Our culture works so hard to hide the evidence of death, and overvalues anything that is young, new, and shiny. Sickness and dying are a feared imposition in modern life, and are often resented as an intrusion. To a large degree, sickness and death have become "unnatural", and taboo, a betrayal of sorts. Even to talk directly and openly, or to show curiosity about death/dying is considered to be odd or morbid. Ironically, in our rejection and shadow projection of these unavoidable states, we create much sickness and death, individually and as a culture, in our quest to feel eternally alive.
Working with the sick and dying, and witnessing actual death helps to normalize these experiences for us. I was fortunate to have been able to care for my partner as he transformed from a vibrant, energetic, life-filled being through his stages of illness and decline over a period of ten years, and to assist in his end-of-life transition - at a time when the epidemic had claimed 15 thousand lives in a close-knit community within a close-knit city and showed no signs of abating. The phobia of death that grips modern life became increasingly apparent as some long-time friends and even some family members simply disappeared from our lives.
Fortunately, the Dharma and meditation practice, and my decades long experiences in wilderness nature and in the garden had revealed to me, to a useful degree, the same stages of movement in the mind and the natural world that I was observing in the stages of his illness/dying - and these experiences provided a way of being relatively neutral and present as he graphically revealed/experienced the essential process that is found at the base of all phenomenal experiences and appearances, both material and mind-states. Birth, Aging, Sickness, Dying, and Death. Generation, Expansion, Degeneration, Decay, Collapse. Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Fall, Winter
During the final two days of his life, as he negotiated whatever takes place in a state of coma, I sat by him and used his labored breath as a focus of meditation and awareness. During the final 6 hours of his life, I sat in open-eyed meditation with his body and breath as my object of concentration and neutrally observed the process, careful not to bring intrusive mind-states into this shared experience that I was aware was all about him and not about me. Periodically, I would calmly verbalize the possibility of "gently letting go", and a couple of other phrases that would have meaning to him from his experience with his Vajrayana practice. About an hour before the end, his breath became very shallow, quiet, and irregular, and he ended life with an quiet exhale that reminded me of the sound of air being forcefully released from a vacuum-packed container.
I then sat with the body in open-eyed meditation for several hours, before attending to the body. To attend to the body, I laid it out and bathed it with herbs, mindful of it's rapid cooling and the change in weight/sensation to touch. A lifeless body feels like meat. After bathing the body, I wrapped it in white sheets, changed the bed linens, and laid the body out for 3 days before cremation, as is the custom in Tibetan Buddhist death care. For those three days, I alternated between the necessities of life...working in my studio down the hall, and periods of contemplation meditation using the body as my focus of concentration. On the fourth day, I opened the house to friends and family so they could view/sit/converse with the body - and of course, a party ensued with the body of the person who was much loved right there in the living room, surrounded by flowers, Buddhist iconography, the cats, lots of food, and a crowd of loved one who laughed and cried - while I busily played host. I knew there would be personal grief but I chose to experience that later, alone. I spent most of the party explaining to friends and family what Buddhism is.
The next morning the crematory came, matter-of-factly stuffed the carcass in a body bag, schlumped it onto a stretcher, and it was gone. I picked up the ashes a couple days later, and walked home through the neighborhoods of San Francisco that we had played in for 13 years. It was a beautiful day, with unusually pleasant weather for San Fran. The next day a Tibetan Lama ritually mixed the ashes into small ceramic icons (see image - the white spots are fragments of bone), which I gave back to the Earth in the wilds of a park in the center of the city, and in the coastal wild areas at the edges of the city. But that part was for me.
After all that was done, then it was time for me to let go. I did, and it was raw. But again, the Dharma and practice provided an "observing self" (not to be confused with "distancing") and a perspective that normalized the experience of grief - just more rising and falling of reactive mental/emotional vomit that needed to be released. I had no idea a human being could cry so much, which in turn made me more human.
Throughout the entire experience of my partner's illness, dying, and death I was aware that these experiences seemed more normal and natural to me than what I was observing in the world all around me...a sharp contrast. The grief healed with time, but the understanding of how we live our lives in our alienated modern culture stayed with me, and helped me understand that our fear of death is a result of how we live, which is a result of how we think. Mind is the forerunner of all things, including fear of death, and fear of grief. Working with the sick and dying is really an elemental part of life and community that we've sacrificed for egoic comfort and convenience. Just as the alienation from the natural world is the cause of much dis-ease, even madness - so too the absence of death from our lives causes us dis-ease, even madness. Death is sanity, as Stephen Levine (author of "Who Dies?") once said.
I tell this story occasionally in Buddhist forums when the subject of death comes up because so many people have no experience with death or illness until they find it on their plate, and find themselves unprepared. We have the opportunity in our practice to make friends with death. Not just with death-specific practices like the recollections and corpse contemplation, but also in the simple observation of mind as it rises and falls away. And also in our daily life...death is as evident as life, if we allow ourselves to experience it. We can volunteer at hospices, and at hospitals just to spend time with people (all too many) who are dying alone. We can also recognize death in the rise and fall of the seasons, in the garden, and sometimes even in those science projects in the back of the refrigerator. These experiences are profoundly effective teachers.
We are choosing in every moment to rob ourselves of reality or not, and we are daily choosing the quality of relationship we have with our own aging, sickness, dying, and death as they arise. May we all make wise choices.