Sunday, June 28, 2009

Getting Down To It (i.e., Disposing of the Corpse)

As I begin to write this post, my countdown displays 1 week and 4 hours left to live...

In retrospect, this year seems to have flown past fairly quickly.... and in other respects I seem to have lived an entire lifetime during the past year.

I have never lived so completely and totally in my body... or in the moment.

I have always been one to enjoy the small things in life, or so I had thought.. but, I would say that this is so much more true now.

Naturally, my expectation is to wake up on the morning of July 09; my 50th Birthday, fresh, and new, and fully prepared to rise and take the first step of the second half of my life, however.. it may very well be that I will not live to see it. Life is not certain, and there are no guarantees. This is why it is so vitally important to remain mindful of the present moment.. to let go fully, and to hurl oneself into life. Give every single last thing that we have. Do the very, very best that we can... say what must be said, and do what must be done. Dying practice is, after all, living practice. I have learned a great deal about living - really, truly living. Life throws many experiences at us... and we don't often have much to say about which we get, or when. We must simply learn to take life on its own terms, do the best we can do with the moment that we have, and continue doing this.... get the present moment 'right' - and the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months & years will take care of themselves.

Every life must come to an end. This we cannot avoid. So. I have decided to face it. My dying practice year may not end in my physical death. But, sometime in my future, I will find my death. What then?

Who dies?

I have come to believe that although my mind cannot survive without my physical body.. my body is something akin to a rental car... I use it for some time, inhabit it if you will... until it is no longer capable of supporting my life...
and then I must surrender to the inevitable.. let go.. and pass from this world.

I imagine that the energy that separated me and made me alive and distinct from a dead body will continue on in some form... as the scientists claim that energy is finite and can neither be created nor destroyed... as for 'me' the self that I think of as me... It is my belief that it will simply cease to exist as an entity. My personality, memories, preferences, aversions, all that makes me me... will simply end. Extinguished. Like a candle flame.

I find some degree of peace in this thought. We cherish real flowers over plastic flowers exactly because real flowers die... they are ephemeral... and we love them. Life is ephemeral. So, we should love life... love one another... just love.

Once I have died, though I will be gone... I will leave behind remains. Somebody will be tasked with seeing to the proper disposal of my remains, and I wish to make this task as simple and as painless as possible.

Some of the methods that naturally spring to mind are not allowable by law, unfortunately... (carving knife, food processor, wood chipper, dumpster, flushed down the toilet.. sky burial (i.e., hacked to constituent parts and fed to the carrion birds, etc.) so, I must act within the parameters of the law and of social norms (to some extent, at least).

As I meditated upon this aspect of my practice, I was (not really) very surprised to find that desire crept in upon my contemplations even when considering the methods of my disposal.

I found the Uono Cocoon Coffin, which I think is quite attractive, very different, and which is described on the company's website as follows:

"The Cocoon only weighs 20 kilograms. This makes it easier to carry, move and lay out at the funeral home or grave. The Cocoon is very robust. The firmness results from the very special production technique, the special natural materials as well as the ideal static shape.

The handles of the Cocoon fit into the aesthetic shape of the coffin. They are simply pulled out to carry the coffin. It is possible to remove the handles without a tool kit. As an alternative to the stainless steel handles there are natural rope handles available.

There is a special notch under the handles to catch the ropes. If the ropes are tied through the handles, it is possible to lower the Cocoon absolutely safely into the grave.

Every Cocoon is delivered with absorbent material as well as noble lining (white cotton or silk).

This same desire assailed me as I viewed cremation urns. My eye was repeatedly caught by the beautiful, the intricate... it is a vicious cycle! (I am still trying to work out why safety would be a concern for me if I am being lowered into a grave... it would seem to me to be somewhat 'cart before the horse'-ish... and, though the 'Noble' lining sounds very exciting... I think it may be too fancy for the likes of me.. I am only a simple monk.. with simple tastes...)

I cannot fathom why, but I found myself longing to rest in some place of honor in a beautiful urn, wrought with fantastically deep colors, that was designed in such a manner as to convey some meaning to others as to how I lived my life, what my focus, opinions, preferences and accomplishments were..... and then I realized that I was being sucked down a road of endless desire and attachment... Instead, I decided to simply look at the beautiful urns, appreciate them for their craftsmanship, for the effort that was put into their design and manufacture...

I noted the significance of the design motifs, and wondered whether the artists accomplished their work mindfully, or whether some individual who simply wanted to make it through the day went through the motions mechanically, and was thinking of what he or she would rather be doing while constructing the container where some human being's remains would lie for the foreseeable future...

I decided two things, really, during this contemplation;

  1. I would do my best to always remain mindful in any work or task that I have cause to perform, so that no other person would ever need to fear that I was simply 'going through the motions' as I accomplished whatever work affected them, whoever they may be, and;

  2. I would find simple, functional, pleasing items and request that these be used in the disposal of my remains rather than to spend inordinate amounts of money which could be put to far better use than to process or house a body in which I no longer reside.

