the traumatic nature of death—the sense of instability and lack of safety it evoked—had until this moment eclipsed the possibility of awe.
But under the right conditions, facing the truth of our own death can bring us back to life. We begin to feel life coursing through us and marvel at just how wild and mysterious that state of being actually is.
Feeling my own life force in such stark contrast to the bodies I sat with, I found that death contemplation could not actually be separated from aliveness contemplation. In turn, I regained a sense of wonder from which peace could finally emerge. It was as if death and life were two aspects of a teacher, suddenly ready to whisper secrets into my ear.
When we learn to listen to this teacher, we start to see things differently. Myself, my housemate, and all beings are actually part of some great mystery that include both life and death. Yes, we may still cling desperately to our life, health, and all the things we so dearly love—that’s human. But all the while, this aliveness hums on in the background, beautiful and finite within our bodies. It becomes clear as we contemplate death that we can no longer take life for granted. We begin to remember, as the poet Rumi writes:
“People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
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