But death is real,
Comes without warning.
Will be a corpse
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Four Reminders
The American way of death—to borrow the title of Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of abuses in the funeral industry—has come to us relatively recently. For much of the history of the Western world, care of the dead was a family and community affair, and a seamless melding of sacred and mundane human activity. Until the turn of the last century, and even later in diminishing pockets of America, people dressed, waked, and bade farewell to their dead at home, and death had the chance to be seen and felt as a natural, inevitable part of life. But by the early 20th century, professional funeral directors had begun to “undertake” the job and spare families what was increasingly thought of as a difficult and unpleasant activity, one that couldn’t and shouldn’t be handled by people who were in mourning.
A gaping spiritual and cultural hole opened as our society began ceding its dead to the stewardship of a sequestered, for-profit industry, and the resultant attitudes and legislation around death that developed over the course of the 20th century keep that vacuum intact. Seven states (Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, Michigan, Utah) have made it illegal to keep a dead body at home or conduct a funeral without a professional funeral director; in most others, the permits and licenses required for disposition of a corpse nearly always require a funeral director’s participation. Embalming came into widespread practice after the Civil War, when it was employed as a technique for preserving the bodies of Union soldiers who fell below the Mason-Dixon line for the journey back north to their funerals. Today, most dead Americans, even those who will be cremated, are embalmed, one factor behind the $6,500 price tag on the average American funeral. Rarely do we ever see a body in the early stages of decomposition—the “resting” phases of a corpse during which people historically sat vigil. The phenomenon of institutionalized death has obvious implications for Buddhists, as we strive to accept and prepare the mind for death. For those of us who want to leave this lifetime in line with our convictions, and to support others to do the same, a more organic approach to death is needed.
As pioneering women have revived natural birth and home birth in the Western world, so have a handful of visionary women been working hard to bring home death and funerals back to communities that want them. People who have taken part in home funerals describe their transformative potential: the possibility to care for and honor the dead, to perceive the distinct separation of mind from body at death—and even to support the dying person as she or he crosses the threshold, away from life. Death, of course, takes every imaginable form. Home death often isn’t a possibility, and home funerals work only with collaboration, in many cases with the help of a “friendly funeral director” who can offer advice and facilitate the paperwork. According to the website UndertakenwithLove.org, a home funeral resource clearinghouse, a home funeral differs from the institutional version in its emphasis on “minimal, noninvasive care and preparation of the body, on its reliance on the family’s own social networks for assistance and support, and on the relative or total absence of commercial funeral providers in its proceedings.”
The home funeral also allows families and communities to reclaim the dying process, when possible, from hospitals, mortuaries, and other institutions. Nancy Poer, a Waldorf educator and home funeral advocate who has helped facilitate dozens of home funerals, stresses how the delicate trajectory of dying can best be borne out at home. “One of the reasons we took up home death in our family was to be able to get out of the [medical and funeral] systems, so it wouldn’t interfere with our own pace, our own choices at the end of life,” she says. “From a spiritual standpoint, the timing for when a person dies is extremely important, and it should be up to the dying person when and how that happens.”
Of course, home death is not always feasible, and there are many means to be present with and help a dying person in ways that benefit everyone. For Donna Belk, a home funeral guide and death “midwife” in Austin, Texas, we can avoid giving people “crappy deaths” by preparing for the hard work of dying as we would for other rites of passage. “I liken it to childbirth,” she says. “If you go into it with some education—you know about contractions, about breathing techniques—you can do a much more elegant job, and it’s not such a struggle. The same goes for death. If the dying person has some tools, so they’re not overcome with new thoughts or freaking out, it’s so much better for everyone. A good death can change a family’s attitudes about dying for generations to come.”
A part of that preparation, for both the dying person and his loved ones, often involves tying up loose emotional ends, which can free up the mind to concentrate on the work of the personal transition at hand. For a dying person, “it’s a great thing to be able to tell someone, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t do as good a job as I would have liked; here’s how I would have done it differently,’” says Belk. “If we can finish these thoughts, we are less likely to drag ourselves back into the ‘earth’ perspective as we die. It frees us to go across the threshold.” In hospice work, it is uncannily common to see a person near death hold on until an estranged relative or friend has been contacted. Even if the dying person is unable to make the call himself, the effort of reconciliation can offer release. For those at the bedside, the same approach is key: “Even if they’re in a coma, it’s such a gift to tell them, ‘I love you; nothing you have done has caused me irreparable harm.’ Those are good things for a dying person to hear.”
