404 Death And Dying | Stephen Garrett

Death – The Great Equalizer

At birth we all take our first breath.  At death we all make our last exhale.  No human ever escapes either fate.

Over the years I have seen a lot of bodies, dead ones that is – likely more than most.  I have seen many women, men, children, elders, ranging in age from 0 years to the age of 102.  People of many different cultures, religions and beliefs, individuals from diverse economic backgrounds, paupers to billionaires have passed my way.   I have seen folks dressed in their finest Hugo Boss suits or Versace dress to men and women dressed only in a hospital gown.  The range and variety of people is fantastically diverse, the differences are astounding.

People whose cultures have fought each other to the bitter end.  People who have controlled others economically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually and those who have been controlled.  People who have killed others or been killed, domestic violence or gang violence or war.  Political leaders and their political pawns fighting over votes and power.  Drug dealers and drug users, hookers and johns, down and outs and up and comers, English and French, Asian and Caucasian, African and European and everyone nation in between – the variety of individuals never ceases to amaze me.

Each one is unique, a separate person, their own universe, seeing, hearing, and experiencing the world in their own way and living it distinctively too!  Folks with all kinds of reasons to be right and make others wrong.  Diversity can be the seeds of curiosity, sadly and more often though, the seeds of conflict.

At the end of the day, when all is almost said and done, none of this seems to matter to the one dying or their family and friends.  The golf clubs, the cars, the bank accounts, the titles, the shoes, the body, all seem to fade well into the background, behind the history of the life lived.

What then steps into the foreground? 

The experiences people shared with loved ones, friends and family.

All I hear people close to death talking about is their memories of times shared with friends and family.  They never speak about all the differences they simply speak about those experiences in common

People, who have survived the death of a loved one, speak of their memories with the one who passed on.  What they did together, where they went, and the fun they had.  If they do mention the hard times, they speak it with love and always mention how glad they were to have gotten through it and fallen back in love.

Every culture I have had the pleasure of being with through the change from life to death, from the poor to the very rich, from the educated to the illiterate, from the believers to the non-believers, all folks drop the differences and take up the love.

Death seems to reduce us all to what really matters… connection, experience and love.

Much Love

Stephen Garrett

A Cremationist’s View of Life and Death

Years ago when travelling in India I met a noble yogi in Varanasi, my favorite of all Indian cities.  This fine fellow had the simple job of tending the fire from which all funeral pyres are lit.  Stories have it that this fire has been burning for 5,000 years without going out and his family has tended it all these years.

What inspired me about him was the depth and presence he displayed while tending to his duties.  His compassion and humble pride were obvious too.  He waved me into his ‘office’ – we spent time together as he tended to his duties.  At the end of our visit we knelt by the fire.  This gallant man dabbed my forehead with ash from the fire and gave me a little packet of ash to take with me. (The ash still in an urn on my fireplace mantel to this day.)

What I took away from my visit with this fellow was more than just the keepsake.  I felt a deep appreciation for the loving and humble work this man did as he served all the families that came to the Ghats in Varanasi to cremate their loved ones and say a final good-bye – an understanding I would experience personally many years after our meeting.

Now, some 6 years later I find myself in a different yet similar situation as my Indian friend at the Ghats.  I am tending my own fire at a crematorium in Vancouver! Though his fuel is wood and mine is natural gas, and his fires are on the banks of the Ganges River and mine are at the corner of 41st and Fraser, I feel a deep kinship with the noble man in India.  Over the past five months I have been witness to hundreds of cremations, many of them attended by families.  I have watched and learned what is going on at these ceremonies.  I have studied the logistics and what needs to happen for a successful cremation.  I have watched the funeral directors and staff for tips on the human how to’s.  I have also watched the families for clues on how to do an even better job serving them at this important time of their lives.

One weekend late in the spring I had an amazing lesson from the sister of a woman who had passed.  It had been a full ceremony, lots of family and friends, and many people saying their final good-byes.  It was a wonderful display of family and friends sharing connections, happy memories, joy, and feelings of loss – gloriously full of life and love .

The sister said her final good-byes and as she turned to leave the viewing space she walked by me.  We had meet at the funeral home as she came by to make the arrangements for her sister’s ceremony, she knew I was the cremationist.  She stopped in front of me and placed her hand on my forearm.  Looking into my eyes and speaking to my heart she said, “You will take care of my sister won’t you?”

In that instant I felt my friend from the Ghats in Indian and the noble way he was with people.  I felt at the same time the trust families place in me, the cremationist, to take care of their loved one throughout the cremation process.  I knew it mentally, now I had the lesson deeply in my body.  I felt the trust people must have when they relinquish their loved one to the care of a funeral director or cremationist.  It blew my socks off!  What an honor and a loving responsibility it is to take great care of a family’s loved one as they prepare to say their final good-byes.  It feels to me like a sacred job, one that requires compassion, openness, and a grounded certainty.  I am such a lucky fellow to be able to serve people in this most unique way.

Much Love

Stephen Garrett

Lesson from the Death Bed – Pre-Death Regrets a Recipe for a Full Life

I spent years as a hospice volunteer and worked closely with people dying.  I heard many regrets over the years from people closing in on their death, some unusual ones for sure.  Here are a few common regrets people shared with me over the years:

I wish I’d had the courage to live my life, not the life others expected of me.  Many folks spend a lifetime doing their best to make people around them happy.  Many of us put to the back burner those things we really want to do, a life we really want to live, in order to live a life we think will gain us the approval of those important people around us – approval from Mom, Dad or our spouse and kids.

It is a common disappointment to get to the end of life only to discover we have run out of time and left behind us a dream life unlived.

I wish I didn’t work so hard.  If I had a penny for each time I heard this one I would most certainly be a millionaire by now!  All that time people spend working hard so that on retiring so that they will finally be free and able to do those things, which bring them happiness.  One more year, a few more dollars in the retirement fund, then I can relax and enjoy my life.  Often that extra year doesn’t arrive and the next few dollars no longer matter, our health is so poor we can no longer enjoy the dream.  Delayed gratification – what a price to pay that is!

I wish I’d had the courage to express myself more fully.  This speaks to how we hold ourselves back from really expressing ourselves in order to be part of a family, community, group or team.  It is a painful recognition when we realize we didn’t give our fullest to our own life.  We held our truest expression back because we were afraid to be left alone, put down or ridiculed.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends and family.  Many of us get so busy in life we tend to focus on what is right in front of us often times excluding friends and family.  It is most often recognized at the end of life that relationships are all that really mattered, especially those with friends and family and we regret all the time we spent doing other things.  Many of us realize at the end of life that it is only these relationships that we take with us when we die.  All other things we leave behind.  Oftentimes at the end of life we haven’t the time or capacity to get in touch with all those folks that are important to us.

I wish that I had expressed the happiness I felt.  This is a sneaky one and yet very common.  It links to the regret many of us have that we didn’t express ourselves fully.  Most of us carry around the belief that we don’t deserve to be happy, even though we feel it, “ I’m so thrilled to be alive.” Most of us hold it back, especially when others around us aren’t so happy.  At the end of life we begin to understand that we were happy all along and regret deeply that we didn’t share our happiness with those close to us.

These regrets are real for the grieving person and can be called wisdom if those of us receiving them open to it in this way.  These ’lessons from the death bed’ can be taken by those of us surviving the death as a recipe for a full life.  All we need to do is replace ‘I wish I had’ with the starting phrase:

I will …


Much Love

Stephen Garrett