I was reflecting this morning on the little "interfaith seminar" I attended yesterday in Guelph.
There were nine people altogether of various backgrounds--the two mature Indian men from the temple with whom I came, myself, a Lutheran couple, a Roman Catholic woman, a Unitarian Universalist woman, and a Buddhist couple of Jewish background. All the Christians, though, were to a greater or lesser extent influenced by New Age ideas. All looking for "spirituality." So there were no representatives of a "hard" tradition--no Baptist evangelicals or Sunni imams.
I was very calm and detached throughout the whole meeting, which was centered on the subject of death. I was the second last person to speak, so I had the opportunity to hear everyone before saying anything. Most of it was heartfelt personal stories about experiences with other people dying, their own near-death experiences, etc. Everyone seemed to agree, more or less, that they were not afraid of death, but somehow saw it as an organic part of life and therefore nothing to be feared. Norman, a Buddhist, said that every moment we are dying and being reborn, so what is different about the final death?
I recently read an article (which I now cannot find) about a study that found that people are less fearful at the time of death than is generally imagined. Most people do seem to go "gently into the good night," embracing death rather than "burning and raving at the close of day; raging, raging against the dying of the light."
Whether Dylan Thomas would approve of their silent acquiescence to the inevitable end of life is another matter. There is something sheep-like about the way that so many of us are simply filling in the space between birth and death. Shuffling from one triviality to another.
I talked about my 95-year-old father-in-law and how he has come to a point where he would welcome death--heavily sedated, surrounded by care-givers whose only real care is that he should not require too much care. His sell-by date has come and gone and he knows it. But he must face the journey in a lonely way, because there is no one there with whom he can even talk about it. And so, the last days are filled with television and medication. And death remains an empty unknown, a gaping hole that is treated with indifferent disinterest. If you haven't spent your life thinking about death, why should you give it any added thought when it comes? Life sooner or later becomes a burden and you simply "slough off the mortal coil."
I also remember one day a few years ago when my father-in-law was taken to the hospital, I saw an aged lady in the emergency ward, white and wan in her pale, drab green smock, going diligently through one of those "find the word" puzzle books. Life is drawing to a close and people are just marking time. As if there was nothing significant about it. Sedation, medication, dulling of the will, suffocating the human desire for purpose and meaning until, like animals to the slaughterhouse, they quietly sit on the conveyor belt to the graveyard.
The Bhagavata is about a person who knew death was inevitable. Maharaj Parikshit was cursed to die in seven days. And so he called for "a conference on death and dying," gathered keynote speakers from various religious disciplines, the greatest sages of the world, and asked them "What is the purpose of life? And what is the duty of a person who is about to die?"
And the answer was, "Hear about God, chant about God, remember God." But that was not really an instruction just for the time of death, because, as the Gita says, you need to train your consciousness throughout life. If your life had no meaning, your death will be equally meaningless.
When I think of those passive, peaceful deaths, I cannot help but contrast them with Srila Prabhupada's glorious passing in Vrindavan. How he wanted to go on Govardhan parikrama on a bullock cart, and how his disciples could not fulfill his desire for fear he would die, when so clearly he wanted to die circumambulating the holy ground of Govardhan, perhaps in Radha Kund.
And so he died on the following day in his room. But this did not make it any less (or only slightly less) glorious, for he was still surrounded by loving disciples who loudly did the one thing he had exhausted his aged life airs in teaching them--to chant the Holy Names. And they enveloped him in a thick wall of emotion, of tearful love, while he opened his mouth and expired on the wave of Krishna's names.
We like to think of a perfect death as one where a person is surrounded by family and loved ones. But how much more than a physical family was there on that day! But a glorious death does not come about by accident. Just like the Buddhist Jataka tales describe 500 births of the Buddha before he reached final enlightenment, a death in the bosom of God's love, surrounded by those who have been given that love and are returning it, spiced with gratitude, are reaping the fruit of lifetimes of discarding life's trivialities.
They do not go gently into the night, in the way that Dylan Thomas meant it, but neither do they rage, rage against the dying of the light.