What We Lose in a Death-phobic Culture

A Buddhist reflection on Stephen Jenkinson’s philosophy of death

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

In the summer of 2009, I was in Bamako, Mali, learning Bambara as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was my fourth day of class. I hadn’t slept well the night before and was struggling to pay attention. Just as I was about to nod off, a man called my name. I looked up to the classroom door where he was gesturing for me to step outside. I did, and he put a phone to my ear. It was my dad. My mom had died.

On the way home for the funeral I was asleep, or half asleep, in the airport in Dakar, Senegal, talking with her ghost in a sweaty mefloquine delirium. I awoke with an ache in my chest and the faintest trace of a deep and troubling truth. Somehow this truth had been there the whole time, my entire life, and somehow I lost sight of it, again, in the light of the coming day.

I forgot about it until I was thirty, when a friend of mine took his own life. The first night he was gone I had a dream he had angel wings and was ascending to heaven. A soft, supernatural light radiated from his chest, a mischievous smile across his face. He wasn’t remotely religious so I felt it was his way of trolling me one last time. That morning, I held the same wrenching truth in my hands.

I again forgot it until two years later, when my grandfather died quietly in his nursing home bed. It wasn’t until I was sitting by myself at the small bar in his basement, running my fingers along his souvenir shot glasses and antique Coca-Cola bottles, that my heart, my spirit — whatever the inmost part of me is — caved under the weight of this knowing. But what exactly did I know so well, so starkly and inevitably in that moment, and those like it before, that was invisible to me in the times between death? The truth was this: in a half-awake, maybe even half-alive state, during those days that ran together without anything much happening, I had been hoarding, stockpiling, burying within me an unimaginable amount of love for these people. It was love I had meant to give them. It was love for them only, love I couldn’t give to anyone or anything else.

What happens to love that isn’t given? I don’t know. Maybe it just sits there, like a wrapped gift that never made it to the post office because life was too hectic. Maybe it dies and decomposes like a flower never seen or smelled or touched by anyone. Maybe it explodes like a star that shined for ten billion years without a single living thing to breathe in its warmth. Whatever happens to love that isn’t given, the body mourns.

Although I had sat with this truth three times, mourning the love that wasn’t given, I didn’t fully understand it until I came across the work of Stephen Jenkinson. As a hospice counselor turned poet-philosopher, he is concerned with many aspects of Western civilization, if not the entire thing. His first book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, is based on his personal experience as a counselor in “the death trade,” as he calls it. The book is many things — a lamentation of our death-phobic culture, a critique of modern healthcare, a memoir of the author’s many lives, a eulogy of his teachers, and a call to honor our ancestors. More than anything, though, the book is an ode to grief. He didn’t and probably wouldn’t say it directly, but from his writing it’s obvious that grief is among the most precious gifts life can offer.

My path to Jenkinson’s work began when my partner and I were at a Mandolin Orange show in Northern California. Mandolin Orange is an Appalachian folk band which, for having a pun for a name, makes some of the most soul-stirring music in the genre. On this summer night, one of the singers decided he didn’t like how bright the stage lights were and asked the crew if they would cut them altogether. After a bit of commotion the lights were turned off and only a few blue bulbs illuminated the stage.

As the band started in on their fifth or sixth song — beautiful, simple, but suffused with sorrow and nostalgia — I began to contemplate the fact that my partner would eventually die. Although, “contemplate” may be too active a verb. The knowledge of my partner’s death, which was more a felt, embodied knowing than an intellectual one, drifted into me like a dark, slow-moving cloud. It seemed that the song itself was calling it in, like a spell or incantation. Rather than take shelter, as I might have done in the past, I sat still and allowed the music its work. I soon understood that the feeling passing through was something like a glimpse of the future, a taste of the exact grief I would feel if, or when, that time came.

The song continued and an image came to mind: I was sitting beside her casket, looking down onto her face. No one else was there. It was only us. I looked down at her hands, folded across her body, and thought about how much she had done with them throughout her life. I sat with the fact that they would never again hold mine. I thought about all the memories with whom I no longer had anyone to reminisce, all the stories which, going untold, would now begin to fade away. I thought about the person I became around her, and because of her, and realized I would have him to mourn, too. I remembered her in a million ways, fragments of image and sound: ferns tattooed on her feet, how she sang and danced to Janelle Monáe, the glint in her eye before she smeared jam or mud or mashed potatoes on my face. Somehow, from a distance, I saw the entire constellation of her infinite particularities, all the ways she was that no one in the universe had ever been or could ever be again. I longed to hear her voice calling my name from the other room, just one more time.

