Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.
Birth and death are the beginning and end of life on earth. On the time scale of our infinite life, it may be only a flash, but nevertheless it is a very precious and rare opportunity for learning and spiritual development. The birth experience shapes our view of life, relationships and health. The death experience influences our life after death and our future life. We do not remember our birth but according to Dr. Rudolf Steiner we will clearly remember our death. From the perspective of life in the spiritual world, death on earth is the beginning a new life. How one is born in the spiritual world has great significance.
Because of this, the ancient civilizations and religions have treated death with great importance and respect. During the dying process and after death, there are special prayers, send-offs, blessings and farewells. How one views death, and how one cares for the dead have profound impacts on the one who is leaving, the living ones left behind, and on the entire society.
I grew up in a “nuclear” family, that is, far away from the older generations of grandparents. As a child I never experienced the death of a family member. The death of my father more than three years ago had a profound impact on me. His communications with us after death opened up a whole new horizon. I have written about these in the Lapis Lazuli Light magazine. I feel that during the last few years I received help from my father, and have discovered many new areas of knowledge. Dr. Steiner emphasized that the invisible spiritual world and our material world are really one world. The two are inseparable. We receive help from those who have passed on, usually through the unconscious. Often various ideas and inspirations to action come from the spiritual world. Communications between the two sides are important. Those who have passed on need our love and spiritual support, while we need their guidance, accumulated experience and wisdom.
At the beginning of this year after suffering from a stroke for eleven days, Mom passed away from this world. All six daughters accompanied her during this dying process. We stayed at her side offering prayers before her death, and cared for her body after her death. Her body was cremated four days later. We came to know about the Crestone End of Life Project, with whose help mom was cremated at an outdoor cremation site surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This experience inspired me to know more about this community group and to write about how families can care for their own dead. Because we maintained contact with mom by having her body at home for the four days before cremation, we received her love and her gifts. Each daughter experienced something unique and special. Later when I researched about American families who cared for their own dead, I came to know that this is a common experience, and one that is very different from the experiences of people who immediately send the body to a funeral home.
Many non-profit groups that help families to care for their own dead have encountered many moving stories in the course of helping the families. Some of these groups are influenced by Dr. Steiner’s work. According to Dr. Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, it takes three days for the higher bodies (etheric, astral and ego bodies) to completely disengage from the physical body after a person stops breathing. During this period the departing consciousness reviews the life just left behind and says farewell to loved ones. This is a very sacred period where the two worlds can meet. The prayers made by the family members will help the one departing. The “dead” completely sees the inner thoughts and actions of those around. Because the higher bodies have not left, the body will not immediately decompose. Also the facial expressions can still be changed.
An Anthroposophical doctor noticed that often the facial expressions of those who suffered before death due to illness become very peaceful one day after death. I have heard of a case in which case a person died in the hospital, after which the facial expression became very peaceful. However, after the body was taken to the funeral home and embalmed, the expression and color deteriorated. When my uncle’s wife died in Hunan, some suggested cremation right away. My aunt insisted that the body be put in a coffin and taken home to the village. Three days later, when her child rushed home and cried upon opening the coffin, blood came out of the mouth of this aunt who had just died. The tradition in China since ancient times is to mourn the body for three days. The body is kept at home for at least three days before cremation or burial. The Catholics in the old days also observed the three day “wake” or watching over the body and praying for three days. A spiritual teacher in India received complaints from those who were cremated too soon after their death, a course of action that made them uncomfortable.
In modern America, the dead are turned over to funeral homes. Those who die in the hospital are removed immediately and sent to the morgue. They are cremated in the hospital crematorium or sent to the funeral home. Sometimes family members arrive to find only a box of ashes. Funeral homes generally use chemicals to embalm the body. The ones most commonly used are formaldehyde and phenol. The blood vessels are injected with these chemicals. The contents and fluids of the intestines and organs are first punctured and sucked out, then replaced with these chemicals. This only slows down the decomposition so that during the funeral, the body looks as if it is asleep. After burial, the body will decompose. The embalming process injures the workers in the funeral homes, increasing the risk of cancers of the lymph, brain and large intestine. The use of these chemicals also pollutes the water and the environment. The embalmed body cannot be worked on by the higher bodies, resulting in a wax museum appearance.
