First Death

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.

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6 thoughts on “First Death”

  1. When my aunt Jane was dying, mum and dad went to visit the hospice every day. Dad was phobic about death, but even so he managed to recall the story he’d once heard about how the body shutting down before death is like a monk slowly extinguishing all the candles in the temples. Each in it’s correct order until the monk gently blew out the last one.

    So beautiful, especially from my atheist father.

  2. We often speak of the “quality of life” but rarely of the ‘quality of death’. In 2010, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a study which opens thus:

    “‘Quality of life’ is a common phrase. The majority of human endeavours are ostensibly aimed at improving quality of life, whether for the individual or the community, and the concept ultimately informs most aspects of public policy and private enterprise. Advancements in healthcare have been responsible for the most significant quality-of-life gains in the recent past: that humans are (on average) living longer, and more healthily than ever, is well established. But “quality of death” is another matter. Death, although inevitable, is distressing to contemplate and in many cultures is taboo. Even where the issue can be openly discussed, the obligations implied by the Hippocratic oath—rightly the starting point for all curative medicine—do not fit easily with the demands of end-of-life palliative care, where the patient’s recovery is unlikely and instead the task falls to the physician (or, more often, caregiver) to minimise suffering as death approaches. Too often such care is simply not available: according to the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance, while more than 100m people would benefit from hospice and palliative care annually (including family and carers who need help and assistance in caring), less than 8% of those in need access it”.

    The full text can be found by a search on “quality death economist” and is worth reading. The UK ranks the highest in developed countries in palliative care, not least for the hospice movement, which I know from personal experience, can make a real difference at the end of life.

    Your and Edera’s posts work in ways that I need not (nor cannot) articulate, and I’m deeply grateful to you both.

    With bows

  3. Yes, thanks Walter for turning up this report. I seem to have a bit of a problem with ‘report speak’ these days – all the same it is good that such reports happen. I am particularly interested in the hospice movement. And proud that we in Britain lead the way.

  4. I can still see your dad sitting on the front row at your wedding. He was so intent. Love the image of the candles going out one by one, and that it was in a temple and the candles went out in the correct order too. Great.

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