I do not wish to denigrate any person's choices when it comes to arranging the funeral of a loved one, but, for my self, I simply don't feel that it is necessary to go to a great deal of trouble over my remains.

As part of this practice, I delved into the world of funeral arrangement, and was somewhat shocked and dismayed at the obscene and perverse amounts of money that the bereaved survivors are called upon to pay in order to satisfy a constructed idea of 'respect' for the departed. Naturally when someone who we love dies, we are saddened, betimes devastated, and we want to do everything that we can do for that person... as it is often viewed as the very last thing that we are able to do for them. I think that perhaps there are those who make a very decent living addressing this tendency.

Here are some things that I discovered:

Firstly, some average common costs -

  • embalming ($500)

  • casket ($1,500)

  • viewing or visitation ($500)

  • cemetery space ($1,000)

  • open & closing the grave site ($750)

  • outer burial container ($1,000)

  • headstone ($1,500)

  • announcing the funeral in a newspaper ($250)

  • use of a hearse ($200)

  • TOTAL: ($7200)

That is Seven *THOUSAND two hundred dollars... nearly eight thousand dollars that, to my way of thinking, does not need to be spent.

I have a wife (no, I am not celibate) who will have enough to confront in the event of my death without being saddled with an $8000 or more bill just to get rid of me!!

This is not what I want. I will go further... I *expressly* DO NOT want this.

Love and respect and whatever else we wish to convey as we say a final goodbye to a deceased loved one can be expressed without spending this kind of money. Money is a resource, and to throw it after a dead body simply seems wasteful to me... If it happens to be *my* dead body, which it most assuredly will be one day (as I write this I am assailed by news of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Billy Mays, both 50 years of age at the time of their deaths). I have found many groups and associations which are dedicated to assisting people to do just this: create a loving and graceful funeral without paying strangers to do it.

Little Known Facts

* Caring for your own dead and creating a home or family-directed funeral is completely legal in most states
* Embalming is not required
* A family member, agent holding a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (DPAHC) or designated agent can:
o Act in lieu of a funeral director to orchestrate all arrangements and carry out all decisions
o Fill out and file end-of-life documentation
o Transport deceased in any type of vehicle to:
 + A home
 + The funeral celebration location
 + The place of final disposition (crematory or cemetery)
* Retail casket businesses exist in many areas and offer caskets for less than you would pay through a funeral home
* A loved one can lie-in-honor in the home of family or friends (1 to 3 days is usual)
* Anyone can build and/or decorate a wooden casket or cardboard cremation casket
* Friends and family can create an atmosphere that reflects cultural and personal beliefs, including ritual, storytelling and casket decoration
* Non-profit consumer advocacy funeral and memorial societies exist throughout the United States. Contact FAMSA, Funeral and Memorial Society of America .
* The average cost of a funeral nationwide is about $5000 to $8000 - you do not need to spend a lot of money to honor your dead meaningfully

To move in a direction of a more natural, economical and conscious choice for after-death care and not fall prey to an increasingly expensive and impersonal funeral industry, one that is being taken over by three huge conglomerates, I would like to offer these suggestions:

* Start talking to one another about the subject of death
* Pre-plan your own home or family directed funeral - Info
* Open a funeral trust account or Pay-on-Death account in your own name versus purchasing a pre-need package from a mortuary or funeral home
* Inform yourself about the laws in your state concerning home or family directed funerals by calling your local public health office or Office of Vital Records
* Form a group interested in advocating for consumer's last rights/rites
* Ask your local cemetery if a burial can be completed in a shroud, cardboard box or a home built wooden casket
* Hold the vision of collectively owned crematoriums and cemeteries that are ecologically harmonious
* Start looking at ways you can reclaim your individual right to a natural, humane, sensible and economical after-death care choice

Apparently, I am not the only person who shares similar belief about this issue. Here are a few options that may be just as capable of meeting the requirements of a respectful, meaningful and loving funeral service;

This casket is sold in a kit by a company called ARK Wood Caskets, and, on their site they have depictions of some of their caskets that have been hand painted by an artist. My thought strayed towards an idea of loved ones painting images, or writing messages on the outside of the casket as a way of saying a final farewell.

When monks are cremated, the body is not present at the memorial service at all. Rather, a table or altar is set up upon which a photo of the deceased is placed, before which there is a censer containing charcoal, and beside that a bowl of powdered incense. Mourners are invited to approach the altar, perhaps say something, share a remembrance, etc., and then drop a pinch of incense onto the charcoal.
If the remains are not to be viewed, and are not to be a part of the funeral service at all, their is no need for a container any more expensive than the cardboard container depicted above, which, by the way, would suit me just fine.

The casket above is made of willow which has been woven into a beautiful basket. I think that such a coffin would be more than appropriate if it were necessary to transport my remains from one point to another prior to cremation.

Since it is my intent to have my remains cremated, just as many thousands of monks before me have done, I think that the shroud depicted below (available through Nature's Passage) is a perfect idea should there be need to transport my remains prior to cremation;

As you can see, it is quite well made! It is designed, actually, for burials at sea for mariners who request this type of service, or for family who wish to have their loved one returned to the sea where so much of their life would have been spent.