Then it all became too heavy. I came back to the warm, dusty ground of the present. She was beside me now, holding my hand. She was alive again. The gratitude of that moment — realizing everything I had gotten back, everything the world had gotten back — was indescribable. Needless to say, I saw and treated her differently the rest of the night. In some small way she had died and come back to life. If only for the length of a song, I grieved her. In that grief was the love for her I’d been hoarding within me. Although I could only endure the place for a short while, I nevertheless returned to the present, and to her, with hands full. It did feel, in some strange way, that I had stolen from a hidden safe, one I wasn’t meant to find for years to come. But why would an act that unlocked so much love in such a short time feel transgressive? Who or what could have been transgressed? I had a suspicion, based on the reactions of the few people to whom I’d told this story, but it wasn’t confirmed until I read Jenkinson. Indeed, a cultural line had been crossed. It was weird, even taboo to sit there and imagine how it would be after a loved one died, let alone talk about it (or write about it). When sharing this experience out loud it seemed as though I was being unnecessarily morbid. I felt compelled to apologize, which I did, before and after.

The origins of the North American taboo against death — reflecting on it, talking about it, honoring it, and planning for it — are probably intractable. However, if one were to want to look for them, Jenkinson would recommend looking in the same place as the origins of Western colonialism, expansionism, and capitalism. The virtues required for these projects, and therefore enshrined in societies centered on them, are well-known: competence, autonomy, efficiency, productivity, growth, and a general irreverence toward natural limits. The negation of these qualities is not merely represented by old age, dying, and death, but literally incarnate in them. Hence the suppression of the subject in popular culture, the geographic segregation of older people (think retirement communities and assisted living facilities), and the absence of substantial memorial rituals. It’s a hypothesis that makes some sense and is worth exploring, but in the end Jenkinson is less interested in origins than consequences.

The consequences of living in a society that disparages decline and death are many, one of which I’ve mentioned: we never think to truly encounter the end of anyone, to grieve them, until after they’re gone. Heartbreaking as this is, Jenkinson would point out that it is but one branch on a tree of ill effects. The trunk of the tree would be this: when we ignore or deny the end of things, we narrow our view of reality. We willfully overlook something true about the world which necessarily changes how we feel about it, how we think about it, and how to act and react in relationship to it. And not just “the world” as a whole, but particular and precious parts of it. We overlook something true about each of our friends, about our family, and about ourselves. We overlook something true about the birds just outside our window, about the trees in which they build their nests, about the grass surrounding the trees, and about the soil-dwelling life beneath the grass. We overlook something true about life itself. Whatever it ultimately means to live authentically, to have relationships grounded in truth, the chances of doing so in this condition are diminished. If we’re lucky, reality will eventually, and painfully no doubt, correct our view. If we’re unlucky, as most of Jenkinson’s palliative care patients were, by his account, we go to our graves without ever actually dying.

For Jenkinson, dying is something we do. It’s an active verb. It’s not something that happens to the human body. It’s something performed by a human being. We can begin doing it as soon as we see the end of things, potentially at a very young age. What does it mean to see the end of things? It doesn’t mean seeing into the future as if with a crystal ball. It doesn’t mean knowing, literally, the details of how something or someone will pass out of being. It means having — but not only having, cultivating, with skill and with wonder — an awareness that everything in the world, indeed the world itself, will come to an end. This inevitability, in some real sense, enfolds the ends of all things within them. We can therefore see, plainly in the present if we care to look, that everything is always already gone. To shine this awareness upon ourselves, to behold our own lives in this perpetual twilight, is to begin dying.

“What dying asks of us” Jenkinson never fully elucidates, though it is the North Star guiding his inquiry. Dying asks us to see the end of things, yes, and to allow ourselves to be flattened by the tidal waves of grief and wonder which accompany this knowing. But it asks even more than that. From his experience as a counselor, Jenkinson notes that on the surface it looks as if the greatest fear of dying people is that dying will hurt. While unforeseeable pain is indeed a great fear, upon looking more closely, he found there is one even greater. Often dying people themselves are unaware of it, but it can be seen in the letters they write their unborn descendents, the home videos they record to be played at their grandchildren’s weddings, and the scrapbooks they make to be kept on their relatives’ coffee tables. “They are — maybe better to say, we will probably be — afraid of disappearing without a trace,” Jenkinson writes. “Which really means: they are afraid of us being able to proceed, with some period of adjustment, as if they’d never been, something we usually call ‘getting on with our lives’. Which really means: they have great sorrow about what the rest of us will do with them after they die. And that isn’t fear. That is discernment.”

