Research Paper By Iani Bacula
(Life/Transformational Coach, ROMANIA)
As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well lived brings happy death – Leonardo da Vinci
Death is an uncomfortable topic. When it comes to discussing our mortality, we always find ways to change the subject. Discussing it is like going through the back alleys of our minds; it’s a scary place where our fears await like muggers seeking their next victim. It is normal to fear death but we should not let the fear of death prevent us from discussing a normal stage of life. The fear of dying takes control of us because we think that we are powerless in front of death. It is possible not to be totally powerless in front of death and to gain control of that moment. It starts with a conversation. Talking about death helps us to focus on living each day to the fullest. Acceptance alone is not enough though; we need more. We need a spiritual relationship with death. Why? Because death is humanity’s true connection; it’s the true unifier.
There are the “where do you see yourself in 10 – 20 years” types of questions that take us only so far and so deep. They take us decades by decades but they never take into account the end. They never take into account the time of death. To go deeper, we have to go all the way to the end. Death shouldn’t be a taboo subject; it should be discussed more as we will all face it one time or another. By discussing it, we can get to the core of our existence. By taming our fear for death we can make death a friend and also make a good death possible.
Death is a normal part of life
The normal and physiological stages of life for human beings are: Birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death. Every living organism has a life cycle. Even the sun has a life cycle and it too will eventually go out. Although this is a well-known fact, in today’s world, there is a soaring anti-aging industry launching thousands of products promising eternal youth, or, at the very least, a postponement of our natural progression into old age. The aging process is treated like a disease for which there isn’t any cure. It is important to accept and embrace each stage of life we are currently in, with every benefit and obstacle it may bring us.
Figure 1: The stages of life. Birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death. (From: www.study.com)
For when it comes to death, Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth says:
For many people, death is nothing more than an abstract concept, in a way that people don’t have the slightest idea about what happens to the human form when it is close to disintegration. The majority of disabled and old people are isolated or in retirement homes. In funeral homes, makeup is applied to the deceased’s faces. You are only permitted to see a cosmeticized version of death.1
Our ancestors were on to something
Roman generals during their celebrations of victories were followed by slaves who repeatedly whispered to them memento mori (“remember that you will die”).2 Memento mori is an ancient practice of reflection on mortality but it also refers to descriptions of works of art from the Vanitas paintings of the Renaissance which are basically artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality.
Figure 2: Nicolas Poussin’s painting “The Arcadian Shepherds” depicts a tomb with the inscription reading <et in Arcadia ego>. The translation of the phrase is “Even in Arcadia, there am I”. The usual interpretation is that “Arcadia” means heaven and “I” is referring to death.3
Another form of medieval reflection on death is the Danse Macabre theme (from the French language), symbolizing the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all. They were produced to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain are the glories of earthly life.4 This and similar depictions of Death decorated many European churches.
Figure 3: St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn. A painting by the Lübeck master, Bernt Notke representing the dead or personified summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave.5
Our ancestors naturally reflected upon their mortalities because they were surrounded by death. Death was a sudden event. If you weren’t killed in battle, you could easily die of tuberculosis, pneumonia or any type of infection. Take for example the black plague of the 14th century. Almost a third of the population of Europe was killed.6
Figure 4: The black plague was the only pandemic that actually decreased the overall trend toward exponential population growth over time. Some researchers suggest that it killed around 90 million people.
They had death at the forefront of their thoughts. This provided them with a sense of urgency. They realized that the hours or days that lie ahead are not guaranteed as the ones they have lived before.
The trouble is you think you have time- Buddha
Our ancestor’s average lifespan was around 30 years up until the early 1900s. Today, due to the introduction of antibiotics, the drop of child mortality, the almost eradication of vaccine-preventable diseases and much better healthcare services, the worldwide life expectancy is 70 years.7,8 We instinctively know that with a little self and medical care here and there we will live pretty long lives. We postpone what’s important thinking that there is time.
Like W.M. Lewis put it:
The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.
A constant distraction and postponing of important issues
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. – Fight club
All this consuming we are doing is coming from a deep place of separateness. We classify our separateness by age, race, religion; mental, physical and socioeconomic status. Public speaker Charles Eisenstein says “We view ourselves as separate beings among other separate beings in a universe that is separate from us as well.”9 Living this way isn’t doing us or our planet any good. The 2014 living planet report says that humanity’s demand on nature has exceeded what our planet can replenish. We would need the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological services we currently use.10
Having a spiritual relationship with death is the missing link. Our mortality unites us all. It is our true spiritual connection. By accepting death and having a spiritual relationship with it we can also connect to the ancient native proverb that says
We are not inheriting the earth from our ancestors but rather we are borrowing it from our children.
What is the best way to die anyway?
Dr. Richard Smith wrote an interesting piece on the British Medical Journal’s Blog.11 He says that there are essentially 4 ways to die “sudden death; the long, slow death of dementia; the up and down death of organ failure, where it’s hard to identify the final going down; and death from cancer, where you may bang along for a long time but go down usually in weeks.” He mentions suicide as a 5th way to die but does not go into any detail.