It reminds me quite a bit of the paratrooper's kit bag that we used to carry tucked between the parachute harness and our bodies on jumps. Instead of a parachute getting stuffed into it... I will! (At least I do not have to be 'S-rolled' beforehand! HA!)

Not only does it come with sturdy handles, which is polite to those who may be called upon to carry me on my last journey... but;

It folds up quite nicely!! I could conceivably carry it around with me... one never knows, after all!! (Just kidding!)

Essentially, I have decided the following;

If I am ill or injured and am incapacitated and in a coma or have some type of illness where it is judged unlikely that I will recover enough to live a fulfilling life, I would prefer to not be administered further treatment which would only delay a natural process in any case, and which would unnecessarily burden my family both financially and emotionally.

Once I have died, whatever organs, parts, bits, bobs, or incidentals that may be put to some good use or which may be able to restore some other person to health or reduce their suffering are gifted by me for such use.

I wish my remains, if any, to be cremated. I do not wish that any significant amount of money be spent for embalming, caskets, urns, services, or for any other reason. I would prefer that any such moneys be used by my wife if she survives me. If she does not, it makes no difference to me so long as no other member of my family is indebted as a result.

I would like the bulk of my cremains to be tilled into my garden. If my wife desires to retain my cremains, it would be my preference that she avoid purchasing an urn that has been manufactured specifically as a cremation urn, but that she instead purchase a suitable container for a much more reasonable cost.

Here is a humble suggestion; the jar depicted in the image below can be obtained for a cost of $45.00 plus shipping & handling at Linden Hills Pottery.

It has sentimental significance to us, and it would match the decor of our home perfectly (Perhaps I shall purchase it now to have just for the occasion!!)

I am entitled to have my cremains interred at a National Cemetery free of charge, since I am a veteran of the armed forces... in the event my cremains are not wanted in the house, or if it is not possible to till them into the garden in accordance with my wishes.

If there are friends and loved ones who would enjoy a get together where food and drink is served, I would consent to this, so long as it remains a mostly happy gathering. I would ask that a selection of my personal belongings, humble though they may be, are set out and that those who attend be invited to select what they wish to take with them as a remembrance of our love and friendship.

To my wife, I would say that in the event I am the first to leave this life, you have given me the happiest moments that I have ever experienced. From the first moment that we fell in love and became a couple, we have lived each and every moment to the very fullest extent possible. What we share is bigger than a lifetime can contain, and I am sure that we will meet again for another go 'round, wherever and however that may be. We have shared what many people have never had the opportunity to share... and this is a gift. There are no accidents... and there are no regrets. Please do not let sadness shape your life or lessen the beauty in your heart. Dust yourself off, go forward, and life your life.. if you are lucky enough to meet some other person who brings happiness and love into your life, throw yourself into it completely... with my blessings! Just promise that you will never, ever settle for anyone who will not treat you with the kindness and love that you deserve. Remember that anyone can fake it for a year, and that nothing can take the place of time and experience. Since I cannot say these things to you after I have died, I say them to you now. They will be here, somewhere, on the internet.. and you can read them again should you ever have need. In all of my life, I am sure that I will never have been able to repay you, or to thank you for all that you have done for me... so I will just say "I love you - yes, still!".

To Mo, Mikilos, and Needledinger - You shaped my life, you taught me what it was to be a friend, and what it is to be loved unconditionally.

To Tim: Don't Die!

To Jenna - not a day has passed since the day that you were born that I have not thought of you and sent love your way.

To Brogan, Aonghus, the Burbols; You make life special.. every moment is perfect!! Thanks for all the laughs!! Bain bĂșa amach!

To my brothers; I only wish that we could have spent more time. I will work on that starting now.

To my Zen Teachers; Mil Bohn, Myo Shin, Gen Shin, Jo Shu, Do Ku Ro, and to all of my fellow practitioners; You have given me the gift of this practice. Gassho! _/|\_

On Buddha's birthday
a spotted fawn is born –
just like that!

I have come a long way during this past (almost) year of this practice. It has taught me a great deal. It has taught me what has most value. It has taught me that the only moment I will ever have access to is this one, just as it is.. and that I can do with it what I choose...

My next entry will be in a week, a short entry on the eve of my 'death' - consisting mainly of my final thoughts and feelings.

The final entry will be after my 'rebirth' where I will try to set down what I have gained from this practice and from this experience.

I am sure that many of you will find the content of this post somewhat morbid, but, honestly... do you really think that you will live forever?? Would you really want to?

I did not write the following was written in 1981 by a poet named David Harkins, who was born in 1959 - in Silloth, Cumbria, UK. it was written from the perspective someone talking about a woman who has passed.. I have taken the liberty of altering it to convey my own meaning.... I hope that this is welcome.. Mr. Harkins, if it is not, I will remove it from this page. If it is, (bows) - humble thanks, sir.

You can shed tears that I am gone,
or you can smile because I have lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that I'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all I have left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see me,
or you can be full of the love we have shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember of me only that I am gone,
or you can cherish the memories that we have forged
and let them live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what I would want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

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