My Letter

Until my parents died the closest death was a former girlfriend who died of AIDS many years ago. We had not been in touch, but I grieved for her and was shaken by the closeness of it. She was young and it was a deadly and little understood disease then.

For my two sons, however, death has been been closer & with a number of friends dying from an equally perplexing killer, drug overdoses.

My dad died five years ago - my mom three months ago. They were in their 90's, almost the last of their families to die, so their deaths were not unexpected, but they were still shocking. I'm still trying to understand my feelings about the loss of my mom.

We were close, but we never talked about her mortality.

Death was not talked about in my family, and my parents did not attend the funerals of their siblings. There is little I can draw from my family regarding death.

Death is not addressed in meaningful ways in our culture either. As a culturally Christian country, one is left with the choices of either believing in an afterlife for the devout, or not. Funerals, memorial services or celebrations of life can be strange affairs where death almost seems to be absent.

I think, perhaps, that death is largely misunderstood. Maybe death is not the opposite of life, but intrinsic to it. For example, in other cultures death and life have been more reciprocal. The dead were believed to be present and still active in the affairs of the living, and the living attended to the dead.

Ancestors typically had important roles in the affairs of American Indian cultures, and Roman families would sometimes spend days at the graves of family members. During Obon in August, bonfires are lit on the mountains surrounding Kyoto to guide ancestors homes for their annual visits.

When someone close to us dies, part of us dies with them, and part of them lives on in us. But I think there is more.

I am a Buddhist practitioner who has read a fair amount of Buddhist scriptures. In Buddhism, one is not compelled to accept beliefs regarding death or fear the consequences if one does not. Instead, consistent with the teachings of the Buddha, I focus on practices to "see things as they are."

I think death is an essential part of life to practice while we are living. Specifically, one can practice dying throughout one's life, shedding the boundaries of self and ego, so that when our body has served its purpose, there is little left to die. That, of course, is easier said than done, especially in our dominant culture. I'm not sure how to do it, except to cultivate awareness of our interdependence and take care of others as if they were myself.

I am still left with questions regarding whether dear departed ones are totally separated from me. When they appear in my dreams I notice, not so much, regarding them as separate entities, but as now part of my consciousness.

One evening several years ago, while staying at a Korean monastery, I took a walk after meditating. Looking down from a bridge to the water below, I saw a school of koi carp finning in the water. I thought if one fish dies we don't grieve for it because the koi carp live on, seemingly eternally. Upstream, I came across a cat on a rock staring intently into the water, demonstrating the moment-to-moment awareness Buddhists call the deathless state.

These experiences do not prevent me from being troubled at times regarding how to live if one must die. However, perhaps with practice, when we die we realize that we are part of a vast whole and so death is not death at all.

Thomas Barrie


Thomas Barrie, Architect / Professor

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko