Two Weddings and Two Funerals

I was emailing a friend this morning about the first funeral, and then the second funeral, but both times I typed “first wedding” and “second wedding”—only when I was proofreading did I catch my mistake. Certainly these ceremonies felt celebratory, not at all the lugubrious affairs that most funerals are; the second funeral had only close family and a couple of close friends in attendance, and all but one of us went out to an Italian restaurant together afterward. We laughed and reminisced for almost two and a half hours; the restaurant was good enough to give us a big table in their banquet room, so we could carry on by ourselves without being disturbed.

The family matriarch is now Mom’s sister, my Aunt Shirley, who at 84 is not in terrific health herself. But yesterday, though she was a little frail and unsure on her feet and her words no longer tumble crisply from her lips, her mind and her great wit were sharp and delicious. Her two children, my cousins Julie and Chris, are sharp-witted themselves, and their banter has always engaged the whole family. We all talk over one another constantly, and we talk too loudly because no one is really listening to one another and everyone wants to be heard, but enough gets through that we choke with laughter on our iced tea and drink our fill of the affection being flung to and fro. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family | 3 Comments

A Decent Funeral

Lots of family and family-of-family; a couple of neighbors; a few very dear friends of mine; a few family friends of my brothers. Flowers were tasteful, but (in keeping with my mother’s wish, who always said, “If they didn’t care enough to send me flowers when I was alive, I sure as heck don’t want them after I’m dead and can’t appreciate them!”) not overabundant.

The embalmer did as good a job as humanly possible, but she still looked nothing like herself. Which was just fine: that simply wasn’t her, there in that casket. I put a few items into the casket that she wanted to be buried with — a stuffed polar bear, a photo, a birthday card my niece had already bought her — and brought her wedding ring, which she wanted to be buried with. I thought it would be no big deal getting the ring on, but her hands were nicely locked together, so it was as if she were being particularly obstreperous when I was struggling with them. Once the ring was on, her hands wouldn’t go back together properly — one arm kept flopping to her side after a few moments, which was both ghastly and hysterically funny. It was a Chuckles the Clown moment for those of us standing around the casket.

Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, Healing, Nature, Spirituality | 4 Comments


Today was the most horrific day I have ever lived through. Mom was more alert, but also more solidly in the throes of cyanosis, the buildup of CO2 in her blood that many people with COPD get toward the end. It made her delirious, and in pain, and unable to tell me what hurt — unable to say more than “Help me” or “Water” or “I love you so much.”

This morning a sweet CNA gave her a little bath, which Mom loved. Soon thereafter, about eight hours ago now, she started thrashing around, moaning, crying, in great distress. We had someone come out to put her on a machine that would help her breathe better, but it used a mask over her mouth and nose, and the forced air was intolerable, and she started clawing at the mask to get it off. Even her nasal canula, which she had worn for years now, became too much for her. As her anxiety and incoherence grew — she was like a wild thing, trapped in this bed — she at one point said, “I’m so tired, I’m so very tired,” and “I’m sorry” — sorry to be leaving me. I told her it was OK, that she just needed to relax and let go, that I loved her and everything was going to be all right.

But these things are rarely swift and tidy. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Shamanism | 23 Comments


My mother is dying. I’m sitting in a chair in her room, and she’s dying in the bed next to me. She has stopped eating. She is drinking very little. She is sleeping almost continuously. She is breathing well, and seems quite comfortable. She’s just dying. It will likely be no more than a couple of days now.

I have no idea if I’m going to spin out of control when she dies, or if I’ve been doing enough grieving in these past weeks and months . . . and years, frankly. It will probably be a little of both.

When I was an active member of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., I sang in the choir. One of my favorite services of the year was in Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter); on that Wednesday we’d hold a Tenebrae service. “Tenebrae” means “shadows” in Latin.

The church was utterly dark except for a large candelabrum by whose light we sang our plainsong chants, ancient psalms of grief and sorrow. After each psalm, one of the candles was extinguished. The shadows would grow, and when the last candle was put out, the congregation and singers would find their way out of the church in complete silence, the only light coming from the church’s open door to the street. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Spirituality | 8 Comments

Doffing the Hat

Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid, I wore a dark gray fedora to church. Most adult men of that era wore them whenever they wore a suit, though the hat’s popularity was starting to fade. I know I wasn’t the only boy who wore a fedora to church, but mostly you didn’t start wearing hats until you were a teenager, and I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.

What I remember most about it was that it made my head sweat like the dickens, that I had to keep careful watch over it (it was so easy to leave it on the hat shelf of a coat rack and forget it), and that it made me look like such a little gentleman when I would raise the brim a tiny bit and bow my head briefly in respect when a lady (an adult, not a girl) would walk by. Oh, how they loved that! I didn’t doff my hat, exactly, the way one does in moments of great respect or seriousness or grief, but just tipped it as a sophisticated and respectful greeting.

