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172352729A vital factor in who we are as individuals is how we conceive of death.

This is because how we conceive of death conditions how we value life.

Few of us value all lives equally, even when it comes to human beings.

Nor do many of us think of our own deaths in the same terms as we do for others.

Some folks may have a degree of clarity in these variations, but I suspect that for most of us the deep questions about life and death are a confused tangle.

Plenty of the day-to-day disquiet of our minds arises from this confusion.

Our mortal struggle is explored by Stephen Caves, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, in his essay Not Nothing.

“When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye.”

Caves sets out the dilemmas of life/death values starkly then seeks a balance point between them.

The degree to which he succeeds at this depends upon the insight gained by an attentive reader, such as yourself.

I suggest that you read this article and come back to it on successive opportunities for at least three readings.

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Take your understanding of Cave’s analysis into conversation with people in your life.

They may embrace the topic outright, recoil at the mention of death, or dismiss the entire issue as meaningless.

In any of those cases, and the points in between them, you will at least gain a perspective on the various ways that people think about dying and accord value to the living.

 

Image Acknowlegements

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jose_fallenWhatever I anticipated on Friday morning it was not to witness the last breath of a young man.

I walk to work whatever the weather and this morning the rosy fingertips of dawn hinted at a sunny Spring day.

I had an early meeting so stopped at the corner café to organize my notes over espresso.

After coffee I set off to campus. A block away I saw something on the walkway my side of the railroad tracks.

The object looked like a sleeping bag, though as I approached it moved and I knew there was a person there, perhaps asleep.

There was a person there, but he was not asleep. He was unconscious. He had fallen face down, his left shoe at a right angle a few feet behind.

His arms were tucked under as if he grasped something to his chest as he fell.

Blood seeped from his forehead and saliva pooled at his lips.

There were no others around and I said to him; “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” No response so I called the responders at 911.

The dispatcher asked the right questions in the right order and instructed me not to move him.

One of the questions was; “How far did he fall?”

As I think back, my answer was strange; “To the pavement.”

I was not being glib. I was speaking from an image in my mind of a human body falling from upright to fully prone without catching itself. My image was of the impact such a fall onto cement must incur. That is, I suppose, what happened.

While answering the 911 dispatcher’s queries a man passed walking along the tracks. He was shouting something. I looked up to catch it. Waving his arms the man said; “He’s a drunk!”

Ignoring the irrelevant I asked the dispatcher to repeat his question. I do not recall what it was or how I answered.

While waiting for the paramedics an elderly woman approached walking her small elderly dog. She asked if the man on the ground was awake as the little dog sniffed at him. They moved on.

There was a moment of stillness – quiet and lonely. The sun was not yet high and we were in the shadow of buildings, he on the ground, me standing near.

He lay motionless but for a deep exhalation that came from his mouth bubbling the saliva which mixed slightly with the blood.

I did not see him inhale and felt this may be the last of his breath

Ancient texts from Egypt, India, China, and Israel speak of the life-force as a form of breath. The Greeks called it Pneuma.

As Jose’s life leaked out onto the pavement I said aloud; “You are not alone.” That was all.

In a moment the stillness broke with a siren wail and police were there.

They knew him as “Jose” and tried to awaken him. One checked for a pulse at his jose_response_pastelthroat. They turned him over, opened his shirt and began CPR.

A fire truck arrived with paramedics who broke out equipment and became busy.

A police officer had questions for me and I turned away from their efforts to bring Jose back to the living. He was not coming back.

The officers were respectful of Jose and tried to save him. They were kind to me.

The remainder of my day was not so eventful though I remained slightly disengaged.

My words were in a measure unclear to others and by the end of the day I felt as though I were speaking through a veil.

I walked home late by the same route and found flowers in a cardboard box where Jose had fallen.

jose_momento_pastelLater I learned that Jose was known to his friends as Francisco.

In my evening meditation I contemplated the death of a young man, just 34 years.

The Gazette Times had an article about the incident in which Jose is identified and I am designated a passer-by.

In truth, I am but a witness to the passing by of Francisco “Jose” Semadeni.

 

He did not die alone.

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Yama – God of Death and Dharma

Among those who contemplate death, few are as thorough in detail and depth as are Buddhists.

A traditional Tibetan book, Bardo Thodol, is often referred to in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, though a more accurate translation is The Great Liberation through Hearing.  A modern classic of Tibetan Buddhism is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Two contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Patty Winter and Gregg Ruskusky, share their understanding via workshops – one of which is coming to Portland OR this April 28-30.

This extended session addresses care-giving for the dying and grieving with a overall objective of opening insight to our personal mortality and self-care.

I have registered and am looking forward to learning! Maybe I’ll see you there.

The workshop is sponsored by Maitripa College, the single degree offering Tibetan Buddhist College in the US.

