Thinking About Death on a Summer’s Day

The gravestones were white. In the summer heat, nestled among emerald grass, the white stones didn’t look sinister at all. In fact, I didn’t feel the slightest shiver. I was driving past fields of them. As I looked out the window, it seemed like a good a time as any to think about life and death.

I recall something Yogi Bhajan said in early July 1989 on the subject of deathlessness, and finding your true home when you wake up the next morning. It goes something like this:

'Welcome home, how are you? Was the journey very tiring?'

'No, you were with us and we were with you.’

If I had that kind of homecoming it would surely be the most anticipated moment of my life. I’m sure I’d want to grip my maker’s hand as if my life depended on it. A poem by Rabindranath Tagore comes to mind:

In one salutation to thee, my God,
let all my senses spread out and touch this world at thy feet.
Like a rain-cloud of July
hung low with its burden of unshed showers
let all my mind bend down at thy door in one salutation to thee.
Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current
and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee.
Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day
back to their mountain nests
let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home
in one salutation to thee.

If life is pretty much the best thing ever, then our homecoming might also be the best thing ever, but most of us don’t see it like that. To begin to understand our relationship with something divine or cosmic is not something that you suddenly learn. We have to build that relationship, and since all relationships are what we bring to them, we have to court that relationship as it was a love affair so that when the Angel of Death beckons us, we are ready to make our exit with grace and humility.

I am reminded of a Chinese parable that nails home the need to build a consistent practice in any endeavour so when the time comes we are ready to match any challenge or eventuality. There was once a king. Two of his ministers had got themselves into hot water, committing a crime that, according to the laws of the kingdom, required punishment by death. The king, however, wanted to give them another chance to live. He instructed that a tightrope be stretched between two mountains and announced that if the ministers could walk across the tightrope,they would be pardoned.

The night before one minister could not sleep a wink. He prayed the whole night. Come the next morning, he was so anxious of the day ahead that his pillow was covered in a pool of sweat.

The other minister, resigning himself to what was going to happen knowing full well that he it was almost certain that he would plunged into the valley below, decided to sleep well. In the morning, after his ablutions, he had breakfast and then walked leisurely to the place of the walk.

Onlookers observed two men: one quiet and reposed, the other trembling like a leaf.

The minister began his walk of death and to the astonishment of all present, he walked across. No one could believe it. The distance was so great and the danger so extreme that one wrong step would mean certain death. But the minister walked across the tightrope as if he was leisurely taking a morning stroll. When he reached the other side, the other minister said:‘My god, how did you do that? Tell me how you walked so I can also do it.’

The self-assured minister replied: ‘This is the way I’ve been walking my whole life. The trick is to be always balanced and poised, never leaning too much to one side. If I happen to lean too much to one side, I make the necessary adjustments. But this won’t help you now because it’s not something you just suddenly learn. You have to live in this way and then it becomes natural and part of your life.’

My high school curriculum did not include the subject Death. How cool it would have been to enrol in Death 101 replete with assignments, fieldwork trips to cemeteries, crematoriums, studying death rituals around the globe, compiling obituaries and epitaphs.

Part of Death 101 would include a two week intensive called ‘comparative death’ where we learn, among other things, that in Peubla, there is a word to describe the souls of those who have died in accidents, the ‘accidentados,’ that the Aztecs don’t fear death—to die was to wake up from the dream of life-that many place their faith in the concept that there is something beyond death, that in certain Chinese Buddhist traditions to shed tears in front of a tombstone is not encouraged because the teardrops prevent the soul of a loved one to ascend to the Western Heaven, keeping the soul earth bound or preventing it from making the journey ‘home.’

Come the end of the semester exam, students are required to write an essay on the following:

The past is history, the future a mystery
Today is a gift, that's why it's called 'the present.'

Read up enough on death and we begin to appreciate the fragility of life itself. If someone asks you 'what the time is?' (to recall a Zen parable), the answer is always 'now.' Corpse pose, writes the yoga master Pattabhi Jois, offers the possibility of a 'small death, every moment, every day.' That 'small death' offers the opportunity to be fully present in the 'now' and allows what needs to fall away to simply fall away.

I love corpse pose because it's a wonderful metaphor for death. At the end of our practice, writes Sandra Sabatini:

Lying in shavasana [corpse pose]
The superfluous leaves the body
And disappears into the ground
Only gold remains.

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