Would you be concerned if a loved one gave you a file titled “Upon My Death”? Many would be, but not my spouse. When I shared my collection of poems, prayers, and my own ramblings about death, she knew this was simply a part of my death awareness work—towards accepting my own mortality and making peace with the fate we all share.
Like Charon Crossing the River Styx
I was forced to wrestle with death awareness from the beginning of my training as a hospital chaplain. As a chaplain intern, you’re promptly handed a pager that almost only ever beeps if someone is near death. Like a small smoke detector on your hip, the beeper forces you to stop whatever you’re doing and spring into action. There may be a cardiac arrest or someone headed to the emergency room for very serious trauma. Ready or not, you become very familiar with death.
As a hospice chaplain, I felt a bit like Charon, the ferryman
in Greek mythology who ferried deceased souls to the afterlife. I struggled alongside people as they tried to get to their final resting place. I wept with families, unprepared and afraid, but I also saw people who approached death gracefully, sinking into it like a long-awaited warm bath after a strenuous but satisfying pilgrimage. I learned that there is such a thing as a beautiful death and that there is much to gain from being aware of one’s mortality long before you’re left without a choice.
The Benefits of Death Awareness
Where much of Western society has a strong aversion to death and dying, most every spiritual tradition wrestles openly with death. One might wonder if encouraging the faithful to reflect seriously on their death is a path to nihilism—a reminder that everyone and everything ends, which leads to the conclusion that nothing matters.
It’s true that death awareness can lead to hedonic indulgence or melancholic meaninglessness, but that’s not its aim. The goal is to sit with these feelings as they arise, to notice and acknowledge them without judgment, and to let them settle into a calm acceptance. The hope is that death awareness can help us live with less fear of our own death or the death of loved ones and inspire us to live our values more fully, to cherish our now-alive body.
One also need not watch someone take their last breath to fully embody this rich spiritual tradition. The range of spiritual practices associated with death awareness is broad, from the extreme to the subtle.
Buddhist Death Awareness: Maranasati & the 5 Remembrances
Some branches of Buddhism place special emphasis on death awareness, or maranasati. These practices span from simple meditations to more vivid confrontations with death. On the latter end of the spectrum are charnel grounds, above-ground sites where bodies are left to decompose in open air. Some practitioners will walk through these grounds, paying close attention to the bodies and the feelings they inspire. According to Buddhist meditation teacher Nikki Mirghafori, during this death awareness practice it’s common to repeat a contemplation, such as: “My body, this alive body, is just like this body that is decaying. It’s in different stages of being a body, of decomposing.”
This practice may not be possible or even desirable for you. Instead, try taking a silent walk through a local cemetery or consider these contemplations when you see a dead animal on the side of the road.
[Read: “How I Became an Animal Chaplain.”]
On the other end of the spectrum are the simple, regular meditations on death. These are sometimes called the Five Remembrances, from the foundational Buddhist text Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”). Various translations of the Five Remembrances exist—here are Thich Nhat Hanh’s from The Plum Village Chanting Book:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
Many Buddhists recite these while meditating with a human skull or even a full skeleton.