News of death
Last year my maternal grandmother passed away, she was in her eighties. Some background is in order: my grandmother was taken ill to hospital and was eight weeks bound to a hospital bed. Signs of improvement were soon followed by deterioration which happened intermittently throughout the eight weeks. I can take a hint, the writing was on the wall, there was no sign of overall improvement and I accepted and expected she was going to die. That expectation came to pass, she contracted an infection and then died.
Driving to and attending the funeral
Driving to the church where the funeral was taking place took around 30 minutes. Everyone in the car was conversing about general things like what was happening in their working lives and opinions about the state of the economy, the usual sort of stuff, the sort of universal conversations you can have with a stranger; like commentating on the weather.
When we finally arrived at the church, we parked the car in a nearby parking lot and got out. The church was only opposite the parking lot and what soon came into view was a corridor of people in black standing wayside the main path leading into the church. These people were waiting for us to arrive and I noticed the mood and behaviour of those I travelled with changed as the formal aura of social norms took hold and made them conform.
Marching like emperor penguins in military formation we arrived inside the church atrium, we continued on until we entered the main hall where the service was being held. Most of the pews were occupied by attendees, except for the ones reserved for us. The church organ was playing, intermittent sniffing of the attendees permeated in the background, the stained glass window depicted pictorial art of various Christian themes, the most prominent figure was a ghostly white Saint Paul looking out as if he were breaking the fourth wall.
What I was doing was just being the observer of whatever is, non-judgementally aware of being in the present moment. Being mindful you can properly begin to notice what is happening, not just what’s happening around you; but what is happening in your mind.
Contrasting that to the mental states of those around me, I came to realise how the presence of sensory impressions in this funeral setting can impact the mind’s mental state; in this case to move it towards emotional states. The funeral setting with the church organ, the sniffing, the preacher eulogising the deceased, the Christian hymns and singing; all these factors conflated together were the conditions for created a very powerful emotive event. The mind is susceptible to grasping at sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch like a fish grasping onto the fisherman’s hook, this goes for anything not just a funeral.
But the emotions everyone was experiencing during that funeral are impermanent and rapidly change according to conditions. Those thoughts and feelings that were experienced, arose and ceased as it is the nature of the mind to do so, but living consciousness attending to the here and now is continuous always, where there is no good or bad, right or wrong, happiness or sadness but just pure awareness and knowing it to be ‘like this’
We proceeded to leave the Church building and I saw birds flying overhead the church, they didn’t stop there but continued flying into the distance near some woodland were they did find a suitable tree to perch on. They were only there for roughly one minute and they flew apart going their separate ways. Human life is like this isn’t it? That us being in the presences of others whether we enjoy their company or not is like a congregation of birds settling on a tree for a while only to then shortly fly apart going their separate ways. Sometimes going our separate ways from others may be the last time we shall see them. That last encounter of ours, be that positive or negative, will be the last memory you will have left of them.
Afterwards everyone walked to the adjacent building, where lunch was being served, this was still part of the funeral. Though the hall was spacious it was filled by a sea of black clad people shaking hands with one another, it was so crowded that there was not enough chairs for people to sit down.
Most of the people that attended that funeral I did not know, they were a mix of family and friends. I met many people, making their acquaintance by asking their names and shaking their hands. I could not help but think that as time’s arrow proceeds, eventually those hands I shook will eventually become the hands of corpses, with their own funeral service. This is just a fact, funeral services have happened countless times in the past and will likely do so countless times in the future.
All the people that lived throughout the 1800s are no longer worldly actors they are all dead and where in this entire universe is there a place to escape death? That which has birth as its condition is hastening towards the end goal of death. Nobody is exempt from it, not those watching movies in a cinema, working for companies, running a business, judges, doctors, policemen, careerist politicians, autograph signing celebrities, those praying at their place of worship and even those whom you regard as more fortunate than yourself in health and wealth.
You or a loved one could be the ones who have a terminal illness, cancer or are in the winter years of your lives and people in the neighbourhood could be a picture of health; hale and hearty. No doubt this may be the case for some people in the world right now. However, let me share with you a quote from the late Buddhist scholar Ajahn Chah, whose cavalier attitude never fails to dispel our delusions:
“I guarantee you that if the doctors told me I had cancer and was going to die in a few months, I’d remind the doctors, ‘watch out, because death is coming to get you too. It’s just a question of who goes first and who goes later’.'”
and something similar from Stoicism:
“Death visits each and all; the slayer soon follows the slain” – Seneca
After reading Seneca’s, On Consolation to Marcia, how did I know it was to my grandmother’s advantage to have lived longer? She was in a modern first-world hospital in a care setting in the same bed for eight weeks being taken care of by health professionals, but her condition did not improve. There was no quality of life and it was continual suffering for her. Cicero said to think of death as being liberated from a jail; but I leave you with what I think Seneca would have thought of my grandmother:
“Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born.” – Seneca