Death is a subject fraught with anxiety and denial in the West. “Everything must die, perhaps even me.” Our death rituals are somber and morose and it is unclear whether they provide adequate meaning and solace for the bereaved. Death is a shrouded mystery, and for most children and most adults, death is an uncomfortable topic of conversation, one often populated by platitudes.
Buddhism asks you to consider your mortality daily. Meditations on impermanence can be meditations on death. The Buddha used to encourage his disciples to sit with the dead, with the rotting and decomposing corpses, so that the nature of impermanence would be understood and experienced. In Zen you might be told to “Die on the cushion.”
Buddhism encourages you to face death as a part of life. Tibetan Buddhism has the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a study of death and the stages one goes through immediately after death.
The Tibetans believe there are forty-nine days between lives, forty-nine days in which the living read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to help the dead gain insight and move away from the attachments of the body. Buddhists see death as just another transformation. Impermanence is the nature of the world. Some Buddhists believe that if they are aware in the moment when death comes they can direct their rebirth in a beneficial way.
Remember in the traditional story of the Buddha that he started his search for the truth after having an encounter with death. As he saw the sick and dying outside his palace gates, and a corpse being carried through the streets, he realized that all that was alive comes to an end. Death is inevitable. This realization was the catalyst that set him on his quest to end suffering.
The Bardö Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead) was passed down orally for centuries. It was first put into written form by Padmasambhava in the eighth century
If you stay close to the awareness that any moment could be the last moment of your life (after all, you never know what might happen: aneurysm, accident, atom bomb), then you realize that each moment is precious. Each moment is a gift and a blessing. So many people when given the news of terminal illness say they realize the joy of life as soon as the reality of death becomes clear to them. Hospice work can also bring this truth into focus. Death meditation practice can be a powerful way to keep you aligned with the present and alive in the moment, aware that everything changes.
And so the practices in Buddhism remain steady from birth through death. Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and every person, whether atheist or religious, shares the commonality of birth and death. Buddhism stresses how everyone and everything is interconnected.