John White – USA
[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUESTbooks in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.]
How Will You Be Remembered? — Writing Your Own Obituary.
An obituary is an objective statement of fact. It is both a death notice and a summary of the person’s life. You are now going to write your own obituary, stating the facts of your life as they are to date and — using your imagination — as you’d like them to be for the rest of your life or, perhaps, as you’re afraid they’ll be. Obituaries are usually not very long, so this isn’t a major writing assignment. But it is a major assignment in terms of life assessment— your values, your relations with other people, your accomplishments, success as a provider, spouse, parent, friend, and citizen.
Right now is a good time to take stock of your life. Have you been a “friend to man”? How will your spouse remember you? Your neighbors? Your work associates? Who will eulogize you, and what will be said, and will it be sincere? If you have children, what character development and values have they learned from you, consciously through your training or non-consciously through imitating your example? If you are in some kind of supervisory position in business, education, or the military, how will those under you regard your passing? In short, who will miss you and what will be the effect of your life on the world?
If death seems fearful because your life will have been meaningless, whose fault is that? Isn’t it clear that the meaning of your life is entirely in your control? It grows out of your values, your character, your relations with others, your accomplishments, your sacrifices, and your gifts of love, honesty, tolerance, sympathy, understanding, helpfulness, courage, fairness, loyalty, courtesy, cheerfulness. These are not commodities to be bought and sold. They are yours, entirely within your control. They are the basis of meaning in your life. Without them, human existence is cruel and bleak, no matter how wealthy or famous or powerful you might be. Consider this as you write your own obituary. When you have finished, think deeply upon this:
“My death will be reported like this someday. Will my life have been worthwhile?”
If your obituary leaves you feeling unsatisfied, remorseful, angry, disappointed — anything less than serene and tranquil — then think deeply upon this: It is within my power to change it by changing my life.Don’t mistake a change in your outward circumstances, however, for the kind of change I’m talking about here. Perhaps part of your fear of dying involves guilt over a wrong you committed — say, an insult or lie. If so, you should correct it and clear your conscience. This is not only morally right, it is also in your own best interest because it will relieve you of some of the death-fear you harbor. As Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine and Miracles,says, “Don’t wait until you’re going to die to start living.”
Practice Exercises for Learning to Die.
Learning to do any-thing well requires sustained practice and varied exercises that deepen your skill and understanding. Dying is no exception — dying well, that is.
To die daily is to practiceyour dying until fearlessness becomes as automatic as your previous fear reaction was. As the near-death experience taught those who went through it, death itself is not painful, but rather is comfortable and even blissful. It is only the fearful anticipation of pain, loss, meaninglessness, the unknown, and nonbeing that makes dying appear so awful.
Prior to beginning these, obtain a pen and notebook and keep them with you throughout your practice. You will record various experiences, memories, insights, feelings, and intentions in the notebook so that you have a permanent record of your accomplishments and your progress.
- Death Personalization.
In aquiet, moderately-lit room or some other setting where you can write without distraction, sit comfortably with your pen and notebook. At a desk or table would be best. Allow one half-hour in which to be alone. Then read the following instructions and begin to write.
“Someday in the future you will die. Please write a brief but complete and detailed description of this event as you imagine it will actually happen. Imagine and include in your description such concrete details as your age, place, cause of death, physical surroundings, etc. Be specific about your last thoughts and feelings. Use your imagination freely, perhaps picturing the scene in your mind as you imagine it. Finally draw a picture of your burial marker and indicate your epitaph etched in stone.”
- Follow-up on Death Personalization.
Sometime after you have completed Exercise 1, begin to consider your reactions as you wrote the description of your death. As you recall your response, record it in your notebook following the description. Was it total anxiety or did you feel something else — mild relief, perhaps, or even a sense of transcendence at being able to view somewhat objectively what had previously seemed so fearful?
- Pretend it is Your Last Hour on Earth.
Allow one hour for this exercise. Take the full sixty minutes to enter into the role of having just one hour left to live. Assume that your legal and financial affairs are in order. You will be concerned here only with the psychological and emotional aspects of this experience.
Use real force of imagination to become a person who has one hour of life left. You may choose to lie down on a couch or bed, as if you were terminally ill. In that case, dim the lights. Loosen any wearing apparel that constricts your breathing or circulation or that is uncomfortable. Remove distracting items such as watches, hair combs, wallets, and pocket change.
Use a clock which you can see to mark the hour. Have your pen and notebook handy. Or you may choose to walk around freely, using your senses to experience the life around you. In that case, no special preparation is necessary except to have your pen and notebook available. .
Enter into the situation fully. What would you want to do if you had one hour left? Who would you want to see — and why? What would you want to say, if anything? Is there any special experience that seems most appropriate or desirable in those circumstances? If so, what feelings accompany it? Love? Anger? Fear? Remorse? Humor? A desire for revenge? Compassion? Gratitude? Forgiveness?
