I came across a Bloomberg article a while back about something called “death dinners”, a type of get-together among middle-aged Americans to socialize and discuss our mortality. I had trouble accepting, as the article seemed to suggest, that this has become some sort of widespread trend, as I’d never heard of such a thing prior to reading the article. But no matter. The simple notion that some people were seeking to de-stigmatize death and bring the topic out into the open was worthy of a blog entry.
As the article describes:
Death wasn’t always such an awkward topic. A century ago, with higher rates of infant and maternal death and shorter life expectancies, people were more likely to die at home with their families rather than in hospitals behind closed doors and surrounded by doctors and nurses. It was, for better or worse, more common, natural and visible.
Today, more than half of deaths take place in hospitals and medical facilities, often after extensive interventions including the use of ventilators, feeding tubes or other life-support devices. In a culture that talks of “fighting” illness and “surviving” cancer, where doctors and patients turn to technology for answers, dying is seen as losing the battle.
Pondering our own mortality is something we all do, but often only silently. It is so obviously a natural and normal part of human existence, and yet it is often too painful and frightening a topic to bring out into the open. If the “death dinners” concept is in fact reflective of a real trend, then that’s absolutely cause for celebration.
The problem with ignoring death is that doing so, of course, doesn’t make it any less real. And ignoring the inevitable, however relatively comfortable in the near term, tends to render us emotionally and materially unprepared when it finally visits our loved ones and, eventually, ourselves.
Baha’is believe in the concept of an afterlife. That fact alone isn’t very remarkable, as nearly every belief system has some teaching on what happens after we die. What is more unique, I think, is the spirit which which the Baha’i Writings not only acknowledge but celebrate this fact. For Baha’is, life on earth is simply a stage in the timeless journey of the human soul. The death of the human body signifies the shedding of a material garment and a spiritual transition, not the extinguishing of our existence.
That belief, I think, is inseparable from the Baha’i teaching, inscribed on nearly every page of scripture, that despite our earthly existence we should strive not to be consumed with material desires, and focus on spiritual reality instead. In Baha’u’llah’s Hidden Words He writes:
O SON OF BEING! If thine heart be set upon this eternal, imperishable dominion, and this ancient, everlasting life, forsake this mortal and fleeting sovereignty.
In another passage He tells us:
The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it. Break not the bond that uniteth you with your Creator, and be not of those that have erred and strayed from His ways. Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.
So if the material world around us is essentially worthless, what’s the point? Why not just speed on the highway, take up chain smoking, and eat Oreo Cakesters all day long? The reason is that our material life on earth is spiritually significant, in that we are provided the stage upon which to search for and discover our Creator. As this blog has tried to describe many times, we can do that not only through our thoughts and our words, but especially through our actions. In fact, Baha’u’llah tells us not to waste a moment of our earthly lives. In the Hidden Words He warns:
O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.
Similarly, He tells us:
O OFFSPRING OF DUST! Be not content with the ease of a passing day, and deprive not thyself of everlasting rest. Barter not the garden of eternal delight for the dust-heap of a mortal world. Up from thy prison ascend unto the glorious meads above, and from thy mortal cage wing thy flight unto the paradise of the Placeless.
I think the existence of this teaching — not only that the human soul has an existence beyond this material one, but that we should actively ponder that fact in our day-to-day lives — is more than just a description of metaphysical reality. It serves a practical purpose for our lives here on earth. As the two passages above suggest, it of course encourages the individual to make the most of his or her life. But it also helps us take a deep breath and escape the fear of dying that is such a natural part of being human, which has benefits not only for the individual but society at large.
As just one illustration of this, consider that about a fifth of all our medical expenses occurs in the last year of our lives. Ask any doctor who’s involved with older patients, and he or she can probably tell you countless stories of individuals who, desperate to cling on to life at all costs, sacrificed tremendously not only in terms of money but their own comfort in their last days. Other patients, for whatever reason, are able to come to grips with their fast-approaching mortality, and dedicate their time and energy to tying loose ends, cherishing their loved ones, and making peace with the fact that their time is coming to an end.
This is not to say that all efforts to save an individual’s life through medical intervention aren’t worth it. But it’s clear to me that the fear of death causes us too often to place disproportionate weight on the quantity of time we have left, rather than the quality.
Interestingly enough, “death dinners” aren’t a novel idea for those familiar with the Baha’i Faith. If you’re a Baha’i or someone who’s hung around Baha’is, there’s a good chance you’ve studied something called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, which is a collection of Baha’i passages and accompanying exercises designed for groups of people to come together to discuss, with a large section dedicated to “Life after death”.
But regardless of what forum we choose to open up this discussion, it simply can’t stay in the shadows. Each one of us will have to go, some day. And the sooner we can accept that reality, the sooner we can get on with living.