||Death as Natural and Generative
and no less sacred than life
resources offered by Connie Barlow & Rev. Michael Dowd
Perhaps there is no more alluring portal for experiencing the benefits of evolutionary spirituality that is, a spirituality grounded in a modern, evolutionary cosmology than by way of a profoundly new way of understanding death.
Thanks to the sciences of astronomy, astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, cell biology, embryology, ecology, geography, and math, we can now not only accept but celebrate that:
1. Death is natural and creative at every level of reality.
2. Death is no less sacred than life.
It is vitally important to convey this full, comforting (indeed, inspiring!) view of death to all ages for this reason: In any society that still has a large segment of its population believing in the Bible literally, the default explanation for why there is death is drawn from Romans 5:12 (attributed to the writings of the Apostle Paul): "Wherefore as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men." A (sadly) remarkable depiction of the story of how Adam and Eve brought death into the world is available oniine in cartoon format, as a short creationist tract.
Accordingly, absent another interpretation (such as the one offered here) all too often death is regarded as "the enemy." Until that cultural perception shifts, untold physical and emotional suffering (and financial cost) will likely continue unabated in modern hospitals as many among us have experienced first-hand. See the July 15, 2011 piece by New York Times columnist David Brookss on this issue, titled "Death and Budgets". Brooks concludes his essay this way: "We think the budget mess is a squabble between partisans in Washington. But in large measure it's about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon."
SUMMARY BY DOWD: "Thank God for Death Could Anything Be More Sacred, More Necessary, More Real?"
BACKGROUND READING: "The Science that Grounds the New Understanding of Death"
"Death, Budgets, and Generational Justice", which is Connie Barlow's 2011 commentary on David Brooks' essay and a similar call to action by Daniel Callahan and Sherwin Nuland. TEXT, AUDIO, or VIDEO
Online Resources for Learning and Celebrating Death as Natural and Generative
|| CHILDREN'S STORY: "Tree Talks About Death"
This story by Connie Barlow weaves a mythic tale grounded in science through which the deep understandings of the creative role that death plays at all scales of the cosmos can be grasped by both head and heart, child or adult. Click here to listen to free online AUDIO of Connie reading aloud this story.
AUDIO CONVERSATION: "When Death Gets Personal"
Half-hour audio conversation by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, recorded August 2009, as part of their newly launched "America's Evolutionary Evangelists" weekly podcast series.
AUDIO INTERVIEW: "It's All Really there!""
Barlow and Dowd interview Jon Cleland-Host for their podcast series, Inspiring Naturalism. In this episode, Jon Cleland-Host melds a reverence for his Native American heritage with a "deep-time" perspective born of modern science, thereby offering listeners a moving way to understand the fact of death and how death awareness adds vitality to one's experience of the present.
AUDIO: "Death Through Deep-Time Eyes" (half-hour sermon by Connie Barlow)
Six short YouTube videos
excerpted from Connie Barlow's "Death Through Deep-Time Eyes"
presentation in Ashland OR, 2009, supplemented with illustrations and songs.
CURRICULUM: "Remember Who You Are: Living a Mythic Life"
12-week curriculum by Connie Barlow for assisting middle school youth in the life passage from childhood ("Explorers in the Garden") to early adolescence ("Thespians at the Oasis"), which uses the understandings drawn from the 2008 book by Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, and using scene-by-scene the Disney movie The Lion King as a beloved bridge and focus for the middle school mindset. Understanding the naturalness of death of elders and of periodic psychological deaths as one transitions from one stage of life to the next is central to this curriculum.
INTERVIEW: "An Alluring View of Death," with Connie Barlow, published in the Sept 2005 issue of What Is Enlightenment? magazine
HEALTH INSURANCE PROPOSAL: "Leaving a Legacy"
Connie Barlow's proposal for a new form of Group Health Insurance to serve individuals who share a philosophy that death is a natural part of life not something to be battled irrespective of the emotional, physical, and financial costs.
STORY: "The Dance: An Evolutionary Parable Celebrating Death" by Larry Edwards, as published in EarthLight magazine.
MOVIE: "Griefwalker" - award-winning documentary on the work Stephen Jenkinson for naturalizing our understanding of and process of death (study guide also available).
AUDIO STORY: "The Wishing Star" - online mp3 AUDIO of a terrific kids story on the naturalness of death of elders (on another website); written and read by Brenda Sutton, the 10 minute audio is described as, "a serious tale for older kids about life, death, and how to make a really important wish."