Shaping karmic outcome at death, of course, can only be the job of the one dying. Ajahn Uthai Siridharo, a renowned Thai meditation teacher, likens being with a dying person to emitting a radio transmission: Loved ones should send the dying and dead good will and thoughts, but we can’t know for sure if the waves will be absorbed—it depends on whether the receiver is turned on. What we can control and adjust, however, is our own intention. “To offer the best spiritual care, it is important that the caregivers be self-aware enough to be able to monitor the state of their own mind,” writes Gil Fronsdal, a Vipassana teacher, in “Notes on a Theravada Approach to Spiritual Care to the Dying and the Dead.” “If we want to help a person die with as much peace, acceptance and love as possible, the caregiver needs to be aiming toward having these qualities established in him or herself.” Nancy Poer discusses the importance of clear intention when attending to a dying person in her autobiographical, resource-rich book Living Into Dying: A Journal of Spiritual and Practical Deathcare for Family and Community. “This is someone else’s journey—we may or may not be in a position to make a difference in whether it’s harmonious or not,” she says. “Outwardly, we may be seeing them gasping for breath, but we must get beyond that to what’s truly occurring spiritually to be our most supportive. We need to ask ourselves: How can I best serve this person?”
Home funeral guides encourage an attitude of humility, of seeking forgiveness, in being with the body after death in a way that dovetails with Buddhist views. Caring for one’s own dead, they say, can almost always engender deeply contemplative states of mind. Belk, Poer, and Elizabeth Knox (who founded Crossings, a home funeral resource center, after her seven-year-old daughter was killed in a low-speed car accident), all run workshops for people who want to learn how to do community-based funerals. Part of the training involves washing and dressing a “body” in preparation for vigil (the body is played by a workshop participant); invariably, trainees find the practice to be a profound meditative exercise that can bring about concentration and stillness.
Max Alexander, a writer who lives in Maine, lost his father and father-in-law within days of each other and experienced the profound contrast between his father’s by-the-book ($11,000- plus) mortuary funeral and his father-in-law Bob’s home vigil and burial in a casket Alexander and his son built themselves with $91 worth of lumber.
When Bob died, on a cold evening in late November, [my wife] Sarah, her sister Holly, and I gently washed his body with warm water and lavender oil as it lay on the portable hospital bed in the living room. (Anointing a body with aromatic oils, which moisten the skin and provide a calming atmosphere for the living, is an ancient tradition.) I had been to plenty of funerals and seen many a body in the casket, but this was the first time I was expected to handle one. I wasn’t eager to do so, but after a few minutes it seemed like second nature. His skin remained warm for a long time—maybe an hour—then gradually cooled and turned pale as the blood settled. While Holly and I washed his feet, Sarah trimmed his fingernails. (No, they don’t keep growing after death, but they were too long.) We had to tie his jaw shut with a bandanna for several hours until rigor mortis set in, so his mouth would not be frozen open; the bandanna made him look like he had a toothache.
We worked quietly and deliberately, partly because it was all new to us but mainly out of a deep sense of purpose. Our work offered the chance to reflect on the fact that he was really gone. It wasn’t Bob, just his body. . . .
The next night we held a vigil. Dozens of friends and family trailed through the living room to view Bob, surrounded by candles and flowers. He looked unquestionably dead, but he looked beautiful. Harper [Alexander’s son] and I received many compliments on our coffin. Later, when the wine flowed and the kitchen rang with laughter and Bob was alone again, I went in to see him. I held his cool hands and remembered how, not so long ago, those hands were tying fishing lures, strumming a banjo, splitting wood. Those days were over, and that made me sad, but it also felt OK.
—From The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral, Smithsonian, March 2009
We Buddhists need to know about the possibilities for death preparation and death care, and ideally, make the dissemination of that knowledge one of the roles of our dharma communities. As Buddhist centers in the West grow and spread in influence, they can and should take on the task of advising members about the logistics of dying and death in sound, practical ways. Buddhist teachers and center directors need to educate themselves about state funeral laws, hospital protocols, and local funeral resources. They can be a repository of information about living wills and health care proxies, and they can serve as guides. Dharma center leaders must take the long view of practice and begin to think about how to see their students through this whole human lifetime, not just through to the end of the sesshin, monthlong retreat, or day-long intensive. Many groups are doing this already, and many more should start. Home death and funerals “require a few knowledgeable people and someone who has time and support to give to it,” says Nancy Poer. “Home death really is a community project.” If we want to die as Buddhists, we need our dharma communities to support us in death, as in life. And because we are those communities, the project is up to us.
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