Our Common Ground: Death and Dying
Patty Winter, RN, and Gregg Ruskusky
April 28-30, 2017
Friday, 7-9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am – 12:30pm and 2-5pm

Information and Registration
https://maitripa.org/event/death-dying-workshop-2017/


Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

Image Acknowledgement

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yama

Tdad@92his first spring day my father turned 92.  He was in the hospital for a fall, but without much damage, so he bounced back fast.

His room provides a terrific view of the harbor and snow capped Mount Baker of the North Cascades.

The hospital staff conveyed one key point – Dad has a great sense of humor.  Everyone who knows him will concur.  Whether I live past 60 or 100 I know that the soul of wit and levity is too dear to be lost.  Forsaking humor for the sake of discomfort or fear is to lose all.

My father taught me patience of a particular sort born of persistent focus such as time may not weaken.  Humor sharpens focus and disassembles diversion, hence reinforcing patience.

I visit my folks every month and am looking forward to Dad’s 93rd day of birth when we may share a laugh in the new spring morning.

 

bed and light, kalama community conservancy, northern kenya-fromImagery often carries meaning beyond words.  Documentary photographer David Chancellor’s recent exhibit, ‘Handle Like Eggs,’ continues his investigation into life, death, loss, and other forces that bind humans together.

Chancellor’s exhibit presents photographs taken in Southern Africa.  All are evocative, some perhaps disturbing.

Chancellor makes use of color and mass to shape the sense of his compositions.  The images are packed with potential emotion, though the subjects in them rarely express the feelings overtly.

Photography has possibly changed our concepts of death more than any technology. Let us know whether Chancellor’s discerning eye impacts your own.

catrin_o_ferainSome philosophers have argued that being conscious of death is a path towards living authentically with personal integrity and self-determination.

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger writes’ “Death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.” In other words, my death is personal, individual, and inevitable. Fear of death stems from rejection of these facts. Recognition of these facts is part of taking total responsibility for one’s own being – authenticity.

Elizabeth Seto (Psychology,Texas A&M) and colleagues set out to test this philosophical position empirically. They found a correlation between the vividness of thoughts about death (e.g., memories) and attitudes related to personal authenticity.

Their paper is insightful for anyone, particularly the Introduction and Discussion sections.

Study finds link between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-016-9556-8

An interview with Seto at PsyPost is also a valuable read.

The association between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://www.psypost.org/2017/02/study-finds-link-vivid-thoughts-death-authenticity-47692

The drift of this philosophical/psychological issue is: if you want to get real in life, get clear about death.

Image Acknowledgments

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorick#/media/File:Catrin_o_Ferain.jpg

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Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Cafe Corvallis. You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

voteAdept politicians pay attention to voting bocs, which are aggregations of citizens who share interests that influence their voting.  Religion, ethnicity, and age are common issue clusters around which voting blocs form.

A voting bloc that has been neglected in the 2016 Presidential campaign is dead people.

It is fair to say that the 2016 Presidential election is a grave decision for voters, but it is a quite different matter that dead people register to vote in significant numbers and many of them do vote.

It is true that electoral officials work to prevent dead people from voting because they have no voting rights; still many of them vote anyway.

Election officials attempt to limit dead people voting by comparing voter registration roles and voting records against the Death Master File maintained by the Social Security Administration.image-20150417-3241-dmi4mw_cropped

When dead people vote and are found out it is considered election fraud.

People who assist dead people with voting are charged with election fraud as was recently the case with an 88 year old Illinois woman, Audrey R. Cook.

Her husband of 66 years, Vic Cook, recently applied for absentee ballots to vote in the 2016 election but died before they could complete them together.

So Audrey went ahead and completed Vic’s for him and sent both ballots in.

Vic’s ballot was identified as a dead person voting and was nullified.

Audrey now faces potential election fraud charges.

375px-Dark_Rosaleen_Anarchy_1The case is complicated by the fact that both Vic and Audrey were Madison County election judges, as Audrey was when she filed the dead person vote.

I hope that the Illinois Attorney General will cut Audrey a break.

She is grieving a loss and to her Vic is not really gone, so it is comprehensible to me that she would assist him in casting his last vote, even from the grave.

Vic’s dead man vote will not count in the election, of course, but we should have compassion enough for people like Audrey who lose those they love to understand how they may continue to act as if they were among the living.


Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Cafe Corvallis.  You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

 

Image Acknowledgements

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https://warasto.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/vote.jpg

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_rose_(symbolism)#/media/File:Dark_Rosaleen_Anarchy_1.svg

maxresdefaultIllness and pain are linked to death through our concept of the quality of life.

A new video, Life Asked Death: Palliative Care in Asia, examines the role of mortality in the qualitative value of life.