I don’t think I did that for more than a year. The head-sweating and the fear of misplacing it made me give it up. Continue reading

Categories: Death | 12 Comments

Saying Kaddish

The Kaddish—that is, the so-called “Mourner’s Kaddish” that is recited for the dead in Jewish prayer services—was originally prayed by rabbis after their sermons as a sort of doxology. The prayer is in Aramaic, an offshoot of Hebrew that developed during the Diaspora and continued to be used for a dozen centuries.

My translation:

Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .

Great and holy is your great Name
in this world you created by your will!
May your true reign begin
in our lifetime,
in our days,
in the lives of all who Struggle—

Let your great Name be blessed
for all ages to come—
blessed, praised, glorified, exalted,
extolled, honored, lifted up, lauded
be the Name of the Holy One,
blessed be you,
far beyond all blessings
and hymns and praises and consolations
that are spoken in the world.

Let great peace descend on us from the heavens!
Let life be renewed for us and for all who Struggle!
You who make peace in the heavens,
make peace for us.

Make peace for all who Struggle.

As you can see, it’s not a prayer of mourning at all. It’s a mountain of praise. It’s thanksgiving and acceptance in the face of pain and death. It’s the rebellious act of clinging to life and shouting to the heavens in the face of despair and loss. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Judaism, Spirituality | 8 Comments

Existential Wonder

A couple of weeks ago, Adamus told me he had gotten a dog at the pound, a Lab mix named Dusty. He said I should definitely meet her. Cool with me, I adore dogs.

Yesterday he brought her over. I gasped when she walked through the front door. It was my Goldie (that’s her in the picture).

Yes, my dog who died last year.

This is Goldie in a new body. Slightly smaller, but very similar build. Identical face and smile. Darker coat. Same tail.

OK, I can cope with outward similarities and chalk it up to the breed, though Lab-Whippet mixes are surely not too common.

But when she got in, she immediately jumped up and started kissing me insistently on the mouth. Then she stopped and rolled at my feet, the way Goldie did. Then, when I was sitting down, she stood and put her paws on my shoulders and kept staring into my eyes, then nuzzled me and kissed me more. As if to say, “You remember me, don’t you?” Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Buddhism, Death, Time and Space | 9 Comments

Nazario Turpo: A Towering Spirit

by Edgardo Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 11, 2007; Page C02

After learning of the death of the Peruvian shaman Nazario Turpo, killed last month when the small bus he was riding in turned over in the Andean night, lines from “Beowulf” describing the burial of a Viking warlord kept ringing in my mind:

A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.

Something about the unadorned elegance of the Old English poem’s description seemed to evoke the loss of this singular man.

Nazario Turpo was a Quechua-speaking Indian from Pacchanta, a cluster of households in a valley dominated by Mount Ausangate in southern Peru. Nazario was a peasant, indistinguishable in that respect from many other Andean Indians who make their living herding alpacas and llamas, planting potatoes and weaving. He woke up every day before dawn to fetch water from a brook and, thus, set into motion another regular day of hard work in the household and the fields. He was married, and had four children and several grandchildren.

Two things made Nazario different: He was the son of Mariano Turpo and, like Mariano, he was a paqo.

Convention and ignorance would lazily translate paqo as “shaman,” a word that has us trained to picture an almost caricaturesque wise man, straight from central casting, capable of miracle cures and spiritual ministrations, of going, with his herbs, chants and rattles, where Western medicine and religion do not tread. Continue reading

Categories: Death, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

And If I Die Before I Wake

I frequently had night terrors as a child, though apparently what I experienced was not what the psychologists call “night terror.” True night terrors, or pavor nocturnus, is a parasomnia sleep disorder characterized by extreme terror and a temporary inability to regain full consciousness. The subject wakes abruptly from deep (slow-wave) sleep, usually while gasping, moaning, or screaming. It is often impossible to fully awaken the person, and after the episode the subject normally settles back to sleep without waking.

Me, I either woke up fully, or never actually got to sleep. These incidents weren’t caused by nightmares, because there was no dream involved—just terrifying thoughts.

One time it was because I had just seen a cliffhanger episode of Lassie (during the June Lockhart / Jon Provost years) which ended with Lassie’s life being in peril, and I worked myself into a frenzy over it, never realizing that they don’t kill off the character for whom the series is named.

(Unless, of course, you’re Valerie Harper and you fight with the producers of your series Valerie over salary and creative control, in which case they kill you off in an automobile accident, rename the series Valerie’s Family, and hire Sandy Duncan to replace you.) Continue reading

Categories: Death, Humor, Shamanism, Spirituality | 9 Comments

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today you’ll see a strange sight: people walking around with smudges on their foreheads, like gray bindis over their third eyes, or like someone stubbed out a cigarette on them. These are people who have come from an Ash Wednesday service that begins the forty days of Lent.

