Thinking About Death


We know much less about death than our ancestors. A hundred years ago most deaths and births took place at home. Few couples had all their children survive childhood. Death was commonplace, and not yet exiled to hospitals and nursing homes.
I recently read an article by a woman whose mother had seen her husband kept alive through heroic means and subsequently lived a miserable life until he was able to die. The wife decided she wasn’t going to allow her life to end that way, and made legal preparations. She might have lived longer, but she died still experiencing a fairly high quality of life. Without such preparations, and even sometimes with, many people die miserably, experiencing pain in bodies that no longer work, often confused, and frequently miserable. Our high tech approach to the end of life often doesn’t serve people very well.
But that’s the view only of this side of the river. We have little knowledge of the other side.
There are near-death experiences, which are fairly common, and have been studied. Probably most people have heard the common description of the dying person going down a tunnel, at the end of which is joy and light. Some, having experienced this, don’t want to come back. But that’s only the beginning of what happens after death.
Having worked in nursing homes for a good many years, I’ve seen a good many deaths, but only from the outside. Some of what I’ve seen seems instructive, but I can only infer what the person dying is feeling. I can’t experience his or her emotion.
Some just slip away quietly. Others struggle for that last breath. Some approach the end with quiet dignity, others with fear.
One man I knew had become a state policeman during the Great Depression, and had made that his entire career. He’d been married a very long time, lived a few years without his wife, attained the age of 100, and shortly after died with members of his family around him, alert and able to speak coherently almost to the end. That seems like a pretty ideal way to go, but a lot of people can’t manage it.
Another man was upset when he became incontinent, saying he couldn’t live that way. Being incontinent is inconvenient and humiliating, but it seems a rather frivolous reason to want to die, and that was how he seemed to be approaching it. He did die relatively soon thereafter.
A woman who spent time in a nursing home I’ve worked in impressed me in another way. She was terrified. She couldn’t sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, and kept insisting she was a good person, as if we were accusing her. I think she was accusing herself, of what I don’t know. One night before I started working she was restless, and at a friend’s suggestion, I tried reading poetry to her. She took the poetry I read as a personal accusation too. I heard second-hand that whe was a member of an important family and knew a lot of important people, but it seemed very clear that something had gone badly wrong in her life, and that she was in agony about it.
But what DOES happen after death? Outside of the studies of near-death experiences, we don’t have much approaching the standard of scientific data. We have beliefs in heaven and hell, plus purgatory, which adds a little sophistication to the concept. We also have beliefs in reincarnation, and that after death there’s nothing. But does anyone actually know before dying?
I suspect that one’s experience may be deeply influenced by cultural beliefs. Belief that one is among the Elect may lead to a happy experience. Belief that one is irretrievably damned may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, a person might be completely surprised, positively or negatively, by whatever happens.
A Grateful Dead fan who had taken a lot of LSD believed that we’re each a drop of water, and that when we die we reenter the ocean. So we become part of a greater organism that includes every experience of every person. He found comfort in that idea, and professed to no longer be afraid of death. The author of the book recording his opinion found the idea of a saint and a serial killer being treated with absolute equality rather disconcerting. Someone with much experience of LSD may have more insight than most, though.
George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher of the last century, said a number of things about death, but didn’t go into the subject in great detail in most of the things I’ve read, though I believe he did in his Tales of Beelzebub to His Grandson. But a number of people who wrote about Gurdjieff told some curious stories.
When Gurdjieff was beginning his teaching in Moscow and St. Petersburg he told the group he’d gathered around him that there was no use talking about reincarnation because of all the things that had been said about it already. Apparently anything he could say about it would have been misunderstood. So he said little or nothing.
P.D. Ouspensky, perhaps Gurdjieff’s most famous student, had an almost obsessive belief in what he called Eternal Recurrence. He believed that we live the same life over and over again, and can’t progress to another level until we remember enough from previous lives to keep from repeating mistakes. He said that Gurdjieff had told him that what he believed wasn’t far wrong.
Another story, this one told by a young teenager living at the Institute Gurdjieff set up in the 1920s in France may partially confirm this. Gurdjieff had had an almost fatal auto accident in 1924, and took a long time to recover. Not long after he discovered that both his mother and his wife were terminally ill. He later said that his mother’s death didn’t disturb him too much, since she had lived a full life. His wife, though, was only in her thirties or forties. He told the young teenager, Fritz Peters (who wrote about it many years later) that he was trying to keep his wife alive as long as possible (which may seem an odd way to treat someone with terminal cancer) because she was an “old soul” and had the possibility of going completely beyond the world, presumably to whatever was the proper next stage of her development.
More that twenty years later, another of his students, J.G. Bennett, told how Gurdjieff asked him about his dead mother. His mother had died several years earlier, Bennett had been with her, and had had a strong impression that she was confused and disoriented, that she had put her faith in the wrong things, and didn’t know what to do. Bennett said he had no idea how to help her.
He told Gurdjieff this, and Gurdjieff said that he could help her through his own mother, who had died more than twenty years before. Apparently Gurdjieff had some kind of contact with his mother, even though she’d been dead so long. He gave Bennett and exercise of bringing the two women together. Bennett said he spent an hour a day for about six weeks concentrating on pictures of the two women. For a long time nothing seemed to be happening, then he began to get visions of the two, but his mother’s face was turned away from that of Gurdjieff’s mother. Eventually, he was able to get his mother to turn her face, and after that, he said, was never able to perform the exercise again.
