I gather flowers for the dead. I have been at this shady harvest for more than 30 years, training with the best: Martha deBarros from the Zen Hospice Project of San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC); Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of Zen Hospice and founder of the Metta Institute; and Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center’s Being With Dying program. We practice light and grave accord with the dead. Holding solemn ground at the threshold of the Great Matter, we are also intimate and joyful.
Last spring on a brilliant Sunday afternoon 84-year-old Daigan Lueck, Zen priest, poet, and painter, died peacefully at home in the heart of Green Gulch Farm. Daigan and his wife, Arlene, are deep Zen practitioners and friends of our family. When I heard that he had died, I entered the tangle of our Muir Beach garden to harvest the astringent herbs needed to bathe Daigan’s body: pungent white and black California native sage, English peppermint and shadowy yerba buena, rosemary, camphor rose geranium, and yerba santa, gathered from the stony paths of Mount Tamalpais where Daigan loved to walk.
Arlene and an intimate group of friends bathed Daigan’s body with the fragrant herbs. Rubbing alcohol closed the pores of his skin. With mindful care, Daigan was dressed in his monk’s robes and arranged in state in the room where he had died. A simple shrine was set up at the doorway as practitioners arrived to sit in meditation with Daigan for the next 24 hours.
In the SFZC tradition we mark four essential ceremonies for attending the dead: the ceremony of bathing and sitting with the body, the cremation ceremony, the funeral or memorial service ceremony, and finally the ceremony of interring or scattering the ashes of the deceased. For each occasion scented flowers participate in the ritual.
I give full attention to the plants that I harvest for the dead. Like apothecaries throughout history, I am guided by the evocative alchemy of aroma. Ancient families of scent are exuded by the plant world. Musk, resin, mint, floral, ethereal, acrid, and foul scents are expressed, according to some scientists, in exact geometrically shaped molecules that fit precisely into distinct neural niches in the nasal epithelium, triggering primal response in the brain.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.