Reflections on Death

In the Parinirvana Sutra, composed around the second century, it is said, “Of all meditations, that on death is supreme.” At the end of the path we pause and consider: What it is like to die? Hopefully, at the culmination of life we still have our wits about us, but that is a big if. Many die in a stupor, either throttled by dementia, in a blue haze of morphine, or in a swoon of confusion. If at all possible, we are mindful to the end. But death is as unpredictable as life.

We don’t know if death will come in the day or the night, as a slow fade or a flash. The body has no built-in expiration date. Generally, life is like a locomotive that churns and pushes across mountains, valleys, and open plains. We never imagine it coming to a halt. Until it does.

Perhaps you have had the opportunity, bedside, to be with someone as they enter the tunnel of death. It is a gift to witness the flame of life flickering and fading. All petty concerns, all gripes and grudges drop away. Death is the great equalizer. It is both raw and beautiful to witness. Death moves in its own time capsule— moments hang suspended like stars in far-off galaxies. There is nothing to do about death. You may offer encouragement, saying, “It’s all right, you can let go.” But the letting go must begin much earlier. The lesson of letting go cannot be realized in the fleeting moments as the breath leaves the body. This is why śavāsana is so important. Śavāsana is the dress rehearsal for death, so that if possible, we remember in our cells, our diaphragm, our heart and mind, how to let go.

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