If we were raised in the west, our cultural view of death is difficult to overcome, even if we consider ourselves Buddhists. As Buddhists we talk about no self, of non-dualism or impermanence, but when it comes to death, there is deep emotional conditioning that rational Buddhist thought struggles to penetrate.
Kendra Hess, LGSW, of Brighton Hospice Minnesota writes: “American society is considered a death-denying culture. In general, we do not like to think about, talk about, or acknowledge death as an inevitable reality. While logically we understand that we will all die someday, it is generally a topic that is uncomfortable, and swept under the rug.”
Maybe that is why we now have Celebration of Life funerals being incorporated into traditional funerals. They focus on the life of the person, rather than death. As a death-denying culture, we use expressions like ‘passed away’ and ‘no longer with us’ to avoid the words dead, death and died. Funerals, in the west, are for the dead regardless of the form or rituals they take on.
But Shin Buddhists turn this concept upside down. Shin Buddhist funerals are for the living. It took me a long time to understand, and accept, why. Friends and family gather at this time of sadness. It is a time for not only the support of friends and family but also the support of the funeral rituals.
It is a time of great grief. We witness the uncertainly of life as no one knows when death will come. At a funeral we are open, raw and vulnerable to hear the teachings in a way we never would on an “ordinary” day. We hear the teachings as we see death right in front of us.
Death is the lesson. One lesson is to express gratitude for this unique life we are living. Death is the reminder that this moment is all we are assured of. At a funeral, death, if we allow it, stares us in the face and wakes us up to the reality of this life.
Years ago, a young single professional was diagnosed with AIDS. Treatment was not available at the time. Faced with the probability of death, he made a radical decision to live the rest of his life differently. He left his job and home and joined an NGO, moved to a country that needed help (a major earthquake had devastated an entire region). Once there, he had to travel to a major European hospital for evaluation and the newest drugs as they were not available where he was living. He expected to die, but made a conscious decision of how he wanted the rest of his life to be. But, he lived.
When asked about AIDS, he says he is grateful for it since that is what liberated him from attachments. How interesting - liberation from attachments. His is only one story of many we read about where people who realize the impermanence of life came to live their life differently, a life without attachments. Our western death-denying culture deprives us of understanding the fullness and reality of life on many levels. Do we wish to die? Of course not, but by not understanding the teachings we continue to sweep it under the rug, and it is that which leads to fear and suffering.
For a Buddhist, birth and death is considered an endless cycle. We are born, we live, we die. The question we need to ask ourselves is how do we want to live in this unknown limited time between birth and death. Do we live it with regrets? Do we live it feeling we have no options? Do we live it with fear? Or, do we look at our life, with the incentive death gives us, and live it without fear of letting go of illusions?
A Shin Buddhist minister once asked me if I knew why the Buddhist coroner was fired from his job. I didn’t know. “Well,” he said, “he was fired because he wrote the same cause of death on all the death certificates – Birth.”
Shin Buddhist funerals express gratitude for the person who has died and all that person has done and meant in our lives. We are sad, we grieve, we cry. We also experience the service and its rituals in a way where we may actually hear the teachings - teachings that liberate us from attachments. It is for us, the living, as we express gratitude for those who came before us.
Namo Amida Butsu