Almost two years ago after Mom developed a congestive heart problem, we began making mental preparation for her eventual death. The remaining time with her was precious and we helped her to make preparations. Every evening before she fell asleep, the sisters and I would take turns reciting the mantra of Compassion Buddha. Om Mani Padme Hum was the prayer that she wished to have recited at the time of her death. We also reminded her to do her daily prayers and make water bowl offerings. When the weather was warm, the sisters took her to walk around the stupa near here. Weeks before her stroke, she looked particularly at peace. Every evening she would thank us for taking care of her. She also talked about “going home”. After her stroke, we played sacred chants daily for almost 24 hours: Compassion mantra, Vajra Cutter Sutra, Sanghata Sutra, etc. We also recited the Compassion mantra near her. Three days before her passing, I was reciting the Compassion mantra next to her when suddenly she opened her eyes very wide. Her eyes were bright and dark like her younger days, and full of joy. The other sisters all came to her bedside. She looked at each of us for some time. After her stroke she had rarely opened her eyes. That evening she communicated her love and joy to us through her eyes. We were all elated, thinking that she was going to get well. The next day her blood pressure started to drop. When it continued to drop the day after, we made preparations for her passing. We set up an altar next to her bed. We placed a relic of Shakymuni Buddha over her head. We also placed Buddhist texts such as the Graduated Path to Enlightenment at the head of the bed, planting the seed for her eventual mastering of the sacred knowledge. We also put blessed water and a blessed pill in her mouth. At least one sister always stayed with her at night. Whenever mom’s breathing became labored the sister would call the rest of us. We would do some energy work and recite Compassion and Medicine Buddha mantras. When her breathing became easy and calm again we would then go back to sleep. On the day of her passing I sat next to her to do her daily prayers. Before finishing reciting the Sanghata Sutra, I switched to her favorite long mantra of great compassion. Halfway through, her soft breathing stopped. I held back the tears and completed reciting the mantra. The sisters all came around to recite the Compassion and Medicine Buddha mantras. About one hour before, our spiritual teacher had told us that mom would pass away within several hours and do not give her intravenous fluid that day. He also instructed us to recite certain mantras and dedication prayers. Before her consciousness departed, we were to recite the mantra of purification and visualize white light purifying negativities of body, speech and mind. Three hours after she stopped breathing, one sister checked the heart chakra with a pendulum and the pendulum did not spin anymore. Earlier it was still spinning. At the time when she stopped breathing, her mouth was slightly open. I could see her bottom teeth. After three hours of chanting and praying, we heard a noise coming from the lower jaw. When we looked next, she had closed her mouth. Her expression was peaceful with a slight smile. After the stroke her face on the right side had drooped a little. There was no trace of that after her death. At the age of 86, her face had no wrinkles and was radiant. We would offered prayers with her everyday. When one sister would look at Mom’s expression, she would smile because Mom’s personality was fully expressed in her face.
The evening that she stopped breathing, after we were certain that her consciousness had left the body, we cleansed her body and changed her clothes. Before we touched her, we first pulled the hair on her crown just in case her consciousness had not left yet. Taped to her crown were the 10 powerful mantras and a blessing pill. The Crestone End of Life Project reminded us do not leave plastic or metal for the cremation. Clothing should be of natural fiber. I carefully removed the I.V. tube from her wrist. This was the only foreign object in her body after the stroke. In the coldest part of winter, the outside daytime temperature was in the twenties Fahrenheit and zero at night. Opening the window a little turned her bedroom into a refrigerator. In warmer weather, one needs to cool the trunk of the body with ice, so that the body can be kept at home for three to five days. That same afternoon I had already contacted Stephanie, one of the main coordinators for the CEOLP. The volunteers went into action right away preparing for the cremation four days later. The outdoor cremation site was covered with snow and it took six to seven volunteers to clear the site. They put up the fencing; notified the fire station and other offices; and prepared the actual wood pyre. All together about twenty people were involved. They also asked if we needed help with the ceremony and taking care of the body. A carpenter made a Palenque to transport the body. We cut juniper branches to be placed over the body. Julia from the group came the next morning to help me fill out the death certificate. She signed the form on the line for funeral director. The doctor that saw Mom after her stroke also signed the form. Then the form was faxed to the county offices at Del Norte. They faxed back the disposition form required for the day of the cremation.
When not busy with taking care of paper work, I prayed at the bedside of my Mom. One day when I opened the door to her room, I saw my fifth sister sitting there quietly in the rocking chair. She told me that last summer when she came to spend a few weeks with mom, at dusk they would listen to her favorite Buddhist songs. She had just shared that music with Mom before I came in.
Saying farewell at home allows each person to have the time and space to say goodbye and accept the reality of the passing of a dear one. It also allowed neighbors and friends to pay their last respects. A friend from Denver brought many flowers. The night before the cremation each of us offered a rose to Mom, and thanked her for all that she had given us. During this period we clearly felt the presence of Mom’s consciousness outside her body.
The morning before the day of cremation I “heard” Mom saying,” I am leaving; take care of yourself.” On the morning of cremation, I “heard” her say, “Cremation is good, cremation is good.” That day I also knew that I must write about the work of CEOLP for other communities.
At eight in the morning Stephanie, Julia and the driver of a small truck came to transport Mom’s body to the cremation site. The other sisters were already there to set up the outdoor altar and CD player for chants. Mom’s daughters and sons-in-law carried the body to the pyre. The pyre was built of two low walls with a metal grate in the middle. Piles of wood were placed below, and drenched with kerosene. Above the body we piled juniper branches and more wood. Then we sprinkled flowers above that. The juniper branches gave off fragrance when burned and also covered the body. Stephanie first offered a prayer, and then the fourth sister lit the fire. We recited the prayers that we had been doing everyday since Mom’s passing: refuge, mantras of Compassion Buddha, Medicine Buddha, “Prayer To Be Born In The Land of Bliss,” and the King of Prayers. Community members who knew Mom and volunteers who were helping out joined family and a few friends from afar for the ceremony. The abbot of the Dragon Zen Mountain Center, who donated the cremation site, was also there. We could feel the warmth and support from everyone. Three hours later at the completion, people actually felt uplifted. One person felt the sky was filled with the Buddha of Compassion during the recitation of the long Compassion Mantra. One friend who had never considered cremation before thought he would want cremation after this experience. Another friend from Denver said this is how she would like to go. She felt the presence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
The morning after the cremation I met with Wayne to collect Mom’s ashes. As we were collecting the ashes, I started my interview. He has helped in four to five cremations. He joined this group as a volunteer because he knew the person who built this pyre. He is a meditator with no family members living nearby. He felt being part of this group was one of the most helpful spiritual practices that he did. One day when it is his time to die, he knows that this group will take care of his body according to his wishes.
Holding Mom’s ashes, looking out to the snowy peaks at the distance, I know I have begun another phase of my journey. Thank you, mother. May your life and death continue to benefit more lives. Thank you for lifting me up to another level.
- Steiner, Rudolf, Staying Connected
- Harris, Mark, Grave Matters, Scribner, 2007.