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Anthropologists commonly regard the evidence of funeral rites around a dead body as the first signs of a distinctly human consciousness. Many animals clearly mourn their dead, but we human beings aren’t content with that. We need the supernatural as well! What initially distinguishes us from animals, or at least what adds a human superstructure to our basic animal nature, is this kind of spirituality around death.

The presence of ornaments, food or weapons in a prehistoric grave suggests that the survivors felt the dead person would still need them. They imply a belief that death was not final, despite the repulsive evidence, and that the dead would survive in some kind of afterlife. Hence the grotesque obsession with death found in ancient Egypt, for example.

Ceremonies typically accompany rites of passage such as birth, death, marriage, graduation and so on. A ceremony typically suggests three things. Firstly, that this event is very important, even if we can’t say why. Secondly, that its significance is too profound to be fully understood in words. It commonly needs the support of images, symbols and music to impart the mystery. And thirdly, that this event deserves at least a few minutes of silent contemplation. A ceremony is an invitation to consider: what does this mean for me?

Of course, the mystery element in a ceremony is often just befuddlement. We know the event is important and that others want us to be here, but we can’t for the life of us see why. Many, perhaps most, ceremonies are painfully devoid of the meaning we feel they should have. Ceremonies without mystery are like champagne without bubbles. Indeed ceremonies often rely on intoxicants to raise both our animal spirits and our sense of spiritual significance.

I learnt about good ceremonies years ago when I was involved in a Tibetan Buddhist cult. To my chagrin, I soon found that the people lacked my interest in meditation, but that they adored ceremonies. On our retreats, all pretence at meditation was rapidly sacrificed to the preparation of huge theatrical rituals devoted to the evocation of particular deities.

Each would take days to prepare, and each varied according to the deity. The ceremonies required multilevelled altars; ribbons, candles, flowers and foodstuffs of particular colours; paintings, incense, gorgeous robes, sacred texts, magical charms and elegantly wrapped packages of money. Some ceremonies even required cups made of real human skulls filled with wine or ersatz blood, flutes made of real human thighbones to call up the local demons, and on one occasion the intestines of a pig. These spectacular, engaging events were full of symbolic meaning, even though I still can’t really understand what they were actually about.

Eventually I cut my losses and left that group, as did nearly everyone else involved, but I do appreciate what it taught me about ceremonies. They knew how to do it right. They set the benchmark. I now have no trouble distinguishing between a living ceremony and a dead ritual.

I learnt two things in particular. The first is that the more you physically participate in the construction and execution of a ceremony, the more meaningful it becomes. Blood, sweat and tears are very useful ingredients in any spiritual activity. Participants always learn more than spectators. Secondly, any regular ritual needs to be refreshed or it rapidly degenerates into routine or decoration. For example, as a bare minimum, altars need to be kept alive with a daily supply of fresh flowers, water, candles or incense.

Ceremonies are typically about Very Important Events, but they often feel stale if they just run according to the manual. We attend funerals hoping for the best, but also expecting the worse. Funerals often occur with far too much bureaucratic efficiency and haste. They should be an invitation to contemplate, but some barely give you time to breathe. Not surprisingly, many people take matters into their own hands. Here are some of my memories of great deaths and funerals.

When one of my friends knew his mother was dying, he didn’t want to send her to an undertaker, so he researched the legal requirements. He found that he could virtually do everything himself, if he wanted to. He only needed a doctor’s certificate to say she was actually dead, and a suitable place to bury her. When his mother died in her little cottage, the women prepared her body, and she was laid on a table in the living room for three days, always attended by at least one member of the family.

I remember passing her cottage at this time. Through the open window came the sound of a child singing, along with the whiff of decay. I peeked in and saw Amy, her five-year-old granddaughter all alone, singing songs to her dead grandmother. I was most impressed. Since funerals are as much for the living as for the dead, I’m sure Amy would have had very positive memories of her grandmother’s passing.

Another old lady I knew decided it was just too hard trying to reach a hundred as her older sister had done. She was still a lively conversationalist and in full control of her faculties, but she decided to choose her time and style of death. A few months short of her century, she sent out the message that she would soon be dead, and invited all her relatives say goodbye. Dozens came, young and old. She then stopped taking food and water and died four days later. Her niece who was attending her told me: “I went into Auntie’s bedroom every hour to check on her. About midnight, I went to her door and realised I could no longer hear her breathing.”

Of course, it is even better to celebrate your death before it happens. When one of my relatives realised she was about to die at fifty-seven from cancer, she decided to pre-empt her wake. She was a great cook and famous for her parties. She invited everyone to one last fling, a two-day celebration, while she could still enjoy it. She told me proudly that only one of the fifty-four people she invited didn’t come, and that person was out of the country at the time.

When she actually died two months later, only her three closest relatives were at her cremation, and her transition from death to ashes took less than twenty-four hours. No standard funeral for her! She couldn’t bear the idea of people standing around her coffin making lugubrious comments about how wonderful she was.

At funerals, we can’t help but consider that one day we will take the leading role. So what is this mysterious event, or state, or non-state, or non-event that we call ‘Death’, and how will we experience or not experience it, if it can be said to have any existence at all? You can see how difficult it is to grasp.

On one hand, there is no mystery about death at all. It is Nothing, pure and simple, grand in its inescapable majesty, the guaranteed end of every structure more complex than individual atoms. In the human context, it is the end of the body, life, memory, personality and soul. There is probably no fact in the world that is more certain than death, the eventual and complete distintegration of each living thing.

And yet a mystery remains. Despite our best efforts, we are incapable of imagining ourselves dead. We have to be alive to do so. My meditation students often tell me they enter spaces of what they call ‘complete emptiness’. Of course, these states aren’t as empty as they seem. There has to be an observing self identifying them. Similarly, no matter how hard to try to imagine the complete nothingness of death, we have to be alive to do so. We know we will die, but there seems to be some fault in our cerebral wiring that prevents imagining it.

This easily converts into an ‘intuition’ that we can’t ‘really’ die. The intuition goes something like this: “I’m alive. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been alive. I can’t imagine any situation where I’m not alive. Therefore I must live forever.”

Although definitely lacking in sophistication, this argument feels ‘intuitively’ right. Even though Death as ‘Nothing’ wins hands-down according to all the evidence, the idea of an afterlife is actually much easier to grasp. It requires little thought or imagination at all. It is just more of the same, with an unimaginable blip in between. The afterlife is like being alive, but with a change of scenery and perhaps some alterations to the physiology of the body.

Ceremonies invite us to contemplate: “What does this mean for me?” Most of us know in far more detail than we need to what dying is like. It is just like being very sick and tired but worse. But what about death? Is it Nothing, as it seems to be, or is it just a rather painful gateway to an afterlife? It’s worth thinking about.

©Perth Meditation Centre 2009