The ceremonial around death which we have in our tradition was written down following the death of my ordination *sister in 1985. This was the first time I witnessed somebody breathing their last. It was not at all like I’d thought it would be. Not an instant shutting down, a light going out as depicted in films. It was more a gradual closing down of the systems that kept her alive, a fading out. We tolled the big bell to announce her passing, it was early morning. We may also have struck the drum too, like a heart beat. Soon after the death Cora the cat who lived in our house shot out of the door and ran about wildly for awhile. I remember that very clearly.
My teacher Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett presided over every detail following the death. She said Goso leads the way. Meaning she was the first of the monks to die in the monastery. Rev. Master personally took the community step by step through what we needed to do next. It was an amazing time, tender and compassionate while at the same time, practical. Non of us had done this before and Rev. Master had learned all about doing funerals when training in Japan. Firstly we moved the body to the ceremony hall and placed it in the middle of the hall where the bowing mat is usually. Tall candles were placed around her and we all just sat and meditated. We sat vigil. It seemed like we were there for hours. Rev. Master was with us.
In the morning Goso was loaded up into monasteries large estate car, called Wilfreda, and driven down to Redding crematorium. We processed up the cloister after her (I can’t imagine there was a coffin at that point but perhaps we had one in anticipation of death). When the car was on the road outside of the main gate we all followed the car with Goso in it for twelve steps. These represented the twelve steps of dependent origination. We were all very tired at this point.
It has taken me some time to get started on talking about the ceremonial and practicalities around death. In the end I just have to write about what I remember of my personal experiences. I don’t want to encourage ghoulishness though. That would be the last thing I’d want.
*I was ordained with three others on the same day, we referred to each other as ordination brother or sister.