Women growing older with grace and gusto

Sunday collection: sacred dying

A far green countryI woke up this morning thinking about death. As you do.

And then the first thing I saw on Facebook was this update from a friend about our age:

Two contemporaries facing the end of their lives. Much need for helpful reflection about how we prepare others and ourselves for this critical stage of our journey.

I hope you don’t mind my second Sunday Collection being on the topic of death and dying. It’s not a comfortable subject for everyone, but, as whoever it was said, death is the only thing certain about life, along with taxes.

Too soon…

The reason I woke up thinking about death was because of the shocking news that came my way on Friday of a former colleague’s death from cancer at the age of 27.

This was unusually young, but one of the normal markers of our lives as we grow older is that we begin to lose our friends, life partners and contemporary family. Sometimes it’s much too soon, sometimes death comes at the right time, even when it’s still difficult for those of us left behind.

And perhaps some of you reading this are yourselves in the process of loosening your hold on life.

And yet we still don’t seem to have enough by way of mechanisms to cope. Our society still prefers to have death take place neatly around the corner out of sight.

Practical preparations

There are some practicalities which makes it easier for loved ones to cope with our deaths, like making a Will and letting people know what funeral arrangements to make. These things are important and we know we should do them. (I haven’t, yet.)

For those in the UK, Amnesty is holding Make a Will Fortnight, which means you can make a Will free of charge or for a donation to Amnesty. So no more excuses.

Digital death

An added complication today for those of us who have rather large online footprints is what happens to all those blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, emails etc. Does your social media life live on after you do? Will Facebook friends be wishing you a happy birthday years after you’ve kicked the bucket? (Not such a bad thing, I guess.)

There’s a good article about this in New Scientist, and there are also services such as Legacy Locker which can help. For a fee. Or you could simply leave a document with usernames and passwords for all your online services. Keep it up to date though, and keep it safe.

But the practical considerations are not the main things I want to talk about today.

Sacred preparation

Medical care for the dying has come a long way in the last couple of decades, although there are still terrible experiences and people dying alone on trolleys in hospital corridors or collapsing in the street.

The Hospice movement has transformed the experience of those nearing the end of life for countless thousands of people, with excellent palliative care and, just as important, the acknowledgement that death is coming, no pretences.

Hospice and hospital chaplains of all faiths work with those nearing death.

Meanwhile new ways of accompanying the dying are appearing.


One of the most beautiful, I think, is music.

A few years ago, as I sat by the bed of my 84 year old aunt on the last night of her life, I was moved suddenly to begin singing to her. She had been unresponsive and apparently unaware of my presence, but as I began to sing the Salve Regina (she was a lifelong Catholic, and lover of music of all kinds), she turned her bony face slowly in my direction, an expression crossing her face of a sort of peaceful yearning. I knew then that she was ready.

There are many a capella groups now who sing in hospices as part of a ministry to the dying. The Threshold Singers are based in Boston, the Harbour Singers in Maine, and the Hallowell Singers in Vermont/New Hampshire. (I doubt this is a phenomenon only of the Eastern Seaboard, but these are the groups I know of.)

Hallowell have this to say of the beginning of their ministry:

In March 2003, during the final week of Dinah Breunig’s life, a group of friends from church and community surrounded her bed to sing for and with her while she lay dying.  On two different evenings, over 30 people came to help Dinah pass over on the wings of the songs she so loved in her life.  It was during those evenings, our voices joined in harmony, our hearts  open with grief and love, that Hallowell was born. We have been singing this way ever since, in groups anywhere from 4 to 35, quiet reverent songs over a person in their last hours, or songs of joy and spirit for someone in hospice care but still fully alive in their dying weeks.

Soul midwives

And Soul Midwives are non-medical people who accompany and support the dying. What do they do?

They keep a loving vigil.
They create and hold a sacred and healing space for the dying person
They recognise and support the individual needs of the departing soul to enable a tranquil death.
They use sound, touch, colour and smell and other gentle techniques to help alleviate pain and anxiety.
They support families and loved ones.

And there’s also the organisation from whose name I took the title of this post: the Sacred Dying Foundation. Here’s what they say about their ministry:

The Sacred Dying Philosophy is concerned with bringing spirituality, through presence and ritual, into the physical act of dying. Sacred Dying facilitates the creation of a setting where death is experienced with honor, respect, and sacredness. This can be as simple as being present with a loved member of your family and as complicated as transforming the vision of our entire society.