Record your experiences when the hour is up. Read over them several days later and see how you regard this exercise.
- Imagine Your Own Funeral.
In a darkened room, sit quietly or lie down. You may use a chair, couch, or even stretch out on the floor. Have your pen and notebook handy.
Then close your eyes and visualize yourself laid out in a casket for the wake. You may tape record the following paragraphs and play them to yourself as an aid to visualization. If so, speak the words slowly and allow long pauses in order to fully explore the situation mentally as you listen to the playback. Your hands are crossed in front of you at waist level. You have certain items of dress that have been picked out by your survivors. What are you wearing?
The lid of the casket is open, and people are beginning to file past the casket. Who comes to view you laid out? Is there anyone you are surprised to see? As the people come up to your casket, what are they saying? How do they look? Is there anyone you wish had come, but hasn’t? Why hasn’t he or she come?
Now the scene changes to the funeral service. A eulogy is delivered. Who delivers it? What does he or she say? After the service, your survivors approach the coffin for their final look at you. How do they appear? What are their expressions, their words, their gestures?
Then your survivors are led away to a limousine while funeral home personnel close your casket. Pallbearers place it in a hearse and drive to the gravesite, where they place it over the grave, ready to be lowered. The minister, priest, or rabbi offers some prayers. When graveside ceremonies are completed, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Your survivors drop some earth on top of the casket, and the funeral ends as they walk away. Later, cemetery personnel fill in the grave with the earth piled beside it. You are now interred.
Cease visualizing and remain quiet for several minutes as you experience your own funeral. When you want to, open your eyes, reorient yourself, stretch and get up. Then record your impressions about your interment.
- Certify Your Own Death
By law, a certificate of death must be filled out for everyone upon their expiration. In this exercise, you are going to fill out your own death certificate. Notice that many signatures are required on the certificate — physician, medical examiner, funeral director, embalmer, registrar of vital statistics, and the informant who provided personal information about you. Thus, you will be playing all those roles, in addition to being the deceased.
As you assume each role, try to actually enter the state of mind you think likely for that person. How does your death seem to each of them? If it seems quite impersonal, are you satisfied with being considered as just another statistic? What seems important about your life that will notbe recorded on the certificate of death?
- Listen to Special Music
This requires that you obtain a recording of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration.The piece lasts about twenty minutes, and you should allow another twenty minutes for possible personal response to it.
In a dimly lit room, sit quietly or lie down. Have your pen and notebook nearby so you can record your thoughts and feelings afterward.
Take a few minutes to relax and quiet your mind. Then turn on your phonograph or tape recording and resume your position. Simply listen to the music. Let it flow into you. Try to feel it throughout your being. Don’t try to analyze your thoughts or feelings — just flow with the music. If emotions arise, don’t suppress them. Expressthem — let them out. When the music has finished, lie still and listen to the silence for a while, allowing your consciousness to wander freely. When it feels right, get up and record in your notebook all you can remember — images that came to mind, insights you had, feelings of fear or oblivion, etc., and anything that crossed your mind as something to be accomplished, such as contacting a lawyer about your will or simply contacting a friend to share your feeling of affection for him or her.
- Videotape Your Farewell
Because television technology is so widespread, dying people have begun to leave videotaped farewells for their families and friends. This is a uniquely modern way to do what has otherwise been done through the ages — saying goodbye to people through writing, to offer them comfort and to ensure that, if a person cannot avoid death, at least he can live on in the memories of his loved ones and of coming generations.
You, too, can use videotape to reflect upon the quality and meaning of your life and relationships in anticipation of your eventual demise. You might even specify that it be shown at your funeral —a final gesture to your survivors and friends of your love for them. Eulogies are good words spoken at a funeral when it is too late for the person being remembered to hear the words. Videotaping your own “good words” about others can be a eulogy in reverse. (Of course, you should also share your good words with the people they’re about beforeyou and they die, and it’s too late for them to know of your appreciation. Why save eulogies for funerals?)
Speak from the heart. Say all you’d want them to know if you. actually were dying. Recall warm memories, hopes, dreams. Ask forgiveness for wrongs you committed; offer forgiveness for wrongs done to you. Share your most intimate thoughts, and when you have completed your goodbyes, turn off the camera.
Wait several days before reviewing the tape, in order to let the experience stand on its own. Then watch the tape to evaluate it critically, not so much for its production value as for its emotional quality and its effectiveness in conveying the message you want to give to others. Repeat the exercise as appropriate.
In addition to these exercises, you should take whatever other opportunities are available to you for becoming accustomed (but not insensitive!) to death and dying. Death may be inevitable, but that’s no reason to fear it!
To be continued