Jenkinson traces the loss of meaningful rituals for remembering our ancestors back to Roman expansion. Roman Christianity, unlike many indigenous European spiritual traditions, does not have a tradition of ancestor worship. According to the Bible, the souls of ancestors who have passed out of this world go to either heaven or hell. They do not stay in the natural world and influence the lives of the living. The ancestor worship of native Europeans conquered by the Romans — and later of native Americans conquered by the Europeans — was especially problematic for the conquerors because it was so bound up with place. Burial grounds of the ancestors, the stewardship of which extended back hundreds if not thousands of years, were considered sacred. Native peoples were compelled to protect them with their lives, which they often did. The conquerors, who had other ideas for how they wanted to use these lands, therefore placed great emphasis on converting natives to Christianity, a religion unbound from place. As the respective conquests dismantled and assimilated indigenous cultures, erecting settlements upon their burial grounds, ancestor veneration and its attending rituals gave way to Christian rites of death. Even today, as the West gradually renounces Christianity for more secular worldviews, the absence of meaningful rituals for honoring our ancestors persists.

One of the more troublesome effects of this cultural impoverishment is the sorrow Jenkinson so frequently found in his dying patients. In reflecting on their death, they remembered how they carried, or how they neglected to carry, the people who had died before them. They remembered how they “got on with their lives,” as the culture tells us to do, and confronted the fact that they, too, would become ancestor: sent off to be with God, no longer relevant in the land of the living. Jenkinson finds this way of treating the dead deeply inhumane. And his use of the word “inhumane,” he explains, is closer to its origin, “inhuman.” That is, along with our land, and our burial grounds, and our connections to our ancestors therein, something essentially human was taken from us, the once indigenous people of Europe and the Americas. Now, amidst the ruins of Rome and the skyscrapers of the latest iteration of empire, dying continues to ask us to claim our humanity. It continues to ask us to keep alive and keep close the relationships with our ancestors. If we as a people can hear and answer this call, we will begin to see a different discernment in the eyes of the dying. We will begin to see in them the assurance that they will be carried humanely by their living descendents. In a humane world, a world inhabited by people in full possession of their humanity, there is no fear of disappearing without a trace.

Jenkinson is not a Buddhist, nor did he arrive at his philosophy through Buddhism, but there is much in common between the two. According to Jenkinson, dying asks us to “make room at the table” for the end of things. For him, it is a habit of both heart and mind to behold someone’s presence at the same time, and with equal regard, as we behold their passing out of presence. Impermanence is a “mark of existence” as the Buddha said, a property of everything in the universe. If we exclude, suppress, or otherwise deny this truth from our awareness, we do not see the world as it is. We see a caricature or illusion. We lack “Right View” in Buddhist terms. For Jenkinson, a growing appreciation for the end of things is yet another piece of our humanity gifted us by dying. To view and treat someone in such a way that embraces their end is a necessary part of viewing and treating them humanely.

Familiarity with the end of things is at the heart of Buddhism. It’s right there in the origin story. According to the legend of Gautama Buddha, it was his initial encounter with old age, sickness, and death that inspired him to begin down the path to enlightenment. Before Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be) was born, his father, an Indian king, visited an oracle to ask about the future of his son. The oracle’s divination revealed that the boy would grow into either a great political leader or a spiritual master. In order to nudge him toward the former, his father insulated him from the suffering of the world. He surrounded him with all the finest foods and entertainment and forbade him go outside the palace walls. Eventually, when the prince was twenty nine, he convinced his father’s charioteer to take him outside the palace. On this journey he saw the now famous “Four Sights.” The first was an old man, the second was a sick man, the third was the corpse of a dead man, and the fourth was a Hindu ascetic. After seeing these Four Sights, Prince Siddhartha made the decision to renounce his material abundance and political power in order to pursue the spiritual life. He wanted to understand the nature of the suffering he had finally seen.

If the legend bears any truth, we have to imagine that, upon seeing the end of things, the young prince was completely undone. He radically changed his life, after all. This is, indeed, what dying asks of us, according to Jenkinson. It is no surprise the Buddha-to-be would be particularly sensitive to the wisdom inherent in the Four Sights, but it is important to recognize that he answered a call that was sounding for everyone, not only him. The beginning of the path to enlightenment is marked by the end of things, visible to all who sincerely look. Before Siddhartha could step onto that path, however, he had to deliberately subvert the powers limiting his perspective. He had to go beyond the palace walls. In our culture and lifetime, death-phobia represents the palace walls. The question before us, then, is this: who or what is our charioteer?

