- The "death positive" movement illuminates the difficult truth that the way we do death (at least in America) is broken.
- Maranasati is a Buddhist meditation practice that asks us to awaken to the inevitability and unpredictability of death.
- Death awareness can inspire personal growth, improve relationships, foster a profound sense of gratitude, and empower us to face our fears.
Discovering the “death positive” movement can be a startling, bewildering, even marvelous wake-up call. The movement’s mission, and its eight tenets, illuminate the difficult truth that the way we do death (at least in America) is broken. In particular, the sixth tenet of the death-positive movement states, “I believe that my death should be handled in a way that does not do great harm to the environment.”
This tenet has found extraordinary expression through the rise of natural or “green” burials. Those who are literally changing the landscape of American burials through green burial practices have successfully built and mobilized a vital community of eco-conscious citizens, volunteers, educators, and environmental activists. The result is a sea change in death work—which, in all of its forms, is profoundly spiritual work. But it is also environmental work. Human life always leads back to the same place: the earth.
Where does maranasati—a Buddhist meditation practice that asks us to awaken to the inevitability and unpredictability of death—fit in? Maranasati refers to the process of moving through one’s life with a keen sense of awareness that we will ultimately lose all that we hold most dear—our health, our loved ones, our perceptions of who we are and the roles we play—and, most certainly, we will lose our current human incarnation.
Maranasati teaches that, far from disheartening or morbid, death awareness can be freeing, inspiring, and motivating for the human spirit. It reminds us that we are working with precious, limited time. It can inspire personal growth, improve relationships, foster a profound sense of gratitude, and empower us to face our fears. In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, maranasati encourages and challenges us all “to live deliberately,” knowing the clear truth that death could arrive at any moment.
Buddhist teacher Eugene Cash writes, “as we stay present and aware, we are surprised to find death disturbing yet enriching. Part of the paradox is that contemplating death can bring a richness and vibrancy to our life, our relationships and our work.”
Similarly, Jo Nash also comments on the paradox of this contemplative practice: “The outcome of maranasati meditation can be paradoxically life enhancing. It helps to induce mortality salience, which has prosocial psychological outcomes, including deeper compassion for ourselves and others and an enhanced appreciation of living.”
A maranasati practice opens the time and space to contemplate the most difficult questions about death. What is death to me? How do I feel when I think about death? What do I need to do to prepare for my death? How do I make the most of the time that I am given?
In Zen Buddhism, mindfulness of life and death is called “The Great Matter,” which emphasizes that this life is all we have. Don’t waste time. We must awaken and not squander our lives. In Buddha’s time, there was a spiritual practice called The Nine Cemetery Contemplations, described in the Satipatthana Sutta: The Discourse on Arousing Mindfulness. This meditation practice involved observing the nine stages of body decomposition at a charnel ground to develop nonattachment to the physical form. To meditate upon their own human impermanence and eventual dissolution, Buddhist monks would witness the body bloat, discolor, and be feasted upon by wildlife until it became slowly unrecognizable.
Depending on one’s age and state of physical health, death is often perceived as a vague event that will occur someday in the distant future. We might imagine ourselves elderly, perhaps tired and achy, and one night, we will simply fall asleep and not wake up. This could be how death occurs for some people, but such an idealized transition is rare.
The 5 Remembrances
How do we learn to accept the inevitable reality of death that is part and parcel of being human, while at the same time remaining centered and grounded in the face of death’s mysteries? Taking time to deeply reflect upon Buddhism’s Five Remembrances is a good place to begin:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
How might we connect these contemplations with the modern green burial movement? Four of the Five Remembrances echo the word nature, which refers to the inescapable, intrinsic characteristics of being human. There is no escaping the biological nature of who we are. The fifth remembrance, while not mentioning “nature,” refers to the ground upon which I stand. That ground is the earth. Our episodes of flight are merely brief interruptions in a lifespan of rootedness with the earth.
For many of us, our first encounters with death as a child came through observing the natural world—dry, brown leaves crumbled in our hands; a dead robin at the side of the road; small skulls or bones scattered on a forest floor; the remnants of a deer carcass after being picked clean by vultures; or a beloved pet that suffered an illness or was hit by a car. It was all there, but, at that early age, we don’t imagine it will happen to us. Or perhaps we were protected from encountering evidence of death by our parents.
What happens, then, when a young child at a green burial ceremony picks up a small shovel and helps close the grave of a beloved elder, along with fellow friends and family members? As the vice president of a natural burial preserve, I will share what I have witnessed: A child, internalizing the active experience of being part of a community that gently and beautifully returns a loved one to the earth, on a bed of flowers and evergreens, as the air is filled with poetry and song. It is a ceremony of participatory love and grief, a lesson in metamorphosis. And if a caterpillar is somewhere nearby, all the better.
Because of its emphasis on the regenerative process involved in body disposition, natural burial intimately connects us to the cycles of life and death. The more-than-human natural world is abounding with endings every day. A simple walk in the woods can remind us that we are surrounded by conclusions of all kinds. Endings are everywhere. What are fallen trees if not arboreal corpses rotting and decomposing ever so slowly in the same home where they grew from a tiny seed? Every time we see a dead plant or animal we are, at some level, reminded of our own mortality.
But beginnings also abound. Births and sprouts are miracles leading to the vast meadow of life, full of pleasures and dangers, the seen and unseen, the known and unknown. As cliché as it may seem to connect ourselves to a seasonal cycle—to the vibrant fresh births of spring, the thriving blossoms of summer, the great letting go of fall, and the deaths and deep sleeps of winter—it is literally who we are, if we are lucky. The process of natural burial brings us closer to this reality, to this cycle of biologically opening and closing, to the dream of becoming form and then dissolving.
Developing a Contemplative Practice
Maranasati can be a powerful contemplative practice to lessen our often tentative and anxious relationship with death. Think of death work as a lotus flower slowly blooming inside a skull—or, put another way, as honey sweetening in the depths of a hive. We only need to befriend the bees (our questions and fears about death) to access the apiary.
A quiet walk through any cemetery can be maranasati—a meditation on death and impermanence. But a walk through a conservation or natural burial ground is a maranasati practice that restores our relationship to the earth. Instead of observing rows of headstones, the meditation turns to trees, grasses, mounds, soil, water, and the sky. At three feet under instead of the conventional six, the buried body becomes a signature, a uniquely wild knoll covered in the region’s most resilient meadow or woodland biota, especially in summer.
Just as the green burial and the death-positive movements are opening the door to death awareness for many Americans today, contemplative practices surrounding death may enrich the very lives of those who may have never dreamed of venturing into this skulled and shrouded territory. Maranasati can be an exploration into dying that is internal and external, personal and yet universal, and grounded in social and spiritual soul searching. All death work is ultimately ecological. If you are looking for it, go outside right now, wherever you are, and you will find it.