Afterlife or not?

Perhaps here would be an appropriate place to tackle the question of whether this life is all there is.

Does it matter? Well on some levels, profoundly, but on others perhaps not so much.

Do people who believe that death is the end approach it with more fear than those whose religious belief makes them feel sinful? Or more resignation. I’m not sure. (I’d love to hear what you think about this.)

But surely ritual and sacramental approaches to dying are the practices to which we should aspire, whatever our beliefs.

Personally, I don’t believe this life is the end, although I have no idea what might come next. Here’s what Gandalf told Pippin:

Being ready

Born like a dream
In this dream of a world
How easy in mind I am
I who will fade away
like the morning dew

Ikkyu Sojun

We’re all amateurs at dying. And we may not have the luxury of preparation. Some of us may prefer the idea of a quick and sudden end. Personally, I would prefer not to “take a header” into death without some warning, but the choice is not mine.

We lie down at night, all of us, even the most healthy, not quite knowing if we will get up tomorrow. There’s a surrender in Sojun’s words above which would be wonderful to live by.

My final recommendation is a book called The Grace in Dying, by Kathleen Dowling Singh. Offering insights from spirituality, transpersonal psychology and her experience over many years accompanying the dying, this book is full of treasures.

So I leave you – and I hope that in spite of all this talk of death and dying you have a wonderful week – with the words of C.S. Lewis and The Last Battle:

It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you might get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking-glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story – in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.

Farther up, and farther in…

Father up and father in

Image credits Alice Popkorn

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20 Responses to Sunday collection: sacred dying

  1. This is a great piece and it is hard to come by this kind of material.I am saving this post to re-read.It is very well researched and put together in a dignified manner and it is not spooky.The words by Sojun stir one’s spirit.
    Thank you,Tess

    Thank you,

  2. I was just writing about death yesterday so no, I don’t mind reading about you talking about it 🙂

    I’m only halfway through this article, but I just wanted to jump in and say that I am transcribing a focus group at the moment. And this group of women are talking about whether they would participate as agents marketing a particular network marketing product. One of the participants was saying that what would sway her is if she could pass it on to her kids when she died.

    It interested me – and I notice this so often – the responses to her mentioning dying. There were titters from some people. Another person said further along the meeting, “You’re so focussed on dying. You’re not going to die!”

    It’s like it’s still this taboo subject. Which is indicative more than anything of the soullessness of Western culture. If we can’t face death, how can we face life? Isn’t life about preparing to die in some sense?

    Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. I do think things are changing though slowly.

    Okay, back to transcribing and reading the rest of this post 🙂
    Sue recently posted..Dust to DustMy Profile

    • [Pause to read Sue’s post and comment on it at Discombobula]
      I wish I’d checked your blog before I wrote my Collection, I would have linked to it. Your vision of the enlarging Source is stunningly beautiful.
      Folks – if you’re reading this,click the “Dust to Dust” link in Sue’s comment above.
      Interesting this product meeting. In our family we were all kind of used to mentions of death, so it didn’t seem odd. My mum would do things like investing in a new winter coat and saying “it’s good quality, it will see me out” and no-one thought it odd. Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

  3. Hi, it’s me again.

    I have tears rolling down my face. It took less than half a minute of watching Gandalf talking to Pippin to get me crying.

    Thanks, Tess, such a beautiful post. Your post dignifies dying, which is something that is sorely needed. I am so grateful for those people you have mentioned in this post who bring sacredness into the space where people are dying.

    You said: “Do people who believe that death is the end approach it with more fear than those whose religious belief makes them feel sinful? Or more resignation. I’m not sure. (I’d love to hear what you think about this.)”

    What an interesting question. I tend to think that those who believe death is the end find a certain sort of comfort in it. I would think that they are less fearful than those whose religion is twisting them into torment about whether they’ll jump through the requisite hoops. I’m interested to hear what others have to say about this.
    Sue recently posted..Dust to DustMy Profile

    • And yes, Gandalf and Pippin always makes me cry. I almost resent it, because the music is scored so masterfully and deliberately to emphasise it. I like the very end of the clip, too, which you hardly see, when the attack quickens, they stop talking, and Pippin visibly steels himself, finding his bravery.
      And as to my question, yes that’s pretty much what I suspect. I know my Mum, who was religious all her life, went through moments of terrible fear in her last few days, although I’m not sure whether that’s because she was fearful of her sins or fearful that there might not, after all, be anything to come.

