death: a simulation

I arrived at Casa De Luz in the light rain of yesterday afternoon. The courtyard was covered in ivy, ferns, bamboo and stone. Birds chirped and a breeze blew through the space. I went inside the auditorium and found a small table set with a memorial pamphlet with my picture on it. My birth and death date (yesterday’s date) were beneath it. An empty sheet of paper was beside it. Both were illuminated by a small, flickering candle. A group of people began to filter in and sit in front of their pictures. We were all silent.

We were there for a Living Funeral ceremony lead by Emily Cross of Steady Waves End of Life, an Austin-based death Doula service. Typically I am very suspicious of staged emotional events, but I’ve gotten to know Emily and hearing about her experience becoming a Doula intrigued me. I’ve also felt more open to exploring the emotional side of death to deepen my understanding of final rituals.

To begin, Emily guided us through a meditation that focused on looking at ourselves in the picture and letting go of that image. On the empty page, we wrote our final goodbyes. I wrote a full page. I wasn’t as emotional as I anticipated. The room was now fully dark, our flickering lights all that moved.

When we were finished, Emily announced that she would be collecting our words and giving them to another participant to read. Before I had time to fully process what that meant, she handed me a flashlight and a woman’s handwritten goodbyes. I looked at the picture of the woman and the words she had written. I tried to begin, but I was speechless. I had to pause several times before I could finally proceed. I knew the woman was somewhere in the darkness listening. I had no idea who the people were that she was saying goodbye to, forgiving, telling them she loved them. I felt like a cosmic messenger, reluctant and humbled by this task.

Some people expressed regret at having wasted time, others reached out to those who already died, hoping they would be with them again. They left instruction on what to do with their belongings and how to take care of their beloved pets. I found I had trouble contextualizing what was happening, it was unlike the thousand funerals I have been to before in that is was so intensely about the present moment.

As I listened to my own words be read, I felt less judgemental about them than I usually am. However, I wished I had written more specifically about what I was doing right now. How I’ve been reading the blog of a classmate who recently became a widow and learning so much about grief and expression from her. How I was anxious about meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. How one of the tabs open on my phone is literally to the dictionary entry for pathetic. Writing as though the next moment is death is very liberating. I felt detached, but compassionate toward myself. I was grateful for the darkness I sat in.

Finally, we laid down and were covered with a shroud, an eye cover and a single stem flower placed atop us. Emily guided us into a space of selflessness and then back into life.

“I hope you have a lot of fun tonight, because you’re alive,” she said before we departed. I left to go meet up with my friends, including the one I hadn’t seen in awhile. I gave her the flower that had been placed across my body. She asked if it was a funeral flower and when I told her it was we both began to laugh. When I told her it was from my own funeral it somehow seemed even more funny. We passed the flower between us for the rest of the night, opening up about various moments of despair and elation we’d recently experienced. There were moments of silence during which we just looked at each other.

“You all look the same,” my friend remarked, as though the passage of time should appear more evident. I realized I hadn’t looked at myself since I saw my picture on the memorial pamphlet. I actually couldn’t form an image of myself in my head at all. I laughed again, this time with the great relief of knowing I could just be that.