ARTICLE: "Letting Go" - by Atul Gawande. This is perhaps the best article for experiencing the deep reluctance of patients and doctors to give up hope for a cure even in the most obviously of terminal situations. While the author does not take an evolutionary, deep-time perspective, readers here are recommended to consider that access to advanced medical intervention is a form of "supernormal stimulus." As with processed foods, recreational drugs, television, video gaming, and internet porn, our ancestors had no opportunity to evolve resistance to high-tech methods for extending the suffering and societal costs of the terminally ill. That is, even three generations back, humans never had an opportunity to develop addictions to any of these damaging possibilities taken to excess. Similarly, we have no deep instincts to say "no" when yet another costly and painful treatment is offered to us and especially our loved ones.
Excerpt: "This is a modern tragedy, replayed millions of times over. When there is no way of knowing exactly how long our skeins will run and when we imagine ourselves to have much more time than we do our every impulse is to fight, to die with chemo in our veins or a tube in our throats or fresh sutures in our flesh. The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register. We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do. But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do. They can give toxic drugs of unknown efficacy, operate to try to remove part of the tumor, put in a feeding tube if a person can't eat: there's always something. We want these choices. We don't want anyone certainly not bureaucrats or the marketplace to limit them. But that doesn't mean we are eager to make the choices ourselves. Instead, most often, we make no choice at all. We fall back on the default, and the default is: Do Something. Is there any way out of this?"
ARTICLE: "A Life Worth Ending" - by Michael Wolff, in 20 May 2012 Atlantic Magazine.
Excerpts: Make no mistake, the purpose of long-term-care insurance is to help finance some of the greatest misery and suffering human beings have yet devised. . . That is the thing that you begin to terrifyingly appreciate: Dementia is not absence; it is not a non state; it actually could be a condition of more rather than less feeling, one that, with its lack of clarity and logic, must be a kind of constant nightmare.. . . "Old age," says one of Philip Roth's protagonists, "isn't a battle, it's a massacre." I'd add, it's a holocaust. Circumstances have conspired to rob the human person a mass of humanity of all hope and dignity and comfort.
I do not know how death panels ever got such a bad name. Perhaps they should have been called deliverance panels. What I would not do for a fair-minded body to whom I might plead for my mother's end. . .
The alternative is nuts: to look forward to paying trillions and to bankrupting the nation as well as our souls as we endure the suffering of our parents and our inability to help them get where they're going. The single greatest pressure on health care is the disproportionate resources devoted to the elderly, to not just the old, but to the old old, and yet no one says what all old children of old parents know: This is not just wrongheaded but steals the life from everyone involved. . .
And it seems all the more savage because there is such a simple fix: Give us the right to make provisions for when we want to go. Give families the ability to make a fair case of enough being enough, of the end's, de facto, having come. . .
Not long after visiting my insurance man those few weeks ago, I sent an 'eyes wide open' email to my children, all in their twenties, saying this was a decision, to buy long-term-care insurance or not, they should be in on: When push came to shove, my care would be their logistical and financial problem; they needed to think about what they wanted me to do and, too, what I wanted them to do. But none of them responded I suppose it was that kind of email. . .
Anyway, after due consideration, I decided on my own that I plainly would never want what LTC insurance buys, and, too, that this would be a bad deal. My bet is that, even in America, even as screwed up as our health care is, we baby-boomers watching our parents' long and agonizing deaths won't do this to ourselves. We will surely, we must surely, find a better, cheaper, quicker, kinder way out. . .
Meanwhile, since, like my mother, I can't count on someone putting a pillow over my head, I'll be trying to work out the timing and details of a do-it-yourself exit strategy. As should we all.
Stars that lived and died
before our sun was born
created all the calcium
in our bones and
the carbon in our cells.
Live Programs on Death by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd
Helping individuals find inspiration and hope in a larger and beneficent context for death is a core function of religions throughout the world. Our culture is reticent to talk and educate about death in meaningful ways, in part, because deep and unexamined assumptions about death hail from widely accepted understandings born of another era, and these old assumptions are not up to the challenges posed by death today. In telling the 14 billion year story of cosmos and life as a sacred story, we (Connie Barlow and Rev. Michael Dowd) have developed programs grounded in the new cosmological understanding born of modern science that present death as natural, generative, and something to be trusted and even celebrated.
Both of us begin our programs with an important caveat: Individuals can adopt a new and expanded view of death as natural and generative while continuing to embrace the full diversity of beliefs about what happens to spirt, soul, or consciousness after death, and while honoring the teachings of their particular religious faith. Our aim is simply to offer individuals a larger, natural, sacred context within which to see and experience the material fact of death in a new and liberating way.
Whether given as a 20 minute sermon in a church on a Sunday morning or a two-hour graphically-rich presentation in a school, a retirement community, to hospice staff/patients, or a myriad of other venues, our programs on death consistently elicit gratitude, trust, hope, and deeply heartfelt stirrings in those who experience them.
