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3-18-07 - On the deaths of two who were close to Clay and on what to do before the funeral.

From 3-16-07 What's New page:

Back home in the wee hours from Bend, saddened by news of two tragic deaths  that happened here while I was away. Rest in peace young Jeremiah Chass whom Clay knew from school and soccer field. Rest in peace Bryon Prokopowich, beloved husband of Kirsten and father of Troy whom Clay jams with. At first I wondered what I should do, could do, but it's Clay's world, and he and his friends are dealing with it all at meetings and memorials and all I can do is be available with a car now and then. I think of a line of the poem on the han, the board that is struck to call us to zazen: Shoji was jidai ni shite - Life and death is the great matter. - DC

Now it's the 18th. There was a memorial service for Jeremiah in Sebastopol yesterday. See Remembering Jeremiah. The community center overflowed. Clay had also gone to a meeting for friends in a home the day before. He brought a bunch of kids over here Friday and Saturday night. They were pretty quiet but they were dealing with it all. I admire them. And I'm glad they need so little from me. I built a fire.

The father of Troy, one of Clay's best friends, died last Tuesday riding his motorcycle, the victim of a hit and run. Looks like the driver's been caught. I feel for him too.

I wanted to visit but didn't know when. Clay called yesterday and said this is a good time. Inside the door were two Tibetan monks. I looked at them with hesitation then finally remembered - tashi delek. They smiled and responded in kind. Two women were decorating a table with flowers. Oh - not just a table - there was Bryon's corpse on it - dressed in soft, colorful cloth and bloom, appearing peaceful, the only mark I saw a scrape on his chin. I'd known him only to say hello. Now his body, his face, his feet spoke to me, brought me from daydream to heightened awareness and slightly trembling breath. I took a flower and placed its stem under his shoulder. Clay came over and hugged me. He'd heard my brief greeting. He placed a flower and after a while went off. I stood there settling, reorienting, accepting sadness. Turned around. There was food, people, music. I thought, this is how it ought to be. I ate some bread and cheese and looked at an altar of pictures. Outside, a friend of Troy's strummed a guitar sitting on the skateboard ramp. Meat was smoking over coals - a Tibetan offering to the departed. A young female classmate of Clay's sat by me, asked how I was doing. The guitarist came up. I took his hand. Didn't try to say anything. On the way over I'd felt unconnected, apprehensive, inadequate. Now this simple, traditional gathering surrounded the widow and son, comforted us all.

I would like to be able to say more about this way of responding to death, what sort of traditions and options there are, how to take care of the grieving and the body of the deceased, prepare it to be at home or somewhere were people can join, sit, just be around. Yvonne Rand has for many years dealt with death and dying and I've heard her speak about preparing bodies so that people can be with them but I don't see anything on her web site about it. She says the orifices have to be plugged as they start draining immediately. Maybe Bryon's body had been embalmed - it had been four days. People I know who've sat with un-embalmed bodies have mainly done it for the first three days following death. I've read of saints who don't decay.

I remember in Japan going to pay my respects a few times to homes where the body of the deceased lay dressed on the tatami with incense and flowers. I seem to remember a Jewish tradition of keeping the body around for a few days. The Muslim tradition, as I understand it, is to bury the body as soon as possible. I favor keeping the body around but not if the person didn't want it beforehand - or if the family doesn't. I think it's good to have the body around for the living, but I also have a strong feeling, like the Tibetans, that being with the body after death can be helpful to the deceased in this most important transition. Autopsies should wait.

I remember contacting Pen Andrews through a psychic friend named Fred after Penn died of AIDS back in '86. Fred said Penn said thanks a lot for sitting with him in sickness, death, and after he had died and told me to thank people at the Zen Center for that. He said it was helpful. You might not believe in that sort of thing. Penn was skeptical too. Fred didn't know anything. There's more to the story but not for now.

I read a Buddhist novel not long ago called Jake Fades which is coming out in April. In this book an American Zen teacher dies during a sesshin. I gave it a positive blurb but in the email to the Shambhala editor I had a few comments, one of which mentioned that I wished that when Jake died, they'd meditated with his body for a few days or at least brought all the students up to be with him for the afternoon like what happened with Shunryu Suzuki (who was taken away too quickly cause we didn't know better). Just ignoring it like they did (in this fictional book) to me was not right. They just sat more while some morticians came and got the body. I said that's it's something that could happen in some Western Zen circles that are cut off from cultural traditions or haven't thought those things out yet, mainly just doing zazen, koans, and whatever practice they've been taught.

So I'm thinking this is something we should talk about and not be clueless about. Please send me links and ideas about all this. People basically know what to do about funerals and memorials. But What to Do Before the Funeral is what I'm thinking about. The most important thing of course is to awaken to who we are, but I think we need culture, we need to know how to be with each other in life and death, so, awake or asleep to reality, we learn how to tie our shoes, comfort friends and family, and treat corpses.

3-20-07 - Cheryl F sent a heartfelt note in which she said, "The Tibetans always say that death can come at any time and without warning and so we should be prepared but we never are." Almost never, but see below. I think it can be said that a benefit of waking up to who we are is to prepare us for death.

See Loring Palmer's Response to this post and our emails back and forth.

On Death and Dying
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