Steve Jobs' last words, spoken with great delight, were, "Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!" What was he seeing? Perhaps what those returning from near-death experiences consistently report -- a sense of moving through a dark tunnel beckoned by a compelling bright light, feelings of peace and well-being, the knowledge of being outside of the body, what some call an intense feeling of unconditional love, and encounters with beings of light. This piercing of the veil of "the other side" unwaveringly suggests that "passing over" is a beautiful experience.
In stark contrast to these images, we live with a cultural consciousness about death that personifies it as "the Grim Reaper" or "the Angel of Death." Not knowing when or how our time will come, many live in fear of the unknown and uncontrollable aspects of death with a sense of a foreboding encounter with darkness and evil. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than in an Internet image search of the word "death" that yields haunting black-and-white images of skulls, crossbones, and the Grim Reaper. I encourage you to take a moment and do an image search now. These portrayals demonstrate the power of the death taboo on both our conscious and unconscious awareness.
Among the top 10 images, several date back to artwork from the 1300s during the Black Plague when half the European population was wiped out. The plague was considered a form of punishment by God. Symbolically representing death -- with depictions of skeletons, skulls, and crossbones -- was a common way of mocking it in order to reduce feelings of helplessness and anxiety. People wore these death symbols on their clothing as a way to fool Death into thinking that they had already been touched and should therefore be left alone. If these images are indeed a valid reflection of the collective consciousness about death today, it is no wonder that so many live in fear of death and treat it like the unspeakable elephant in the room.
As children, we could run to the comfort of our parents with our fears. It is a sad commentary on our society that as adults so many of us silence and suppress our own fears about death's unknowns, concern about unmanageable pain, the loss of control over one's own life, and the possibility of being isolated from loved ones at life's end. Rather than sharing our beliefs, thoughts, fears, and concerns about dying and death, we suffer in silence having no idea how to wrap our brains around the reality of death or to even broach the subject with our loved ones or doctors. Far too many of us, including terminally ill patients, put a smile on our face and silently suffer in emotional isolation. The death taboo interferes with our ability to have a healthy relationship with death.
The good news is that since the 1960s, momentum has been building to transform our culture of death. Among the most apparent changes and influences:
- Beginning in the late 1950s, the conversation about human mortality and the American culture of death moved from academia and religious institutions to the general public -- raising the topic from our unconscious to conscious minds.
Buoyed by the confluence of these forces, this is an exciting historical moment where matters of our beliefs and values regarding life and death are concerned. Both culturally and individually, we have a great opportunity to rethink our most fundamental definitions of "birth" and "death." Our physical and spiritual understanding of these terms must be reconciled in the process. Here are some questions to ponder:
- When does life start and when does it end?
Never has there been a time when we had a greater opportunity to reevaluate our beliefs and values regarding life and death and to hold ourselves accountable for the quality of our relationship to both. Let's talk about this. Please share your thoughts below.
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