Click here for more information on Connie's and Michael's programs
||"Death, Budgets, and Generational Justice"|
in TEXT, AUDIO, or VIDEO
In August 2011, Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd gave twinned theme talks at two events in the American West: "Evolutionize Your Life" (by Michael) and "Evolutionize Your Death and Legacy" (by Connie). Inspired by the audience response and poignant storytelling that ensued, Connie wrote a call-to-action in essay form, urging her boomer generation to transform the debilitating and financially untenable death-denial that pervades American culture largely because of literalist Christianity that interprets death as "the enemy."
Note: Connie speaks in the above video of what she learned from participating in her mother's death in 1998. You can access online an essay Connie wrote about that experience: "Clouds and the Crystal Bell.
"I am at peace with his death."
In the summer of 2004, Connie and Michael were jointly presenting an evening workshop at a Unitarian Universalist church in Ohio. Connie did a component on the creation of atoms inside of stars, and the importance of those stars dying and giving back to the galaxy all that they had created during their lives. A woman sent us an email afterwards, which read: "During Connie's talk about stardust, I knew why I had come. My father, who took his own life in May, always told me I was made of 'star-stuff'. After hearing you, I am at peace with his death. His spirit is with the goddess, but even stars die, and his substance will continue on as new life. Thanks so much!"
As the years pass, examples continue to accrue of how this perspective can restore hope after the death of a loved one. In the summer of 2007, Connie's sermon on stardust at a Unitarian Universalist church evoked this tearful comment from a woman: "I lost my son six months ago, and this is the first thing that has helped me with my grief. Thank you!" In autumn of 2008, Michael's talk at a spiritual retreat center in Cleveland evoked another tearful expression of gratitude this time from a woman who finally felt she could come to terms with the death of her three-year-old grandchild.
"Every day I deal with death."
Connie received this email in 2007, from a young woman, after Connie's sermon on death at a Unitarian Universalist church in the Midwest: "I am a funeral director intern and will be getting my license within the next couple of months. Every day I deal with death. Every day I hear sermons about Adam's sin and death's sting. I always feel strange, sitting at the back listening to whichever preacher happens to be the pick of the day. I always knew I didn't believe what they spoke.
I learned about evolution and the Big Bang from teachers who didn't believe in it, but who had to teach it. I watch programs on it on the Discovery Channel. I believe it. But I have never had it put into a story that could define me. It was always distant, something that heppened in the past. You brought to me the first creation story that I could relate to. No talking snake in a tree tempting a nude woman. No. You gave me words to a story that is based in fact something I can make my own, something that is my own. And for that, I thank you." Note: A cartoon tract depicting the biblical creationist view of death can be read online at http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/5001/5001_01.asp.
ABOVE RIGHT: Griefwalker - award-winning Canadian film that is a sensitively and artistically rendered (and very intimate) exploration of the work of death doula Stephen Jenkinson, whose worldview is evocatively summarized in this quotation from the film: "Not success. Not growth. Not happiness.
The cradle of your love of life is death." Note: The entire film can either be purchased on dvd, downloaded, or streamed at these two sites: http://www.nfb.ca/film/griefwalker/ or http://www.fandor.com/films/griefwalker.
"How Doctors Die: It's Not Like the Rest of US, But It Should Be" - 2011 blogpost by Ken Murray, MD. See also a poignant response to that post: "How Doctors Die: An ICU Nurse Responds"
VIDEO (free online): "The Suicide Plan" - superb 2-hour Frontline investigative report (2012) on volunteer organizations advising the terminally ill on legal means to end suffering and hasten their own death.
VIDEO (trailer): "Consider the Conversation" - a 2013 documentary on the sad state of family and patient/doctor unwillingness to forthrightly talk about death prognosis before it is too late.
"Sustainable Aging" - superb website and blog that shares the worldview of this webpage: that death of elders is natural and that fruitless (and costly) medical procedures that merely forestall a natural death are unethical burdens on patients, their families, and especially younger generations who will pay the costs of Medicare debts.
"Can Death Become Your Ally?" - 2011 blogpost by Duane Elgin on Huffington Post. Though not grounded specifically in evolutionary wisdom, Duane's short piece is suffused with his own and ancient wisdom.
||Click left for a moving and beautifully rendered compendium of statements by leading atheists, young and old, of why disbelief in an eternal afterlife gives them fulfillment and a zest for living.|
See also "Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?", a 2012 blogpost by Greta Christina, originally published in Free Inquiry. This short essay is the best piece we have read on why a fully naturalistic perspective on death is actually more comforting than the traditional view of an afterlife in the Christian tradition.
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