Death in America has become something that we all try to avoid. In America’s nuclear family focus, many of our elderly family members go to special homes or institutions separate from our own. In our busy lives, we don’t have time to experience much of the death process with them, so it feels foreign and mysterious. We take drugs to avoid end of life suffering. We are replacing our hips and knees, living longer and eventually forced to decide if we want to continue to be kept alive artificially on machines, long after our bodies would have given up on their own. We hate to lose control of our lives and don’t want to surrender to the process. The last moments of health care are often the most expensive times of our entire life. As rugged individualists in this culture, we avoid being a “burden” on others and don’t think much about how our death will impact our families and communities. We all want to “look good” and be remembered well. Growing old and losing control of our bodies doesn’t cooperate well with looking good in this culture. Within this context, I am not surprised that many of us would prefer to take our death into our own hands rather than surrender to nature’s plan. Most of us prefer to avoid suffering.
In contrast, certain Zen monks train their entire lives for the moment of death. They are known to choose the moment of their death based on the alignment of the heavenly bodies so that their soul’s transition will have the least impact on the cosmos. They believe that when great souls are released from their bodies, the universe is affected. Christ’s passing caused a great storm, for example. Zen monks are trained in conscious death and would never consider taking drugs that would cause them to lose lucidity. Suffering is not something to be avoided. Ironically, they are trained to control the moment of their death using mental training to slow and stop their bodily functions.
From a spiritual perspective, I see death as a graduation to be celebrated. As a lover of freedom, I can’t wait for my soul to be free from the biological machinery that has kept me trapped in the illusion of limitation and separation. I believe that the “afterlife” is so glorious, that if we remembered what it was really like, most of us would “opt-out” of this reality immediately. My perspective that death is beautiful and welcome greatly effects how I experience it for others – my lack of fear that gives them comfort.
I’ve also witnessed the rich benefits of the death process. I’ve seen some of the most intimate relationships created during this time of extreme vulnerability. Family can feel closer to each other than ever before. Tears flow and softening occurs. If ever there was a fertile moment for spiritual transformation, it is at death’s door. The ego may have been annihilated by that point creating an opening for love and connection – our reason for being. Suffering is an opportunity for spiritual growth and release of identities that have kept us artificially separate. To be fair, I’ve also seen suffering create bitterness and resentment. It’s just an opportunity for growth – not a requirement.
This new law offers freedom to those who can exercise independent judgment. Those who fear it have good reason. It can be used against those who in the most vulnerable state agree to “opt-out” of the death process because someone else thinks it’s a good idea. It can create an internal conflict for all of us – now I have to consider the consequence to my family and loved ones when I decide how I will die. When Brittany Maynard took her life in Oregon last year, it required her family to travel to Oregon to be with her during her last 6 months. It takes 6 months to become a resident of Oregon so the law can be applied. She had to weigh the pros and cons of her choice and its effect on her family. Prior to the law being available, we could simply be a “victim” of circumstance and not be responsible for the choice of when and how to die.
I see this new responsibility as an opportunity for all of us to create our lives and our deaths and stop blaming something else for how it goes. Death can be messy or filled with Grace. It is effected by our state of mind and the story we tell about our death. Since I am writing the story – I may as well write a good one! I’m not worried about whether it is an accurate reflection of reality, since our physical limitations make accuracy impossible. I want to make room in my story to experience the vulnerability and connection that death has to offer. Why wait for death to release my ego and identity as a driving force that separates me from others?
The gift of death is not just available in the “the end” but NOW as I have begun to give myself a “terminal day” once a week. Each Sunday I pretend that I have been informed that I have 6 months to live. I do the things that I would do under those circumstances. Why wait for the diagnosis to live fully? My bucket list is on track to be completed BEFORE I die. This rich and focused perspective on what really matters in life is only available in the face of death.
I’m excited about the death planning that is now becoming available. For the first time, I am discussing adding euthanasia clauses to estate planning documents with my clients and the potential for planning their deaths — some as extravagant as wedding ceremonies. For many of us death will be like the bride joining her groom again. It can be filled with music and joyous celebration. It can include family members anointing our bodies with holy oils as was the tradition for thousands of years. Mary Magdalene anointed Christ’s feet with very expensive oil at the Last Supper – an oil that was known to act as an anesthetic – and was saved for pre-death preparation.
If I were only thinking of myself, I would take a tropical cruise together for the final week, say goodbye without distractions of cooking for everyone (think buffet), and send me off with burial at sea. For me – that would be divine – and the family gets a free cruise for the same price as a usual funeral. I wonder what the laws of international waters would say about it.
However, maybe like Christ, I could find something worth dying for– like cleaning up the oceans so humanity and the creatures of the sea can continue to breathe and have clean water. That question takes my legacy planning to a whole new level. One woman that is already doing just that is a Mermaid named Hannah Fraser. She risks her life to swim with sharks so the rest of us can fall in love with the sea again. See her TED talk on Youtube. What will your legacy be?