Early in the service, ashes from burned palm fronds, leftovers from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are placed on the worshipers’ foreheads. Sometimes the smudge looks like a small cross, sometimes it’s just a smudge. As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I never went in for the whole Lenten penitential/self-abnegation thing. For me, Ash Wednesday was more existential. It was a meditation about mortality, about our connection to the earth, about our union with everything that lives, about impermanence. Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I also like that it comes the day after Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the day of feasting before the traditional Lenten fast. I like that it’s the last day of the Carnival season, a heady Bacchanalia in most parts of the world. I especially like that “Carnival” is derived from the Latin carne vale: “Farewell, flesh!”—as apt an adieu to physical existence as it is to meat during the fast. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Death, Great Quotes, Holidays | 9 Comments

When Holly Died

Holly was my friend, probably my best friend for a while, in college. She appeared sometime during my sophomore year. She was a little whiff of a thing, so thin that a strong gust could blow her away. I don’t recall how we met, exactly, but we were inseparable.

The only problem was the hole in her heart. Her blue lips should have been the give-away.

She was born with that hole in her heart, and though she’d had an operation as a baby, it wasn’t entirely successful, and her doctors were certain she wouldn’t survive another one. She could only walk five hundred feet or so before she’d have to stop for a bit and catch her breath. But she treated it all with a characteristic light touch. “And when I faint—which I almost certainly will, it happens a couple of times a year—try to keep me from hurting myself when I hit the ground, and just let me lie there for a while. I’ll ‘come to’ after fifteen minutes or so.”

Well, the one time she fainted with me, she never “came to.”

I would stop by her room on the way to dinner, and we’d walk the rest of the way together. This one evening we were heading down the hall in her dorm when she collapsed. I waited four, maybe five, minutes for her to revive, then called 911. The paramedics came and worked diligently.

For the past thirty years I’ve told everyone that she never regained consciousness, that she died peacefully in my arms. I’ve been lying all this time. She did revive, briefly, as the paramedics were working on her. And she screamed. Her eyes flew open in abject horror, her face contorted with fear and pain, and she screamed a long and terrifying and (dare I say it?) blood-curdling scream, then died.

They worked on her for another hour, mostly at the hospital, but to no avail, of course.

That scream has haunted me all these years. At the time I interpreted it as some carry-over from whatever place her soul had gone while she was unconscious; I was devoutly Evangelical in those days, and as she hadn’t Given Her Live to Christ in any formal way, I was sure that she had seen a glimpse of the fires of Hell. And now she was dead, and it was too late.

Three days after her funeral (a surprisingly jolly affair, considering, though some of the humor was unintentional—her family and friends came from Ottowa, Illinois, which they kept pronouncing as Aaaaaaaaaaattawa Ellenoise, and they drank melk rather than milk), my friend Frances had a dream.

She was walking in a beautiful field of wildflowers, and Holly appeared, looking marvelously healthy and full of life. At one point in their conversation, Holly said, “Let’s run!”

Frances protested: “But you have a hole in your heart—you can’t run!”

Holly dashed away and called over her shoulder, “Catch me!” The dream ended with Holly’s laughter lingering on the breeze.

That dream gave me enormous peace. I knew with great certainty that she was now with God, and whole, and happy. But the memory of that scream just before she died has remained shocking and upsetting to me, and because it didn’t fit in with the happy ending, I’ve simply deleted it from the story as I’ve told it over the years.

It’s taken me a long time to recognize the power of the human spirit in fighting to live, or in becoming resigned to death. Sometimes the clinging to life seems inappropriate (I’ve worked shamanically for more than one person who should clearly unclench their hold on this world and go gently into that good night); sometimes the resignation seems entirely too premature. I now think that Holly was struggling to breathe, fighting with every fiber of her being to live, like a drowning person desperately trying to break the surface of the water. And she did, for a moment. She gasped in a final lung of air, eyes wide, and perhaps frightened, before sinking back into the sea.

Now when I see that screaming face, which is still incredibly vivid in my memory even thirty-two years later, I see the human struggle toward life, the will and desire and power of the spirit. I’ve come to believe that survival isn’t always so important, but that struggle, the wrestling with life and death that is the essence of our physical existence, is (pardon the pun) vital.

Maybe it’s being 51 and realizing that life is short. Maybe it’s finally saying, to God or to myself, “I want to live. I choose to live. Maybe for the first time in my life, I really want to be here.” But whatever the reason, I now see the moments before Holly died in a different light. It’s time to honor that struggle, that scream, instead of running from it.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Christianity, Death, Shamanism | 10 Comments

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