Maransati, or “death awareness,” is a valued practice for many Buddhist meditators, especially in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Given the Buddha’s experience with the Four Sights, the practice was understandably close to his heart. “Of all the footprints,” he said “that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” In Tibetan Buddhism, death (and impermanence more broadly) is one of the “Four Thoughts” leading to liberation. The eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Atisha, developed the Nine Contemplations upon which to dwell during meditation:

  1. Everyone has to die

Another Maransati practice comes from one of the foundational texts of Theravada Buddhism, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness). It consists of gazing upon a corpse, uncovered on a charnel ground, at various stages of decomposition. If one cannot actually sit before a corpse, the imagination will have to do. First, the meditator is to envision the body is a few days after death, “swollen, blue, and festering,” and think “my body, too, will become like that and cannot escape it.” Next, the meditator is to imagine the body being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, herons, dogs, tigers, leopards, jackals, and various kinds of worms and again think “my body, too, will become like that and cannot escape it.” Next, the body is a skeleton with some flesh, dried blood, and tendons still visible and the meditator again thinks “my body, too, will become like that and cannot escape it.” The visualization continues until the bones are mere dust, each subsequent image accompanied by a deep acknowledgement that the meditator’s own body is of the same nature as the one in decay.

While these are two of the more ancient and established Maransati practices, for me they haven’t been nearly as powerful as that which I spontaneously had at the Mandolin Orange show. I have since begun to work with it intentionally, imagining that a person in my life has died and that I am sitting beside their casket. Grief naturally arises and I make as much room for it as I can. I don’t do this practice often, to be honest. It’s taxing. Nonetheless, I know what it feels like to go too long under the illusion that my time with someone on this Earth is never ending. And I know what it feels like to have that illusion fall apart on the day that person dies. By that day, it’s too late to see things clearly. There will be love ungiven. It will spill out through your heart, broken all at once, onto the eyes and ears of a corpse. So I use this practice to invite grief in, little by little, to break my heart at a bearable pace. I break my heart, little by little, to let love out while there’s still time.

Visualizing the death of someone is both Maransati and Metta meditation. It brings into focus the end of things at the same time as it generates loving-kindness. From Jenkinson’s perspective, it’s doing what dying asks of us, and in so doing it is claiming an essential part of our humanity. From my own experience, I feel more humane, more sane, the closer I am to death. I feel a deeper kinship with the people around me and extend them greater compassion.

It isn’t hard to see how death makes a mockery of prejudice. We are, of course, different from each other in many ways. When isolated from the larger context, these differences can be mistaken for dividing lines and ultimately grounds for alienation. But the larger context is this: the indisputable fact that we are all falling together, through time, back to the same rocky earth from which we originated. What would we think of a person who was actively contemptuous of someone with whom they were falling from 10,000 feet? From the perspective of death, underlying our lives as surely as the ground rushing towards us, it would seem absurd. Yet the fact that so many people do, so regularly and with such apparent ease, is a clear sign that we as a culture are not including, inhabiting, or respecting the perspective of death.

Imagine for a moment living in a society — or, to make it easier, a small village — in which the reality of death is not collectively marginalized, nor is it individually denied or repressed. It is revisited on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis through rituals of corresponding scale. Though most of our ancestors have died, our relationships with them are very much alive. Within each home is a sacred place in which they are honored, and the common spaces of the village are densely populated with commemorations of awe-inspiring beauty and craftsmanship.

People who are dying — that is, everyone in this village — do not fear the prospect of disappearing without a trace. Instead, they celebrate every stage of their unfolding, from birth to death, and know they will be treated humanely throughout. Grief and sorrow are welcome guests at every table, given equal regard as joy and happiness. Everyone practices, with sincerity and with courage, some kind of Maransati, and everyone’s heart breaks a little more each day. Love for friends, family, and neighbors is rarely ungiven, accidentally locked away until after they’ve died. Instead, it flows out through broken hearts and washes away all that does not truly matter.

Living in the light of the mystery of death, villagers view one another first and foremost as mortals, with all other identities a distant second. In this village, the capacity to die is the only qualification for inclusion under the umbrella of kinship. All living beings are valued as precious members in the community of the dying. All life under stewardship of the village, therefore, is thriving. The surrounding forests are old and wondrously complex, teeming with strange and beautiful creatures. The gardens of the village burst with color, plump fruits and hardy vegetables, dense with bees and butterflies. The sounds of birdsong are always in the background, somewhere, reminding us that we are in a life-giving place and that we are a life-giving people.

Creative nonfiction at the intersection of philosophy, ecology, health, and design.