David Packman understands a full life involves a much closer relationship with death than many of us currently have.
There is a tombstone in Ashby, Massachusetts that reads, “Remember friend, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare yourself to follow me.” – from “Dying is Absolutely Safe”.
As it is with life, death is our birthright. From the second our journey begins, we carry with us the inevitable fact that it is finite. This should not be viewed as a morbid concession by any means, nor should it detract one iota from the utter joyousness of being alive.
It’s all wrapped up in the very same parcel and how we choose to process that notion is a unique part of our individuality.
Sounds obvious enough, but these days, death has been ignored, sanitised and swept under the carpet. It has become somehow dirty and undignified, rather than a fundamental part of our existence.
As renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass stated in “A Metaphor for Dying”, death currently invokes “a kind of philosophical materialism where a person that is dying is surrounded by people saying, ‘You’ve got to be up and around tomorrow. Don’t talk nonsense about death.’ Then they walk out into the corridor and say, ‘She won’t last the night.’ Total hypocrisy.”
In short, we’re being taught that death is something to be feared.
But is it dying we are afraid of, or is it actually living? Perhaps Mark Twain said it best when he remarked that the fear of death follows on from the fear of life.
For me, after losing my younger sister and my mother, this point has been hammered home. The reality is that it shouldn’t take such tragic events to come to terms with death—one’s own mortality is clearly evident on a daily basis—but that’s how it was for me.
As it happens, my mother and my sister both chose to end their lives on their own terms and, while this might come as a surprise, I am at ease with their decisions.
My sister suffered greatly from debilitating ill-health for seventeen years and her death was absolutely devastating to me and to everyone around her. However, her quality of life was diminished to a point she could no longer live with. And that is a very personal threshold.
Of course, losing her caused terrible pain for all of us—her family and friends—but I know for a fact the very thought of that weighed mightily on her decision. In taking her own life, she has asked us to carry that burden for her and we do so with honour and with the utmost respect.
My sister, my only sibling, was the most selfless and empathetic person I have ever known and this was not a spur of the moment decision for her. It was rational and made full of love, both for herself and for others.
Circumstances were different for my mother. Her battle with cancer ravaged her beyond belief. When she took the decision to leave us, I was to a large extent relieved that her suffering was over. She fought far longer than I ever could have and her immense courage has left a legacy that prepares me daily for life’s challenges.
What more could a loving son and a doting brother wish from those closest to him in their passing? They have taught me about grace, respect, dignity and unconditional love.
In their deaths, they have shared with me a complete understanding of the fullness of life.
Of course, I miss them immensely. Every single moment. But I appreciate that in certain situations, the basic human right to self-determination is clearly paramount.
In fact, having been diagnosed with a progressive blood cancer, I will potentially face a similar choice myself at some point. Not in the short term by any stretch, but if the time comes—and I trust myself to know it when it I see it—my mind is made up.
This may be confronting for some, but regardless of your personal viewpoint, what’s clear is that the days of hiding behind dogma and rhetoric is over. Whether we like it or not, death, or at least society’s current issues surrounding it, is right on our doorstep.
Ram Dass’ great friend and colleague Timothy Leary took things a step further in his last offering, Design For Dying. Written in the months leading up to his passing from prostate cancer, the former Harvard psychologist and psychedelic guru discussed his intention to use his death to create a new vision of what dying can mean. For him, it became a celebration of his life, a death that he designed down to the most intimate of details. In essence, he ensured his death was the high point of his life.
Leary called death “a merging with the entire life process”.
That certainly got me thinking about my own passing when the time inevitably comes. For example, how will I want to be remembered? All hearses, hushed tones and sombre suits—or something a bit more in keeping with my own personal values?
I’m probably not talking about being shot off in a 150-foot high cannon topped by a Gonzo-style clenched fist like Hunter S Thompson, or having my ashes blasted into orbit alongside those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, à la Dr Leary’s final trip, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a little creative in the planning process either.
The point is, however we might choose to look at it, the time has come to see death in an entirely different light.
photo: peguillemin / flickr