Accepting Death

Monarch butterfly on a pink milkweed flower - the souls of our ancestors, accepting death

The Monarch and the Milkweed

Adult monarch butterflies spend the spring and summer in the United States and Canada. There they sip nectar from wildflowers and search for milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. The glycoside toxins in the plants’ leaves, to which the monarchs are immune, collect in the body of their larvae, remaining in their fat and muscle for their entire life cycle.

Research is mixed on how much protection the poison actually provides the insects. Does the bright orange of their cloak, veined by black and speckled with white dots, warn potential predators of their nasty taste, or is that a coincidence? Is the butterfly’s reliance on just one type of flower a useful adaptation that has allowed the species to flourish, or a cruel cosmic joke? After all, no matter how much milkweed sap the baby worms ingest, monarchs fall prey to parasites and wasps, mice and birds.

In one way or another, we all try to protect ourselves from calamity. Yet as the butterflies know, this is not always possible. There are so many ways to die.

Our Fear of Death

For most of us, this is scary.

Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, blames all manner of societal ills on our unwillingness to accept death’s finality. Because we must create a fiction to comfort ourselves for having to die, he explains, and because this fiction often depends on absolute religious beliefs or fantasies of strength and dominance, we tend to lash out at those who question us, who unmask our vulnerability and our essential animal nature, or who make clear to us how unpredictable life really is.

Andrew Sullivan, in his article “America’s New Religions,” blames our country’s extreme political polarization on our fear of death. Isolated as we are from the reality of death and infirmity by hospitals, nursing homes, the funeral industry, and other institutions, and because we have embraced science and materialism while rejecting a religious understanding of the world that can help temper our lusts and greed, we have adopted what Sullivan calls the religion of progress. Our capitalist system has turned “individual selfishness into a collective asset.” [1] Now, nationalism and liberalism are our new religions.

Polarization and Greed

Yet the polarization in our country is not new. Even when most everyone who lived in the United States claimed to be religious, such as during the late 19th century, corruption and greed were rampant, [2] and our politicians and citizens were just as polarized. [3]

Thus, while it probably wouldn’t hurt for us to adopt a healthy Christianity, it’s hard to see how it would make much difference. Nonetheless, Sullivan’s emphasis on our refusal to face our death may be relevant in the way Becker’s is. When  we create a story to comfort ourselves for having to die, and when this story depends on absolute religious beliefs or fantasies of strength and dominance, we dare not let anyone question them. Thus, we tend to scapegoat others. We also destroy the earth.

Fearing Death Means Fearing Life

Feeling threatened by the wild and unpredictable forces of nature, we seek to tame her. We pave over her fields, level her hills, gouge deep pits into her back and bowels in our frenzied search for gold and jewels and coal. In our anxiety, we try to control what we do not understand. One day, we will return to dust. The earth reminds us of that. Thus, we strike back in a vain attempt to assure ourselves that, unlike this puny planet, we are invincible.

The irony of our fervent struggle to deny death, however, is that since, as Becker tells us, “life itself” is what awakens our anxiety, “we must shrink from being fully alive.” [3]

To cope, we invent religions, artistic diversions, and governmental institutions to cushion the reality of our ultimate end. We seek to shore up our self-esteem and importance. If that doesn’t work, there are addictions of all kinds. Shopping, gambling, alcohol, achievement, cars, and chocolate all serve to divert our thoughts and feelings, cover up our pain, and numb us from having to live.

Equanimity in the Face of Death

But what if Sullivan and Becker are wrong? After all, not everyone is afraid of dying.

Inga Clendinnen was an Australian anthropologist and author who died in 2016. Just before she turned 60, she received a liver transplant. During her stay in the hospital, both before and after the operation, she wrote about the ironies of life and death. She was struck by the amazing gift of life she received because someone else was now gone.

At one point during her illness, she felt like “an inconstant and diminishing point of light, rather like a torch flickering out.” While her own light was wavering, someone else’s light disappeared. How unimpressive it seemed to her. She came to see that “the difference between the flicker and the dark seemed slight, and dying a trivial matter.” [4]

Clendinnen did not believe in a consciousness after we die. She talked about how hard it was to “imagine the end of imagining.” Nonetheless, she found a peace with what must come.

