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This post is adapted from an article I wrote over three years ago following the death of a friend and elder of the Findhorn Community in Scotland. It was first published in the Community’s Network News. It seems as relevant now as it did then, as I reflect upon our fear of death, and our attitudes to old age, death and dying.
On that day, three years ago, I joined a few hundred fellow Findhornians to farewell a much-loved elder. And I came away inspired, as I always did from Community funerals and memorial events. Inspired by a funeral? I hear you ask. Is the man a crank? I don’t think so. I just think the Findhorn Community has come to terms with death better than most of the western world, and I’d like to share some of my feelings and thoughts about it.
Death is the great taboo of our culture. We deny it, pretty it up, hide it away, do our utmost to delay and avoid it. Anti-aging pills and potions are a booming business. And wealthy entrepreneurs have linked with top scientists to extend life to millennia. In the end, though, death is the one experience of life, other than birth, that we all share. We all have to come to terms with it sooner or later, and perhaps the best place to start is to understand its role in life. Here is a passage from my book The Science of Oneness that explores this theme:
Without the death of outworn or damaged cells, our bodies could not live. All our cells are programmed to commit suicide when necessary for the good of the whole, and any that refuse may become cancers. At a larger scale, each plant or animal in an ecosystem is like a cell in a body. And over time, each organism, each one of us, is a link in the chain of generations and the ongoing evolution of life. As Goethe expressed it a few centuries ago:
“The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.”
When we see ourselves as parts of the systems of life in this way, our individual deaths become normal events in the larger scheme of things. But why should death be a necessary part of this scheme? There are at least three answers. First, organisms wear out, gradually losing the ability to maintain and repair themselves. We don’t know why, but it may be because death is an essential ingredient of life. A world without death would lack carnivores and deadly diseases. Even herbivores would be limited to foods that do not kill the plant. Reproduction would have to stop once the world was fully populated, and evolution would be impossible because natural selection could not weed out those less fitted to survive. Hence, life could never adapt to meet the challenge of change as continents drifted, asteroids struck the Earth, and the climate changed. Paradoxically, therefore, without the death of individuals, life itself would become extinct and the living planet would die.
The third reason why death exists is simply that it is part of the mystery of existence. We have seen that all matter appears from the restless energy of the (quantum) vacuum, and disappears into it again like dust motes in a sunbeam. We have seen that the cosmos is evolving to ever-greater complexity and organization, inevitably destroying what went before in the process of creating the new. And we have seen that systems are fluid processes rather than fixed structures. Viewed in a long enough timeframe, everything, including the universe itself, is ephemeral. We must accept the reality of impermanence, and with it the reality of death. As the Buddha put it: “If you want to know the truth of life and death, you must reflect continually on this: There is only one law in the universe that never changes – that all things change, and that all things are impermanent.”
Knowing that death is an inseparable, creative part of life helps us become more aware of it and more connected to it in daily life. As Sogyal Rinpoche wrote in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “Every time I hear the rush of a mountain stream, or the waves crashing on the shore, or my own heartbeat, I hear the sound of impermanence. These changes, these small deaths, are our living links with death. They are death’s pulse, death’s heartbeat, prompting us to let go of all the things we cling to.” Including letting go of the fear of death.
So far I’ve avoided the difficult question of whether there is any form of life after death. There is a lot of good evidence from research on near-death experiences, reincarnation and communication with the dead to suggest that the individual spirit or soul does survive death, at least for a time. And many of us feel the presence of departed friends and loved ones. But nevertheless, we can’t be sure what awaits us. My body, the atoms that happen to be present at the moment of death, will feed the trees and flowers that I love. And I believe the quality and energy of my life, my every action and thought, will live on encoded in the patterns and rhythms of fundamental fields of the universe – in the akashic record if you prefer. In this way my life will affect the future, and may even trigger events that change the course of evolution of the Earth and the very cosmos itself. Beyond that, I am not so sure, and not so concerned. Perhaps my soul, or some reflection of it, will return for another life. But if it does, I’m unlikely to be aware of my past lives. And perhaps I will simply be reabsorbed into the great Spirit, the Mystery of existence.
What I fear is not death itself but the process of dying, the possibility of pain, of loss of control and dignity, of being pushed before I’m ready into the abyss of the unknown.
The strength of the Findhorn Community’s relationship with death is that some members have fully come to terms with death, and many others are actively seeking to do so, each in his or her own way that flows from their diverse spiritual paths and experiences of life. And so as a community they are able to see the process of dying as a part of life; as a reconnection with our spiritual roots. A going home. Yes, of course, we grieve for loved ones and lost friends. We are sad, and cry. But we also are able to give thanks for the life that was lived, to celebrate it, to say goodbye and move on.
I was privileged to say farewell to several Community friends in the years I lived there. On each occasion, a few hundred people gathered in the Community’s Universal Hall to celebrate a life well-lived. Each of these events was very different, reflecting the personality and life of the person, and their role in the Community. But all the events shared certain qualities. Each of them was a moving evocation and remembrance of the person’s loves, lives, joys and griefs; a ritual celebration that matched perfectly their character and spirit; a send-off party on their soul’s great journey. There were few dark clothes or consciously long faces. There was a sharing of memories in photos, videos, and stories – sometimes including contributions from the departed themselves through old recordings. We sang favourite songs, and sometimes danced. There was humour as well as solemnity. We moved freely between laughter and tears, helping to release and heal the sense of loss.
Katherine’s departure had a couple of added dimensions. Her family made a time when friends could sit with her and say their private farewells. Her body lay peacefully in her bed, clean and neat but without a cosmetic mask. This was a real gift. It helped us who remained to complete the process of parting, and hopefully it helped Katherine’s soul to move on. Such opportunities to come to terms with the physical reality of death are rare in the western world today.
The second novelty was that the memorial event was also Katherine’s funeral. She was present with us in the Universal Hall in her simple pine coffin, lovingly adapted from a packing case, and it was easy to imagine her celebrating with us, enjoying the many jokes and the videos of her own side-splitting story-telling. And then she was placed on the trailer behind our ancient grey tractor for her final journey to the grave in the Community woodland. Again, it was easy to imagine her enjoying the spectacle of her ‘hearse’ followed by a colourful ribbon of celebrants. Ever the pioneer, she was the first to be buried there. After being lowered into the grave, the coffin was strewn with flowers. Then we each had the opportunity not only to scatter a handful of soil but also to grab a shovel and help fill the hole.
In life there is death. And in death there is life. This awareness helps us let go of the fear of death. I can’t help feeling that this is how it should be.
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