I remember picking up the phone on Thursday and hearing my wife Eva’s voice. I could tell she was crying. “Sweetie,” she said, “Ed was in an accident and was killed.” I felt my knees buckle, and I dropped into the chair behind me. My mind couldn’t accept it. This simply wasn’t possible. Ed Softky was the Tibetan translator for Geshe Ngawang Singey, our teacher in Williamsville, Vermont. Ed had orchestrated the camping trip for our sangha to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ed was the one who secretly shoveled our driveway all winter until we finally caught him in the act, shovel in hand, laughing. Ed was the one we all thought of whenever we heard the word bodhisattva. Ed was our dearest friend.
Although none of us wanted to believe that Ed could really be dead, it began to seem more real as the events of the next few hours and days unfolded. After the call from Eva, I rushed to the emergency room, where we talked with the police officer, the social worker, and the nurse who had held him in her arms on the busy street in Brattleboro the last moments before he died. Then there was the article in the newspaper, the calls from strangers from afar who had heard, the visit from his mother, brother, niece, and nephew from California, and the memorial service at our Buddhist center.
But through all of this, there was still a lingering doubt. Maybe it hadn’t really happened. The police said his body had been taken to the coroner’s office in Burlington because it was a hit-and-run accident—a criminal offense that required an autopsy. So we still hadn’t seen a body, and without a body it just wasn’t real. Maybe it was all a practical joke. Ed loved to make people laugh. Maybe he had staged a massive hoax and would suddenly show up any time now on our porch in his purple fleece jacket, laughing his wonderful infectious laugh.
Monday arrived—the day the autopsied body was to be delivered to the crematorium. Eva, our friend Elizabeth, and I went to view his body before the cremation ceremony. Built behind the funeral home, the crematorium was a converted two-car garage with a concrete floor, white walls, and a large rectangular metal box with one door at the end and a temperature dial on the side. In front of the door, resting on a metal gurney, was a long white cardboard box.
The funeral director met us at the entrance. “I could lose my license for doing this,” he said. “We’re not supposed to display bodies without preparing them first.”
“We understand,” I said. “But you don’t need to worry. We just want to see his body before it’s cremated.”
“Are you sure?” he said. “Some people get sick when they see a dead body.”
“Yes, we’re sure,” Eva said, and Elizabeth added, “I’ve seen dead bodies before. I know what to expect.”
“Well, he’s just come back from the coroner’s office where they did the autopsy, so they just sewed him back up pretty roughly,” the funeral director said as he opened and removed the cardboard box and began to unzip the white plastic body bag. Then, in one smooth movement, he pulled back the flaps of the bag, revealing the upper half of Ed’s body.
As the funeral director stood aside, he remarked, “That opening on the side of his head is where they took his brain out and put it back in again. They always do that with an autopsy, so they can weigh it.” We stared at the lifeless form before us. “And those folds of skin on his chest are where they stitched him back up.”
“Oh, I see,” I replied blankly, but my mind was not on the opening in the side of his head or the neat butterfly stitches in his chest. Instead, I was absorbed in the familiarity of the form lying in front of us—head turned slightly to the right, eyes half open, hands resting stiffly together below the navel—strikingly familiar, yet eerily different.
This was obviously Ed’s body, but where was Ed? Where was the Ed who laughed? Where was the Ed whose eyes sparkled when we sang songs together? Where was the Ed who would get excited discussing fine points of the dharma, who delighted in bringing his friends fresh vegetables from his garden? Clearly, he was not here. It was obvious that the form we had identified with as being Ed was not really Ed at all. It was just an empty shell, ready to be cast into the fire.
As we stood there motionless, transfixed by the sight before us, we realized it was now time to let go. Yes, this was real. Ed was gone. Like the dried husk of an ear of corn, this form before us—stiff, empty, lifeless—should now be burned, so the real Ed could be free to move on, to create another form suitable for its expression.
Behind us, we saw that others were arriving to begin the cremation, so we stepped aside to allow the ceremony to begin. As we all began chanting the King of Prayers, monks, nuns, lamas, and geshes came forward to place katasupon Ed’s body to honor the wonderful being he was and to send prayers for a safe transition to his next life. When the last kata had been placed in soft folds upon his chest, the body was lifted into the crematorium, the door was closed, and the flames began to rise. The chants drifted out the garage door, past the flaming red and yellow maples, and rose into the crisp fall air of Vermont, carrying Ed to his next life, his next body, his next breath.
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