  4. I dreamt last night that I was dancing with Philip and he was smiling and saying that everything would be alright. I need those words right now. You have been so privileged to be with Auntie at the end of her time and indeed with Philip when he passed. I don’t believe in Hell and damnation, my God is too kind for that, I don’t fear Death, I do fear leaving my loved ones behind. I MUST make a will!

  5. Of course, I do not know for sure, but I tend to think that death is the end. That gives me comfort, and believing that life is brief and finite makes it all the more precious. I cannot imagine living forever, sounds like that could become punishment after a while.

  6. Tess

    Thanks for this post. I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer just over a year ago so death has, not surprisingly, been on my mind. Knowing that I’m on limited timeabsolutely has made life more precious and has stopped me fretting about some of the daft things I used to worry about.

    I too believe in some kind of afterlife but, if I’m wrong, I can’t say I find the idea of oblivion frightening. I wouldn’t say I’ve come to terms with the idea of my own death but I’m not as terrified as I was a year ago. Having said that I do feel pretty well at the moment so I reserve the right to go into meltdown as and when my health fails.

    I’ve sorted out finances and wills but haven’t yet had the guts to think about funeral arrangements. However, I have warned people that if my funeral features a lot of dire 80s anthems it means my husband chose the music (his taste in music is dreadful).

    I do find though that some friends and relatives are very resistant to me talking about death (not that I do it that much). I try to explain that my cancer is incurable, that it is stage IV and that there is no stage V, but still some people seem to think that if I just stay positive I can ‘beat’ it. I think this is probably all part of the death taboo.

    Anyway before I ramble myself into a corner I’ll just say thanks again for the post and I’ll definitely be getting the book you recommend.
    Della recently posted..Boggle bluesMy Profile

    • Della, thank you so much for this honest comment. I just had a quick look at your blog and will visit again later.
      I’m so sorry to hear of your cancer, and think you absolutely should reserve the right to go into meltdown!
      What you say about people wanting you to stay “upbeat” reminds me of the British columnist John Diamond, who died several years ago. (He was Nigella Lawson’s first husband, and had throat cancer, which eventually meant he was unable to enjoy the wonderful food his wife cooked, but I digress.) He used to rage about all the well-meaning people who wanted him to stay positive – as if it was his fault that he was dying, and if he could just try harder…
      Thanks again for what you say here.

  7. I went in for a second surgery this month – spent hours preparing papers with my oldest daughter and putting things in order – I danced with so many ideas on how to do what and who to designate to do whatever – and so many other who’s and what’s – I am glad to say that I now have a start on this bundle of papers that spell out instructions – We laughed going through it – trying to figure things out – There can be no doubt on how I want things – that is until I change my mind once again and then we will re-do –

    I do not fear death because of punishment or sins or guilt or not believing in the “right” religion – I have given up on all of that since it makes me woozy – I want to enjoy and place within me all that is good and loving – I have my own faith/religion/spirituality — it keeps adding to itself as I grow older and I suspect as I find peace and move on to a new thought provoking question – I honestly believe that love is the answer – I want to believe that I will see my parents and loved ones again – in many ways I need to believe that – but I will not fear about the afterlife whatever that may be – I know I do not want to leave my family and that is difficult –

    boy – thanks for this post – I need to print it out and make notes !! WONDERFUL
    Bobbi recently posted.."WOO – HOO – NESS"My Profile

    • Hi Bobbi, I’m sorry to hear about your second surgery. I wonder if there’s something about all these practical arrangements that’s actually helpful.
      I know EXACTLY what you mean about religion and stuff making you feel “woozy”. I think there’s something for us in the Buddhist practice of non-attachment – far too many ‘religious’ people cling to chapter and verse and right or wrong.

  8. To me there is peace in admitting I do not know what comes next if anything. I don’t have to bend myself into a pretzel making something fit that doesn’t–or as Bobbie says, feeling “woozy”! That said, I do know for sure that I am part of the whole of life and the matter that is my body will not be lost but transformed to nourish and be incorporated into something living. So in this way, yes, we live forever. Science teaches us that matter is neither created nor lost–just changes form.

  9. Really, what an amazing idea to leave behind your social media master key. To see a post from a friend that has passed away by a family member or friend on their behalf would life my spirits so high. There are so many I miss that I would like one more goofy post or blog to read and feel them with me again. Thank you for your words this blog has made me feel good today.

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