A lot of these two stories seems to contradict one of Gurdjieff’s main assertions: that humans are not born with souls. They have the potential to develop them, but that depends on “consicous labor and intentional suffering”. He said that humans have a “certain something” that survives for awhile after death, but not forever, unless they’ve gone to the trouble of constructing a soul, which can be effectively immortal. But he still had contact with his mother some twenty years after she died, and Bennett’s mother’s “certain something” had survived for several years after her death. We’re not getting a full picture here, and can’t really judge if the evidence is contradictory or not.
Another story was told by Fritz Peters, of a time just after World War II when he went to visit Gurdjieff in Paris, where he’d lived throughout the war. He noticed a number of apparently impoverished older people coming to visit, and that Gurdjieff would spend time with them, and give them food or money. Peters asked him why he was wasting time with these people.
Gurdjieff replied that no one who hadn’t been in Paris during the war could imagine what it was like. He said he hadn’t cared which side won, as both sides had their ideals–and killed millions of people. So he made deals with the police and the Nazis, and supported himself and his brother’s family. (His brother had died, either before the war or in its early stages).
These older people had no families, and no one else to help them survive in these very unusual times. Gurdjieff compared himself to an old woman without much money who goes to the park every day to feed birds, because she loves birds. He said, though, that he was more honest than the old woman, because he admitted that he also enjoyed doing it. And then added that without him, these elderly people would have no chance of learning how to die properly.
Dying properly was a great concern of the ancient Egyptians, though their concern was largely limited to the afterlife of the Pharaoh. Their conception of the afterlife was complex, with many dangers, and the Pharaoh had to be warned of how to respond to each one. He was expected to eventually become a star in the sky, but the various dangers could prevent that. That was what the Egyptian Book of the Dead was for.
The Tibetans wrote a book of the dead too, about which I know much less, though I gather it was instructions to the dying person of how to meet death and avoid various dangers. I gather that it was meant to instruct more than just royal personages, though.
But in modern times I think we’ve largely lost touch with most ancient traditions, as well as our custom, at least in this country, of shutting death off from the rest of life, as if it were something contagious or unnatural.
In the case of epidemics, it may actually be contagious, but of course it’s hardly unnatural. We may not like to think about it, feeling (as with many things) that if we ignore it, it’ll go away. That’s an unrealistic and hardly healthy attitude.
J.G. Bennett, observing Gurdjieff’s body after he’d died gave his impression that the man had entirely finished his business on earth, and had gone elsewhere. Bennett at least strongly implied that this can’t be said for most of us.
The idea of the Hospice movement used to be (I get the impression that it’s less true now) not only to make the dying person as comfortable as possible physically, but to help them take care of the unfinished business of their lives. Often this has been unresolved issues with other family members that the dying person can’t feel comfortable with. Bringing the unhappy people together and helping them to talk about the reasons of their unhappiness is probably, for most people, more difficult than physical care of the dying person. Emotional wounds can be as deep and persistent as physical wounds, but going into death with a clear conscience must be a great relief for someone who has carried an emotional burden, in some cases for his or her whole life.
Since my friend died I’ve been thinking about what I know of his life, and about death. I had never really pondered my own mortality until about three years ago, when I wrote a poem I called “Getting Ready”, which I hope to publish whenever I can bestir myself to put a book together. But now I think of death more often. Although my health is still good, I’m getting to an age when that can change suddenly, and I doubt that I’ve made many of the preparations I ought to.
Gurdjieff quoted his father as saying, “Obviously, a man should live in such a way as to have a happy old age.” Someone explained this as meaning that each of us has a debt to pay for life, and that the sooner we do that the happier we can be when we’re old. I have had to accept that I put off a lot of things for way too long, so that I have to pay my debt now, as best I can. Whether the things I’m now doing will be adequate to pay the debt remains to be seen. Probably the emotions I felt at my friend’s passing have a lot to do with my own death, coming inevitably, whether sooner or later.
But it also had to do with my feelings for my friend, wishing him to be able to go quickly and easily without any unnecessary suffering. I still wish I could have helped him from his bedside, which my training and experience as a nurse would have enabled me to do. I tried to tell him helpful things from a distance, and can only hope that they really were helpful.


2 thoughts on “Thinking About Death

  1. Lei

    Allen, I read this this morning. And then I read it it Tony as he is sick with the flu. We enjoyed this piece very much. We mostly enjoyed your personal feelings about such matters. I think when Tony has asked you about what you write, Tony likes to hear how You feel about the topic you are writing. I love to hear what or how you feel about such things. In this piece I think you shared that beautifully! How you felt, what you thought, and were free enough to include those thoughts and feelings with those you are sharing this piece with, and I thoroughly enjoyed this because it includes You! The line that I have highlighted and underlined, I questioned, because it presumes that you know. And none of us do. Thanks for sharing, Lei

    Sent from my iPad


    • My goodness, you’ve been having a bunch of troubles out your way. I hope they end soon. I don’t know which line you’re referring to, so can’t comment till I find out. If you tried to send it with your comment, it didn’t come through.

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