Home' Nova National : December 2009 Contents 15
© NOVA DECEMBER 2009
your death before it happens. When one
of my relatives realised she was about
to die at 57 from cancer, she decided to
pre-empt her wake. She was a great cook
and famous for her parties. She invited
everyone to one last fling, a two day
celebration, while she could still enjoy it.
She told me proudly that only one of the
54 people she invited didn't come, and
that person was out of the country at the
When she actually died a month later,
only her three closest relatives were at
her cremation, and her transition from
death to ashes took less than 24 hours.
No standard funeral for her! She couldn't
bear the idea of people standing around
her coffin making lugubrious comments
about how wonderful she was.
At funerals, we can't help but consider
that one day we will take the leading
role. So what is this mysterious event, or
state, or non-state, or non-event that we
call "Death", and how will we experience
or not experience it, if it can be said to
have any existence at all? You can see
how difficult it is to grasp.
On one hand, there is no mystery
about Death at all. It is Nothing, pure
and simple, grand in its inescapable
majesty, the guaranteed end of every
structure more complex than an individual
atom. In the human context, it is the end
of the body, and of the superstructures
of memory, personality and soul that
depend upon it. There is probably no
fact in the world that is more certain
than Death, the eventual and complete
disintegration of each living thing.
And yet a mystery remains. Despite
our best efforts, we are incapable of
imagining ourselves dead. We have to be
alive to do so. My meditation students
often tell me they enter spaces of what
they call "complete emptiness". Of course,
these states aren't as empty as they
seem. There has to be an obser ving self
identifying them. Similarly, no matter how
hard we try to imagine the complete
nothingness of death, we have to be alive
to do so. We know we will die, but there
seems to be some fault in our cerebral
wiring that prevents us imagining what it
This mental incapacity easily converts
into an "intuition" that we can't "really"
die. The intuition goes something like
this: "I'm alive. For as long as I can
remember, I've always been alive. I can't
imagine any situation where I'm not alive.
Therefore I must live forever."
Although definitely lacking in
sophistication, this argument feels
"intuitively" right. Even though Death as
"Nothing" wins hands down according
to all the evidence, the idea of an afterlife
is actually much easier to grasp. In fact, it
requires little thought or imagination at
all. It is just more of the same. The afterlife
is like being alive, but with a change of
scenery and perhaps some convenient
alterations to the mechanics of the body.
Ceremonies invite us to contemplate:
"What does this mean for me?" Most of us
know in far more detail than we need to
what dying is like, but what about death?
Is it Nothing, as it seems to be, or is it just
a rather painful gateway to an afterlife?
It's worth thinking about.
'I now have no trouble
distinguishing between a living
ceremony and a dead ritual.'
Links Archive November 2009 January 2009 Navigation Previous Page Next Page