He says that he often asks his audience how they want to die and that they mostly prefer sudden death.
“That may be OK for you,” he says, “but it may be very tough on those around you, particularly if you leave an important relationship wounded and unhealed. If you want to die suddenly, live every day as your last, making sure that all important relationships are in good shape, your affairs are in order, and instructions for your funeral neatly typed and in a top draw”.
He argues that death from cancer is the best way to die, saying: “You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favorite Page 5 pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.”
Although his piece is viewed as very controversial, his preferred way of dying does not please everybody; it doesn’t have to. It’s his life and his preference. The point is that he has asked himself, and reflected upon that question. And for him, that is the best response.
A courageous example
Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel went even further in his piece in the Atlantic entitled “Why I hope to die at 75”. 12
Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either.
He goes on to describe in precise detail what his approach will be.
I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative — not curative — treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability.
This means colonoscopies and other cancer-screening tests are out — and before 75. If I were diagnosed with cancer now, at 57, I would probably be treated, unless the prognosis was very poor. But 65 will be my last colonoscopy. No screening for prostate cancer at any age.
After 75, if I develop cancer, I will refuse treatment. Similarly, no cardiac stress test. No pacemaker and certainly no implantable defibrillator. No heart-valve replacement or bypass surgery. If I develop emphysema or some similar disease that involves frequent exacerbations that would normally land me in the hospital, I will accept treatment to ameliorate the discomfort caused by the feeling of suffocation, but will refuse to be hauled off.
Obviously, a do-not-resuscitate order and a complete advance directive indicating no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication — nothing except palliative care even if I am conscious but not mentally competent — have been written and recorded. In short, no life-sustaining interventions.
By going into all of these difficult scenarios thoroughly, he is leaving nothing to chance. This is a deep spiritual and existential exercise. One from which we all can benefit from. He accepts his mortality and even more his precise details show that he is in control of his death. This is what it’s all about. Being in total control is having power over death. It transforms death from an untamed wild beast, to a docile friendly companion.
Focusing on the last chapter
If we could imagine life as writing a book, birth would be the first chapter and death would be the last. Some of the century’s most influential English authors like Agatha Christie, Margaret Mitchell and J.K. Rowling started to write their books by writing their last chapters first. Margaret Mitchell, the author of the famous Gone with the wind once said: “I had every detail clear in my mind before I sat down to the typewriter. I believe… that is the best way to write a book — then your characters can’t get away from you and misbehave, and do things you didn’t intend them to do in the beginning.”13 This is a very deep quote. Like Margaret, in our life story, we only really have one character that is in our control – ourselves. Unlike these authors, we are not capable of going all the way back to the first few chapters; let’s just say that those chapters wrote themselves. We can start now, at the middle of the book though. Having that last chapter in mind and figuring out how we want the book to end paves the way to a more fulfilling life. As for death itself, most people are afraid of death because it is out of their control. Why shouldn’t we be in control of our own deaths? Maybe we can be, and starting with that last chapter in mind can make this possible. Death is our fate but instead of looking at it as a sad, scary time we can look at it as a celebration. A celebration of a good fulfilled life with a good and peaceful death. Our mortality unites us all. It is our true spiritual connection. A good death is within everyone’s realm of possibility. We need only realize its potential and prepare ourselves in order to one day meet it mindfully, with compassion and courage.
A powerful exercise
In conclusion, I leave you with a powerful exercise adapted from Joan Halifax, in her book “Being with Dying”14.
1) What is your worst-case scenario of how you will die?
Take 5 minutes and write on a piece of paper in vivid detail the answer to this question. After you have written your answer down, take some time to write down how you feel, what you feel in your body when answering this question and/or if anything important comes up for you.
2) How do you really want to die?
Like the first question, take 5 minutes and write on a piece of paper in vivid detail the answer to this question. After you have written your answer down, take some time to write down how you feel, what you feel in your body when answering this question and/or if anything important comes up for you.
3) What are you willing to do to die the way you want to die?
You can write on a piece of paper in vivid detail or some main points the answer to this question or you can even silently reflect on this question.
1 Tolle, Eckhart; “A new earth” (Romanian paperback version) 2008, p.232
6 Effects of the Black Death – source response. (https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/); Teacher guidelines 2012, p.11
7 Julia Belluz; 27 charts that explain how we die; February 18, 2015 http://www.vox.com/2015/2/18/8052559/how-we-die
8 World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory (GHO) data, Life expectancy 2013; http://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/situation_trends/en/
9 Sacred Economics with Charles Eisenstein – A Short Film; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEZkQv25uEs
10 WWF Living planet report 2014 – Species and spaces, people and places
14 Halifax, Joan; “Being with dying”; Pages 6-8, Shambhala Publications, 2008