Death, why is it a taboo?
“Something that is avoided or forbidden for religious or social reasons”
“taboo” definition, Cambridge Dictionary
“A social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place or thing”
” taboo” definition, Oxford Dictionary
I have had an early fascination with death since the passing of my Father in 1990, when I was nine years old. I have wrestled with my existence and wanted to find meaning in my life. In my early 20’s I sort refuge in the Church as a Born Again Christian. I was recently reminded by a friend how I had dragged him to a meeting to explore the teachings of Christianity. I was desperate to save everyone I knew from an after life in Hell! I soon realised that I wasn’t able to save the world, or even a small handful of my friends this way, I came to the conclusion that heaven was going to be pretty lonely and boring place and started to seek for meaning in other areas of my life. I have found that death is a taboo because it really has us take a sharp look at the meaning of life. This may feel overwhelming and like hard work, so it’s easier to put it off and just stay in denial that it won’t happen for a while. We put off the search for our own inner meaning because of the illusion of time — like we have so much of it. Sorry to remind you, but we all share this commonality, we will all die.
The word death, can conjure up feelings of discomfort and fear, and generally most of us like to avoid those feelings. Death can be seen as an ending, bringing us sadness and sorrow as we come to terms with never seeing or being with our loved ones again.
We love to chit chat about babies and new life with smiles on our faces, endless questions about due dates, names, birthing plans, gift lists, but when someone brings up that someone is dying, the chat runs dry pretty fast. I think this is because we have alienated death from society. We live in a culture obsessed with preserving youth, we designate the old to homes and we leave death in the confines of hospitals. Most of us do not embrace death, discuss death plans or live each day’s as if it is our last. It is almost a subject we do not have the language or tools to talk about. However, change is in the air.
I think another reason that we find death hard to talk about is because the world is fragmented and the big cosmopolitan cities are full of different cultures, races and religions. Therefore we no longer have overarching belief system that unites us and explains our existence. The Internet further pollinates people across the planet with new ideas and identities. In the earliest human tribal societies death was primarily a community event, it had to be dealt with constantly, death was very much part of daily life. Around 1000AD people became more aware of themselves as individuals, not tribal and later on came rationalism and science, contributing to an increasingly progressive and sophisticated worldview. Our lives become private, we became urbanised. Illness and death was hidden in hospitals. Man thought that he was God in someway, designing medicines to preserve life. Somehow death became a failure, a failure of medicines and medical machines. We talk against the ‘fight against cancer’, which constitutes a failure if you don’t beat it. When are we going to accept that we are all going to die, that we are not immortal beings and we only have a certain level of dominion over our lives, but what we do have dominion over is the room we want to die in, kind of funeral we want, the amount of medical intervention we would like, who we would like our posessions to be left to. So lets get prepared, lets have conversations about these things and take the taboo out of death.
I find it fascinating how the western world is increasingly influenced by Eastern philosophies of medicine and belief systems. The world is interconnected more than ever before. In countries like India and Indonesia death is not seen as an ending or as a finite thing. Death is out in the open unlike western cultures where we like to keep it hidden. It is no wonder that we are finding our selves in a New Age spiritual opening, people are seeking. Humans crave meaning in their life. I personally don’t think it matters what you believe, what is important is that you have thought about your life on an existential level and made peace with your existence. My Mother met her death gracefully; she was a committed Christian and believed that she was going to heaven where she would be reunited with my Father who had died 12 years before her. I am not saying that I share her beliefs or I am suggesting that you need to be Christian in order to face death fearlessly, but I witnessed how she was at peace with her transitioning because of her belief.
Brene Brown talks about our primitive survival pattern is to make meaning of our lives, she references Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist who explains how our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognise and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. So whether the stories we make up about our existence are right or wrong I don’t think it matters, what matters is that we find comfort in them and let the dopamine soar!
Only we can dive deeply within and find these answers for ourselves. Sometimes this can feel like dangerous territory as we excavate dark emotions. Most of us share fear about what we will find within ourselves and we have intolerance for uncertainty. But if we connect with Love, if we connect that each of us came into the world as pure babies, as a ball of Love then we can peel back the layers of protection and negativity that we have created over the years and return to our natural and residing state of being which is in the Loving. I write this now in a few sentences and it sounds so simple. However, my journey has been a windy, narrow, rocky road over a number of years that is not easy to tread. I have worked my process through journaling, therapy, workshops, group therapy and now studying Spiritual Psychology. Personally group therapy held the most transformation for me, listening to others and realising we are not alone in our crazy brains has enormous power to transform fear into love.
Death does not need to be a taboo and it seems that there is a collective thirst for people to want to talk about death. I posted on my Facebook wall asking for friends who would be willing to share their death and grief journey with me as part of my research. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who responded, willing to share their experiences with me. I recently attended a workshop in LA called ‘Going With Grace’ led by a Death Chaplain and an Attorney. The idea is that it encourages people to prepare for death practically, emotionally and spiritually. This was a workshop full of young people, not old. I have also attended Death Cafes (http://deathcafe.com), which originated in London and have now spread worldwide. These are self run groups that provide a space for people who want to talk about death, whether it be to convey their fears, share their grief or be in an environment where they want to explore a subject around like minded people. These are fascinating conversations, not full of darkness, but actually filled with light. I have also been told about Death & Dying Dinner parties (http://laurelllewis.com/death-and-dying-dinner-parties/) in Los Angeles, which again are primarily attended by young people. There is an upsurge in Death Doula’s or Soul Midwifes who assist dying in a tranquil way (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/your-money/death-doulas-help-the-terminally-ill-and-their-families-cope.html?_r=0). It seems that the fear around death is being lifted or embraced as the next generation begins to make sense of the world with new narratives.
I think that death can be an acceptable and welcomed dialogue for connection between us. We all have death in common and we all have the questioning of life itself in common. SO if we stay out of the wrongs and rights of what we believe and respect that we each have our own personal perspectives, we have the capacity to grow, deepen and enrichen our awareness and most importantly learn from one another.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Einstein
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