On Death and Dying

This is actually a post I meant to do long ago, but couldn’t find the right words. I’m glad I waited because I had the honor of seeing a presentation done by someone who does death midwifery and home funerals. The amazing woman who does this was one of my classmate’s at Sacred Journey School of Herbal Wisdom and she introduced the concept to us on the first day of class. For months I thought that meant that she specialized in still- births, and because I didn’t want to think about death I didn’t inquire any further. I can say with confidence that after 5 months of this class my fear of death has diminished greatly, and I was dying (pun intended) to hear her final project presentation about using herbs in deathwifery. As expected I was blown away. She spoke about how the modern funeral industry has taken the beauty and ritual away from death and has turned it into a vulgar and very scary thing. As a death midwife she gently guides the dying to the other side (preferably at home) and helps them come to terms with their passing. She spoke of sacred rituals, spirituality and love and reassured us that death did not have to be so terrifying, in fact if we came to terms with it we could truly find healing. These are ideas I’ve toyed with in the past, but to have it laid out in such a clear way was incredibly helpful and therapeutic. They are offering a very affordable workshop in June and I am so bummed that I will be out of town that weekend, but I’m sure there will be more. This is something I’d actually consider doing as a calling, which came as a surprise because just a few months ago I was one of the most death phobic people around. Actually, maybe it does make sense because phobias are obsessive thoughts, but that is a whole other story. 

Death and I are not strangers. My upbringing was heavily influenced by Mexican culture which does not shy away from it in the slightest. Once a year on Día de los muertowe celebrate it with altars and food offerings to our deceased love ones. It is the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and  dead is lifted and we can cohabitate. I remember as a young child crossing over into Mexico and having  picnics in the cemetery which, in truth, always made me lose my appetite. When my great grandmother died we all gathered in the house to say goodbye, but I was still considered too young to be in the room when it happened. I vaguely remember her funeral, how the men dug her grave and everyone threw a handful of dirt into it and how upset I was that they were burying such a pretty box (a detail my mother won’t let me forget). The thing is even after all these years, burying such a pretty box still seems rather silly.

day of dead

(c) Alex Briseño
Altar to causalties of the Drug War

When my grandfather died a few years ago I was present and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. We all knew it was going to happen soon as he had been bed-ridden for some time. The family had been in and out of the house for days in expectation, but he was still hanging on. When his blood pressure plummeted my grandmother ( a trained nurse) knew the end was near and called everyone over. There were over 15 of us in the room as he died. I was holding one hand, my grandmother was holding another and someone was stroking his head. His breathing became very slow and shaky and his blood pressure kept dropping until the machine could no longer read it. His breath would stop and then he would gasp for air, he didn’t want to go. My grandmother said, “It is alright Mason you can leave. We are alright. We’ll see you on the other side.” Then he took his final breath and was gone. My grandmother says that is the same breath you take when you are born. My mother said she did the same thing for my great-grandmother. It is the same thing I hope to do for her when her time comes. It was so beautiful. My grandfather was Jewish so we ripped the clothes we were wearing and sat with his body until it was taken away. He was buried in a pine box.

I thought of all this yesterday as I listened to my classmate’s presentation and felt blessed  to have these traditions in my life. I wondered why I had been  so afraid of death if it was never considered taboo in my family. I realized that it came not from my culture, but my landscape. A landscape where violent, meaningless death has sadly become the norm. I was not afraid of death, I was afraid of it not having any meaning.

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