Our entire society nowadays prepares us from our early years for plenty of things— graduation, marriage, career—without any certitude that these events will happen in our life. Isn’t it incredibly silly not to prepare us for the only event that is absolutely guaranteed? Because having been born, it is inevitable that we shall die one of these days. Is death still a taboo? Articles and books about death and dying pop up quite often; allowing us to hope that death is less a taboo than in the past. However, from a linguistic point of view, it would seem this is not the case. In order for linguists to measure the strength of a taboo, they notice the number of expressions that a language creates to avoid saying the proper word.
Aren’t the dead often called “beloveds” or “loved ones?” Isn’t the morgue referred to as a “funeral home?” When you arrange for your funeral, isn’t it called a “pre-need?” Isn’t the coffin nowadays called a “casket,” closed or open according to your preferences? And isn’t “mortician”—a name that contains the Latin root mors (death)—currently replaced by “funeral director?” Aren’t “memorial parks” and “gardens of remembrance” replacing cemeteries and graveyards?
One might wonder whether North Americans really “die”....
They pass away, are gone, leave us, their candle has been blown out, they off themselves or even push up daisies, go west, kick the bucket, taken the big vacation; but it seems they never die. Once it’s done (oops, again an expression to avoid death!!) they lie/sleep or rest, according to the grave inscriptions. Even the way they die seems to be subjected to this kind of linguistic euphemism: I heard he OD’d (he died from a drug overdose) as well as his heart gave out.
As with most populations, North Americans tend towards the “gradual suppression of direct reference to death” and it is interesting to note these other ways of saying “it” tend to conventionalize very quickly, and turn into mere clichés; losing their motivation and becoming quasi-synonymous and quasitransparent terms, as noted by Enright : “On other occasions we use euphemism unconsciously—it might be the only acceptable term, or the term that everyone uses, and we therefore employ it without thinking.”
If we delete dying from our everyday language, we delete it from our mind. But we cannot delete it from the destiny of human beings.
How to prepare?
Faced with death, we behave like children: we hide our face behind our hands and believe she won’t see us because we do not look at her.
“Prepare yourself for death” is an old commandment, inherent in so many traditions on this planet. There are numerous paths to choose from in order to actually deal with our mortality, ranging from dream yoga (Tibetan, Indian and Mexica traditions); to the phowa or Transference of consciousness (Tibetan tradition); to a number of prayers like “Great God, prostrate before Thee, I accept and adore that sentence of death which Thou hast pronounced over me,” by St. Joseph Cafasso; or the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, that use to take as long as 60 days in the ancient times: “This was the time when they would talk about the ‘great’ death and how to prepare for it; the time when contact was established with dead ancestors, warriors and sages who had crossed the threshold, or had simply come back to life in a different guise, in a different form of existence; and so, instead of fearing death, the Mexicas would make collective preparations for it.”
But the simplest one is:
First, to allow our language to remind us of death by avoiding any linguistic euphemisms.
Second, to observe impermanence in everything. It won’t make us sadder. Exactly the opposite: we will be able to place events at the right context and if, supposing, someone scrapes our car we shall probably be of the opinion of my father (he was a wise man!): “There still will be cars around when we’re not here anymore.” In ancient Rome, any general coming back from victory in the day of his Triumph was ritually told “memento mori”(“remember that you have to die”) by a humble servant and later on, the same phrase became a whole training in the mouth of the Trappist monks, a silent order in which one was not allowed to say anything else. The phrase was used while digging their grave a little bit every day. I’m sure you agree with me that such hard discipline may not be so easy for us to practice nowadays, but that my father’s attitude can make things less stressful. It will bring us less attachment to things and even to people. This mindset led my father to discover how love and attachment are often mixed up in our life and he used a gesture to explain the difference: try to squeeze some water in your fist and you will lose it. This is attachment. Then, turn your palm up, keep your hand open, let the water be free to stay or go, and it will remain with you. This is love.
Third, free yourself of hopes and fears, as they are both forms of attachment to things or persons or ideas. Whatever life offers, instead of judging it and starting to hope or fear, start from the thing itself, good or bad, and make the best out of it, and not for only yourself but for everyone else. A win-win style of life, authentically generous and altruistic, is another way to live fully and to be able, at the end of your days, to have the same attitude in the face of this event called death!
Fourth, instead of feeling anguished about “what happens after,” especially if you have no religious or spiritual references, just reflect that all phenomena—and you are one of those—collapse from the quantum field. They appear for a time in which they continuously change, and disappear when the innumerable strengths that keep them changing include a major change. They are still part of the quantum field. They can again collapse in different forms, sure, under the influence of different causes and conditions. But right now, you are among the causes and the conditions, as you can inform the quantum field. So, why not enrich it with plenty of favorable, good, altruistic information? We do not know how and when, but causes always tend to mature once the conditions are given for this to happen. Does this remind you of the idea of karma? Correct. This is how a Western, modern brain would explain it!
Daniela Muggia is an Italian thanatologist co-author of The Impact of Empathy—A New Approach to Working with ADHD Children and the winner of the prestigious Terzani Award for the Medical Humanities. For almost 30 years she studied the Tibetan tradition of death and dying with Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the groundbreaking Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She also trained with Cesare Boni at Naples University, Italy. After more than 20 years of working with the terminally ill, she has developed the ECEL method, Empathic Care at the End of Life; one of the most popular courses taught in hospitals, hospices and for Masters degree programs at universities in Italy and other countries. The Impact of Empathy was published in October of 2014. www.BlossomingBooks.com and can be purchased through Amazon.com or your local bookstore and also by phone: 1 (800) 247-6553.
Readers may contact the author on her book’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ImpactOfEmpathy where additional articles and interviews are posted, as well as on her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Daniela Muggia).
Are North Americans Immortal?
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Daniela Muggia is an Italian thanatologist co-author of The Impact of Empathy—A New Approach to Working with ADHD Children and the winner of the prestigious Terzani Award for the Medical Humanities. For almost 30 years she studied the Tibetan tradition of death and dying with Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the groundbreaking Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She also trained with Cesare Boni at Naples University, Italy. After more than 20 years of working with the terminally ill, she has developed the ECEL method, Empathic Care at the End of Life; one of the most popular courses taught in hospitals, hospices and for Masters degree programs at universities in Italy and other countries.