Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Isn’t it Morbid to Think about one’s own Death?
Exercises in Mindfulness
While death may seem morbid, facing up to its inevitability can be skilful means for practice.
About 30 years ago my home town in Yorkshire built a new medical centre to cater to the expanding needs of a growing local populous.
However, controversy surrounded the completed building when the weather vane was placed atop the roof. A golden cowled figure holding a scythe had been chosen as the figure for the new flagship centre. There were letters to the local paper and it even made it into some of the national press. Was this a sick joke on behalf of the medical team or the architects? The assumption was that it was the Grim Reaper and how inappropriate can you get, to use this figure for a town that was popular with retirees from around the county?
The centre’s PR quickly countered the accusation saying that it was not the Grim Reaper but Old Father Time - also a cowled figure who scythes away at the minutes and hours. I believe it was copied from the well-known representation that is the weather vane atop Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Symbolically, there’s not much between them, despite the fact that one appears more benign than the other they both represent the same basic principle - tempus fugit.
One can understand the controversy and the sense that such a figure deemed inappropriate for a medical centre, however memento mori - ‘remembrance of mortality’ was a popular motto during the Victorian age.
Indeed, a gentleman’s study was not complete without the facsimile of a human skull mounted on top of a wooden stand with the words memento mori on a brass plate about the base.
These days death is kept away from view by and large, except on the small or big screen where it is generally portrayed as violent, bloody and shocking.
The practice of the deceased being brought back to the family home where, in an open coffin family and friends would come to pay their last respects, has all but died out.
When my late Zen teacher died in 2007, she left explicit instructions that she would be on display in her study for three days before cremation for us all to visit. In fact her students went a step further and arranged a 24 hour vigil for the three days, taking it in turn to sit with her corpse for a couple of hours at a time. My slot was during the night. I still remember it because at first I was quite nervous with an irrational fear that she would at any moment suddenly sit bolt upright! After about 20 minutes the atmosphere settled and became intensely peaceful. During the next hour or so a couple of problems that had been nagging at me expired in that deathly serenity.
It was the apparition of the impermanence of life and the reality that death comes to all things which set Prince Gautama on his spiritual quest that led to his awakening under the Bodhi Tree. In fact remembrance of mortality through loss and bereavement is known as a spur for the worldly to turn inward to seek a more reliable ground upon which to live life. The Zen masters were likewise inspired by remembrance of death which lead to profound spiritual insight for the likes of Kyogen and Hakuin to name but two.
Back in the 1990s I visited St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert. It is the first Christian Orthodox monastery built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I. It has been a site for pilgrimage for many centuries. Before entering the monastic grounds to the side of the approach road one find’s the ossuary. Here the bones of all the monks who have died since the 4th century have been laid to rest. The pilgrims were required to visit the ossuary to see the bones before they entered the monastic grounds and presumably attended the church services. It served a purpose, to act as a reminder that no matter who you are, or what your standing in society or how great or small your problems, both you and they end up in the same place.
Spiritually, remembrance of one’s mortality, far from being considered morbid was used to burst the bubble of self-importance and to diminish the sometimes overweening problems that ‘I’ feel centre around my own being. As my late teacher once suggested, just when I am getting myself overwrought just make a thought experiment to imagine that I have just five minutes left to live. To make it a real feeling and then see if that problem still stands up before it?
This is not about ignoring real problems but to cut back on the symptom of ‘I’ that takes things so personally and stops oneself being able to keep a perspective when navigating the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’
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