So did the third century philosopher Epicurus. He wrote that death “is nothing to us, since for the time when we are, death is not present; and for the time when death is present, we are not. Therefore it is nothing either to the living or the dead since it is not present for the former, and the latter are no longer.” [5]

 Meditating on Death

Not that this is likely to comfort the person terrified by the yawning grave. So what might help?

The Buddha encouraged his students to reflect on death. His Holiness Sakya Trizin explains that we should meditate on the nature of death. If we fully accept that our death is 100% certain and that we do not know the moment of our passing, we will eagerly devote ourselves to the path of the dharma. In this way, we will come to understand the truth of suffering and the way to escape our suffering. [6]

This way of peering into the reality of death is called maranasati meditation. [7] If you are new to meditating, or if you feel suicidal or depressed, maranasati meditation might not be the best technique for you right now. Nonetheless, it is one way for us to find peace with our end.

Using WeCroak

If dedicated meditation practices are not for you, you can download the WeCroak app. This will randomly remind you of your mortality five times a day.

Mark Fitzgerald, a minister from Chicago, tried it. When he was ten, his father died. As an adult, he regularly supports grieving families, sits with dying parishioners, and provides comfort during memorial services. Death is not new to him. Yet the app forced him to face death in a new way and helped him re-grieve the loss he experienced as a child.

“If I continue using it,” he wrote, “it will continue changing me. I’ll grow to see the grave with equanimity.” [8]

For him, though, equanimity is not enough. As a Christian, he experiences a deep and transforming joy when he comes to understand the overwhelming truth of the “the risen Christ.” This joy is deeper than and, in a way more painful than, happiness.

He decided that he didn’t want to come coming to terms with the grave. Christianity rails against our dying, insisting that oblivion is not the end, that resurrection is true and honest, and that Christ will meet us when we pass over. Though Fitzgerald no longer uses the app, he does not regret having tried it.

WeCroak helped him become a better parent because he learned to let go of little annoyances. It taught him to accept criticism with grace. He worked through a new layer of grief over his father’s death. Ultimately, the app made him “run to Jesus.” In a new way, he experienced the joy of Christ’s promise of eternal life.

Not All Religion is a Weapon

Does this mean he is denying death and will turn on those who don’t agree with him?

Not necessarily. There are ways to use religion as a shield or a weapon, but that does not make belief itself wrong. Whether we arrive at our view of the afterlife through the exercise of faith or because some mystical experience shattered our worldview, it doesn’t much matter. Our belief may be delusional. Who can tell? Yet if it can transform us, bringing us a compassionate and abiding joy, how can it be so bad?

Just because we believe in an afterlife doesn’t mean we can’t come to terms with the reality of death. I’m not even sure that Becker was right and that a fear of death does cause all our societal problems. Research shows that having close relationships, a healthy self-esteem, or a belief in an afterlife can all provide us “psychological equanimity” in the face of our inevitable passing. [9]

The Monarch and Day of the Dead

A hundred years ago, who would have guessed that one day we humans would make tenuous the relationship between a butterfly and her flower by paving over fields where milkweed grows? Yet still the insects hang on. 

Indeed, millions of them continue to fly thousands of miles to overwinter in California or in the butterfly sanctuaries in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. In Mexico, dense colonies of monarchs cling to oyamel trees, abies religiosa, also called the sacred fir. The nearly freezing temperature in the high elevations of the mountains lowers the metabolism of the insect enough that it can sleep through the winter. [10]

It so happens that the arrival of the monarch butterfly coincides with the Day of the Dead. Mexican natives believe the insects are the souls of dead ancestors coming to visit them. [11]

The people there have an odd way of welcoming their deceased relatives, however. According to Carlos R. Beutelspacher, the community’s children whack the somnolent insects with sticks, knocking them to the ground. Then they gather them up, pluck off their wings, cook them, and add them to their tortillas. [12] Perhaps they believe that by ingesting these ancestral spirits, they will take into themselves some of the qualities of those who lived before. Perhaps they are simply hungry, looking for a little extra protein. It is amazing how we choose to honor – or dishonor – that which is sacred to us.   

