When my father was dying, I wanted to practice a “charnel ground” meditation, or the closest version I could offer. I didn’t leave his bedside. I interviewed him for three mornings, taking notes so that I could write his obituary. I stayed as close to his body as possible by setting up his dialysis exchanges four times a day. On the final morning, I was in his bedroom at five a.m., draining liquid out of his abdomen. As the liter of sterile replacement solution flowed into his abdomen, I yoked my breath to his. Every time he breathed in, I breathed in. Every time he breathed out, I breathed out, sighing—“ahh”—as if to confirm that he had lived a long, satisfactory life.
When the dialysis exchange was finished, I went back to bed, meditated for a few minutes, then dozed. An hour later, my sister woke me up. Our father was dead.
I had always thought of funeral homes as places that put the bereaved family on a conveyor belt of how-everyone-does-a-funeral. But after talking with many hospice-trained friends, my understanding of the possibilities had widened considerably. I had the confidence to keep my father’s body at home for eight hours after death. I asked my family if I could dress the body, and surprisingly, my evangelical brother showed up to help me. That’s when the two of us realized that the physical form on the gurney was not our father; it just looked like him. The next day, we gave our eulogies, dry-eyed.
After the funeral, I stayed at the graveside while everyone else went on to the luncheon at the church I grew up in. I watched the gravediggers peel off the fake green grass carpet, lower the casket, and back a dump truck of earth up to the grave. Plop. My father, who had owned a construction company, was six feet under a big pile of dirt.
When I was 45, some five years before my dad died, I trained to become a hospice volunteer. I sat with lonely old ladies in nursing homes. One woman kept her eyes closed during my visit, perhaps because she didn’t want to be bothered by a stranger. I simply sat beside her bed in the nursing home and thought, “I too am of the nature to become ill and feel poorly and not want to be bothered.” The Buddha recommends five subjects for frequent reflection, and over time the recollections, slowly and subtly, have taken on a life of their own in my practice. When I go to visit a hospice client, I look at the wrinkled face and think, “I too am of the nature to grow old.” In them, I am seeing a preview of my own coming attractions.
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