For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Boy, I’ll tell you, the last year has been challenging. This has been the year of my second Saturn return, which comes to everybody between the ages of fifty–eight to sixty and represents, astrologically, a second chance and possibly the last chance to “get it right.” It is a time to deal with any pockets of unfinished business in one’s life to finally become an elder with wisdom from the hard work of deep self–examination. It is the time when you become your own authority, the author of your own Story. This passage is often rigorous and wrought with exhaustion and sometimes depression. As with most significant transitions, the outcome can be tremendously life-giving. Mine was no exception.

Living for decades with the symptoms of a chronic illness affords one the opportunity to explore the concept of death from every direction. In our culture, death is a concept that is mostly feared and rarely celebrated as one of life’s greatest accomplishments. Being alive at this point in history is both a tremendous challenge and an enormous opportunity for expansion. As a large part of the population is aging, more and more people are moving toward that time in life where they consider making “the transition.”

Birth is commonly seen as a celebratory event. It is becoming more common for the aging population to develop an appreciation for their “final transition.” In order for one to engage in celebration of the latter, one must get right with the trajectory of one’s own life experience. Why is it that in our culture death is generally seen as, at the least, disappointing and, at most, a failure?

There is a growing ‘subculture’  that is cultivating a new, more progressive relationship with the final transition in one’s life. What if, instead of being experienced as a burden on the family when a loved one dies, the community joins with the family to celebrate this time with ceremony, prayer, and song to honor this passage in a way similar to birth, graduation and marriage?

In Crestone, we have an end-of-life program, the mission of which is to encourage individuals to create their own end-of-life rituals commensurate with their own sacred beliefs. In 1998, the community began providing green funerals and private open-air cremations to support this end. The program serves as a prototype to other communities interested in transforming these experiences. Here, when a loved one passes, the body is cared for in a sacred way–cleaned and anointed with sacred oils selected by the loved ones and community members. Often the body is visited in the home and a green burial or open-air cremation can be initiated if desired.

Perhaps if I described my few personal experiences with this it will help elucidate the concept. My introduction to this aspect of Crestone life occurred just prior to my arrival here. A very beloved and respected educator in the community lost her twenty–one year old son to an apparent overdose. Along with the family, the community was devastated to hear of this loss, especially since he had appeared to be straightening out his life and was on a progressive trajectory. Not only was the loss of this young man felt directly, but the grief echoed throughout the community in the form of empathy for the mother. I had not yet physically arrived in Crestone, but the grief was personally palpable. There is something about sharing that level of grief with a community that somehow makes the unthinkable more bearable. The mother was able to prepare her son’s body in a sacred way, with people who loved him. She selected special hardwoods and candles and such for the funeral pyre, making it a more personal sendoff.

Once I had been living in the community for a year, my neighbor and friend who had been struggling with cancer for over a decade made his transition. He had a love of horses and a business practices that we had shared.  After he passed on, I joined his family and our community for a heartfelt sendoff. This was my first open-air cremation and I was impressed with the content of his procession. Even his beloved horse and dog were included! If you know me, you would know that this would appeal to me.

I understand that this ritual may not appeal to the majority in our culture, but most Hindus have believed for thousands of years that open air cremations are the most auspicious way to release the soul from the body. Those who feel drawn to this practice should have be able to follow this practice. I would not want to impose my own desires on others and at the same time I would like my choices to be honored.

Protecting the sanctity of life is very important in our culture. Protecting the sanctity of “death” is equally as important, in my opinion. There has been a lot of research on people having near-death experiences or NDEs. While working on my masters degree in 1975, the first book on NDEs was required reading at Tulane University. It was Raymond Moody’s classic titled Life After Life. And in 2001, the book was rewritten with Elizabeth Kubler–Ross titled Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon–Survival of Bodily Death. This book investigated over one hundred cases of people who experienced a “clinical death” and were revived. There were striking similarities among the personal accounts, revealing a  state of profound peace and unconditional love. In later years, much has been written on After–Death Communication. One such classic is titled Journey of the Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives, by Michael Newton, which investigates a case study of twenty-nine people under hypnosis who describe strikingly similar accounts of their lives after death. These books and others similar point to the fact that there is no such thing as “death” as we know it.

Once death has been established as just one more celebratory and normal transition, choosing life can become more of a conscious decision and the quality of that life becomes more of a creative opportunity.

Having a life-threatening illness for over ten years, and learning to live in the present moment and not project into a fearful future, has given me the opportunity to explore different realms of consciousness that we all will be experiencing at some point. It has been important to me to live each moment in a regenerative way and to know that when the time comes to make the transition, as Emmanuel describes it in his many books, “Death is perfectly safe.”