The raw reality of this story develops from the context of people seeking treatment for terminal illness in regions with few resources such as parts of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

This is not an easy video for some people to watch, even for the 26 minutes that it takes.

I suggest that you do so because the last half of the story focuses on the significance of knowledge in quality of life.

Through direct experience we find that one of the main sources of suffering for dying people is not knowing what is happening to them.About_Bangladesh_IMG_2268

Fear of the unknown – not understanding the path that one is on – creates mental anguish.

The truth about one’s condition and impending death turns out to be a source of strength for the people that we meet in this story.

What a remarkable fact that is, that consciousness of our deaths and the causes of our pain is actually a foundation for greater quality of life.

With consciousness comes choice and with choice comes the resolution of identity, even if we are about to lose ourselves in the mystery of death.

I am eager to know what you think of Life Asked Death: Palliative Care in Asia, and the concepts in it.

In good spirit,

Jon

storytellingA recurring topic at Death Café Corvallis is the legacy.  This may be material inheritance such as money and property, it may be creative inheritance such as a beautiful garden, it may be moral inheritance such as the impact of one’s actions in the world, and it may be communicative inheritance such as the story of your life.

Some people bequeath the story of their lives to their successors by writing memoirs or an autobiography.  Not all of us have time or skill to write a book, but we all have the resources to write our own story.  Writing your story has powerful benefits for your loved ones when you are gone and for your self while you are present.

A valuable guide to writing your story in preparation for your death is Having the Last Say by Alan Gelb.  He provides a practical workflow for developing a single story that conveys meaning from your life.  Gelb describes his process in an interview with thanatologist Gail Rubin – The Consequences of Death.

An interesting element of Gelb’s book is the set of questions that he poses throughout in order to prompt reflection and creativity. Questions such as;

When has my mind and body ever felt in perfect harmony?

If I had to relive moments in my life, which one’s would they be?

If I had to imagine a place in the world that puts me at total peace, what is that place?

Just having these questions is valuable to anyone who thinks about death. They are certainly provocative of personal creativity for addressing a topic that some findmel_blanc_gravestone_505x278 daunting – the story of your own life.

Notably, Gelb emphasizes that the project of value in writing your story is not in order to create a summary or evaluation of your life.  Quite simply you are telling a story about your experience that has significance for you.  That is enough to convey rich meaning for others.  I propose that Gelb’s idea is worth an effort for everyone. Consider the following propositions (mine):

Proposition: we cannot understand what death is unless we understand what life is. 

Corollary: in order to effectively conceptualize our own death, we must accurately conceptualize our own life.

The beauty of Gelb’s approach is that any part of our life experience that has significance for us is sufficient for that conceptualization, in part anyway.

At the least your story will provide content for your survivors as they find need to speak about you and think about you.  At best you may find personal growth through meaning making about that most rare and precious topic – you.

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Image Acknowledgements

CC Search – https://creativecommons.org/

Philippe de Champaigne, Still Life With SkullThat there is a relation between thinking about death and happiness is undeniable because some thoughts about death make almost all of us unhappy.  Thinking about the deaths of those we love – both retrospective and prospective – leaves normal people with sadness.  Experiencing the death of a loved one is an unhappy time.  Contemplating the unjust and preventable deaths in the world is enough to evoke melancholy in even the most stoic of us.  Contemplating our own immanent death is a mixed emotional situation at best (unless one strongly wishes to die, but that is a different issue).  So, what sense is there in which thinking about death could be construed as a method of increasing happiness?

Karen Wyatt draws from Tibetan and Taoist traditions in a recent article; “How Thoughts of Death Can Be A Key to Happiness.”  She considers specific techniques used in mystical practices that may both lessen the impact of our anxiety about death and even raise our spirits in conceiving of death altogether.

In effect, the six death thought techniques that Wyatt summarizes include:

    • Ritualize
    • Relax
    • Enjoy
    • Improve
    • Broaden
    • Record

The techniques are practical and easy to employ.  If one has strong negative feelings about death, then more therapeutic and perhaps guided approaches may be appropriate.  Still, we can all gain value from these practices.

I’ll add a seventh technique to Wyatt’s list;

  • Dialog

Finding open and intelligent people who will listen and discuss your ideas about death is a powerful way to address the emotional impacts of those ideas.

Death Café Corvallis is all about open dialog about death.  I find the participation in conversational liberty to be a strengthening and spirit lifting activity in its own right.  When related to to concepts of death, the impact is often pronounced.  You are invited to Death Café Corvallis gatherings and to join the Facebook Group in order to get event announcements and online dialog.

Karen M. Wyatt, M.D. is the Author of “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” and “The Tao of Death.”

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Image Acknowledgements

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https://www.pinterest.com/pin/354517801894454820/

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