The Incredible Nature of Life

Still, the children can reach only so far up into the tree. By far the majority of the monarchs survive their foraging. In the spring, those that remain rouse themselves to travel back into the United States, going as far as their energy will take them. Once exhausted, they mate, lay eggs, and die. Then the cycle begins again as four generations of monarchs grow up, each living about six weeks, until the chill of the October air triggers that ancestral memory in the adults that remain, and this special crop of butterflies makes its way south where they will live at least twice as long as their parents.

These delicate creatures who make this amazing trek have stirred the imagination of many a people. A Náhuatl legend tells us that the monarch can wing up to gods to tell them of our desires. [13] The Guerrera people believed the butterflies were the souls of dead heroes. [14] In her book about Aztec culture, Clendinnen explained that the natives thought these butterflies had been “summoned into existence by the sun.” [15]

Grounded in Love

We are no less incredible than they. Simply by allowing some app to inform us five times a day that we are going to die, we can become a better person. There’s certainly something to be said for meditating on our death. Yet it probably matters little what exactly we believe happens after we die. Whether we have chosen a religion of gods and goddesses, of science and reason, or of something in between, what seems to make the difference is not whether we use this religion to help us face our deaths, but how strongly the religion we have chosen is grounded in love.

Death is certain. I invite you to join me in the journey of accepting this truth. In this way, we can learn to live more fully and love more deeply.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Sullivan, Andrew, “America’s New Religions,” Intelligencer, New York Magazine, December 7, 2018,  http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/andrew-sullivan-americas-new-religions.html,accessed 12/18/18.
  2. “America’s Gilded Age: Robber Barons and the Captains of Industry,” Maryville University, https://online.maryville.edu/business-degrees/americas-gilded-age/, accessed 12/7/18.
  3. Schulten, Susan, “The Story Behind the Ancient Map That Invented Red and Blue States,” The New Republic, August 9, 2014, https://newrepublic.com/article/119018/19th-century-map-shows-uss-politicial-polarization, accessed 12/7/18.
  4. Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, New York: Free Press, 1974, 44
  5. Clendinne, Inga, Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays, Melbourne Victoria, Australia: Text Publishing, 2006, 71.
  6. Quoted in Warren James, ed., Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, 19. and also in Shermer, Michael, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, Utopia, New York: Henry Holt, 2018, 12.
  7. Trizin, Sakya, Freeing the Heart and Mind: Introduction to the Buddhist Path, Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2011, 92-93.
  8. See also 
    https://kadampa-center.org/sites/default/files/DeathHO5.pdf.
  9. Fitzgerald, Mark, “Five Times a Day, the WeCroak App Reminds Me that I’m Going to Die,” The Christian Century, October 24, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/5-times-day-wecroak-app-reminds-me-i-m-going-die?fbclid=IwAR0XkMc5J7YiLMpeELyXVf2QhKAdyFsvMkOXMa1YW1OBa3-_HD0cpFVDmrs, accessed 11/28/18.
  10. Arndt, Jamie, Sheldon Solomon, Tim Kasser, and Kennon M. Sheldon, “The Urge to Splurge: A Terror Management Account of Materialism and Consumer Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14(3), 198-212, 200 and 209, 2004, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.477.1509&rep=rep1&type=pdf, accessed 12/4/18.
  11. Ramirez, M. Isabel, Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, Gerald Rehfeldt, and Lidia Salas-Canela, “Threats to the Availability of Overwintering Habitat in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve,” Monarchs in a Changing World : Biology and Conservation of an Iconic Butterfly, ed. by Karen S. Oberhauser, et al., Cornell University Press, 2015, 157-168, 157.
  12. Oberhauser, Karen S., “Model Programs for Citizen Science, Education, and Conservation,” Monarchs in a Changing World : Biology and Conservation of an Iconic Butterfly, edited by Karen S. Oberhauser, et al., Cornell University Press, 2015, 1-3, 2.
  13. Carlos R. Beutelspacher, A guide to Mexico’s butterflies and moths (México: Minutiae Mexicana, 1994), 27-28.
  14. “Monarch Butterfly and Its Connection to Day of the Dead,” Calavera, January 1, 2018, https://www.calavera.ch/en/monarch-butterfly/, accessed 12/7/18.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Clendinnen, Inga, The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 183.

Photo by Justin DoCanto on Unsplash 

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

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