A couple of weeks ago I had one of those ‘catching up on the last ten years’ phone calls with a friend who lives in Germany. Jacqui is amazing, amusing and vivacious, a woman of great inner and outer beauty. She had a successful modelling career in South Africa, where we met, as well as in Europe after she moved there. She is also full of surprises. She told me how in recent months she had volunteered to work in the local mortuary, helping stitch up corpses after post-mortems.
I asked what working at the mortuary was like. She told me how there is nothing like arriving at work to a whole new batch of corpses each and every day, to make you realise that death is totally normal and inevitable. How the number of corpses the same age or younger than you is a constant reminder that death happens all the time, irrespective of age. How she’d learned that you can’t judge people from the way they look. A body may seem quite normal on the outside, but then the doctors open them up to reveal the most grotesque abnormalities.
I asked if working at the mortuary had changed the way she lived. She said it had changed everything. Specifically, she now lives with the constant awareness that she is going to die. She has cleared out her wardrobes of all the clothes she previously thought she might wear “one day”. Now she keeps only a much smaller selection of the clothes she feels good wearing. Similarly, the rest of the house has been cleared of extraneous clutter. She joked how the family drinks orange juice at breakfast from the best crystal – why keep it only for special occasions in the future which may never happen?
She said she’d never touch a cigarette again, having seen what it does to your lungs. She doesn’t bother keeping up with people for the sake of being part of the ‘in-crowd’ – life really is too short. All the time she was telling me this, Jacqui was laughing and animated: far from the reality of death being a burden, living in constant awareness of it seemed to make her feel liberated. Keenly eager to make the most of each moment. More acutely aware of what really matters. And more grateful for being alive and healthy right now.
As it happens, these are some of the reasons that contemplating death is such a big subject in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddha emphasized the importance of realising the truth of one’s own death – a ‘realisation’ being when your understanding of a subject deepens to the point that it changes your behaviour. As it has for Jacqui.
Much of the time we are, to use a favourite Buddhist analogy, like sheep grazing in the paddock outside an abattoir, ignoring the steady stream of our fellow creatures who are disappearing from our midst, never to be seen again. But waking up to the reality that we too, will face that doorway, and perhaps much sooner than we think, is critical if we are to get the most out of each and every moment of our lives.
Recognising just how finite our life is, helps us realise its value. Prioritize what is important to us. Let go of what is not. Perhaps a few weeks stint as mortuary assistants would help many more of us discover greater happiness and meaning. Though I’m not sure if that idea would catch on!
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You’ll find more on this important subject in my books Buddhism for Busy People and Enlightenment to Go.