Nicola Graydon Harris, co-author of The Ancestral Continuum, argues that we should revise how we think of death for the sake of our loved ones who have gone before us and who come after us.
How would we live if we knew for certain that our consciousness continued to exist after our hearts stopped beating?
Would we pay more attention to our death if we had proof that our souls survived the cessation of brain activity? What kind of funeral would we plan for ourselves if we might actually be in attendance? We would probably live our lives very differently, prepare for our death a little bit more and, at the very least, organize a playlist for our funeral…and for this and other advice on making our funerals more fitting to our lives we have My Last Song to thank.
A new book which I co-authored, The Ancestral Continuum, urges us to consider – in ways outside usual religious dogma – life after death with enough real stories and anecdotes to open the mind to the possibility.
Kathy Eldon, for example, recalls visiting a medium under a false name after her photojournalist son was killed in Somalia at just 22. She was sceptical until the medium told her that a vibrant, young spirit kept banging on about some young female who appeared to be trapped in a darkened room under heavy material. Kathy was bemused until the medium said that the woman’s name was Desiree. ‘That was the name he gave to his beloved Land Rover,’ Kathy recalled how she laughed and cried at the same time, ‘and she was under canvas in the garage.’
There is a more ethereal testimony from Aggie, an NHS nurse who recalls seeing the spirits of the dead floating above the living at burial ceremonies. ‘They look like shimmering figures,’ she says, ‘and remain attached to each other by cords of light until the cords are cut at the end of the ceremony.’
But mostly there are numerable stories from perfectly normal people about potent dreams and strange synchronicities that seem to come directly from deceased loved ones. Of course, none of us can know what happens when we die until we’ve actually been there but, to paraphrase Carl Jung, better to go towards our death believing in something other than the black void of oblivion. And then, maybe, we will plan for the inevitable so it’s the ending we want…planning our exit strategy as my friends at My Last Song call their mission.
At the heart of The Ancestral Continuum lies a call to reconnect with our ancestral heritage. Whether that is an emotional or spiritual connection, there are immense riches to be found in understanding those who have lived and died before us. It places us within the context of a complex narrative that speaks to us of who we are and gives us clues to where we might be going.
Most cultures around the world maintain a faithful relationship with their ancestors: from altars in Vietnamese restaurants to graveside picnics in Mexico during the Day of the Dead; the honouring of ancestors before each American Indian ceremony, to ancestral reverence in Zulu, Shona, Xhosa traditions in Southern Africa, as well as similar respect to their forefathers in most of that ancient, mysterious continent. It appears that our ancestors have been uniquely discarded by Western culture.
Is that because of our fear of death, despite its inevitability? From the moment that we are born we move inexorably towards our death and yet most of the Western world behave as though it doesn’t exist. Most of us will die in hospital surrounded by tubes and machines yet it wasn’t so long ago that, living in multi-generational households, children would experience the death of a grandparent in the family home. Have we lost the sacredness of this profound moment as we desperately cling to life?
Today, while 70 per cent of people say that they would rather die at home surrounded by friends and family, only 18 per cent actually do. Dying at home requires preparation and forward planning. It commits us to make a choice and be sure that our loved ones know that is what we want, and for younger loved ones to know how their ailing relatives want to die, and not ignore the fact that they surely will.
A ‘good’ death, says the book, makes a happy ancestor and it also makes for a profoundly moving collective experience for family and friends. This can be immensely healing for the dying and the living. And death itself becomes less frightening; more teacher than enemy; more journey than destination. In our dying we can teach others how to live as though our very next breath might be our last.