I was wondering the other day why our culture is so in denial about death; why we are so frightened to even talk about it. I believe that the behavior of a person always makes sense if you can get under their skin and learn of the history they were raised in. So I set out to understand why North Americans have this tendency to avoid death at all costs.
As I pondered this issue I remembered my childhood, growing up in the fifties. Some summers after school was out I would head off to my uncle’s farm in the Ottawa Valley. I had lots of daily chores and was expected to fit right in with family life on the farm. What this meant to me was great meals, boating, and tons of farm duties while enjoying life!
In hind site though, I realize what was happening on a more subtle level. I was living much more in the natural flow of life, the cycles of life as so beautifully demonstrated in the show Lion King. Planting of the seeds; care of the crops; harvesting; then thanks giving. The birth of piglets the feeding and tending them followed by the slaughter, and the resulting food. On the farm nature was very much a part of everyday life as were we, birth, life and death were not separate.
Life and death were common they were taken as normal and natural occurrences. Sometimes an animal would die and in its own way the family would say good-bye and set the animal to rest. Other times the animal was slaughtered for food or for sale. No matter what the case the animal was always treated with love and respect and the death was just another part of life.
Looking back at those summers I understand why death is not as difficult for me as perhaps it is for others who have not had that rural farm experience. I saw the cycles regularly; birth and death were bookends of the same life, nothing to be afraid of or to deny. We demonstrated our acceptance of life’s cycles by such simple practices as celebrating the end of each day, the end of a season by honoring the solstice.
Noticing my relaxed and embracing approach compared to the more common approach of fear and denial I hopped on my trusty laptop and looked into the demographics of Canada and how they have changed over the years. I compared rural population with those of us living in the cities. I discovered a trend that is also common in other countries like India and China; rural dwellers move to the larger cities to find work and money for their families. The significance was not the trend from rural to urban living, more it was the magnitude of the migration. Here is what I saw.
In 1800 97% of us lived in country, by 1851 87% of Canada’s population lived rurally a change of 10% over 50 years. One hundred years later in 1951 those of us living in cities and rurally was about balanced, 50/50. Over the course of 200 years there was a decline of 47% in rural population. The next 60 years period from 1951 to 2011 witnessed the rural population dropping to only 17%, a stunning reversal in life style.
This trend is demonstrated by a story I remember back in the early 2000’s. I was hosting some young city kids at my home on the semi rural Sunshine Coast of BC. It was late summer and we were busy preparing a great feast. We needed some more lettuce for the salad. I asked one of the city kids if he would get some lettuce for us. He asked for the car keys. When I asked him why and he said to go to the store and get some lettuce. I took him to the deck overlooking the garden and pointed to the lettuce patch that he had tended earlier in the day. The assumption on his part was of course, food comes from the store.
These phenomena, a massively digital world, this move to urban living and all that cities have to offer has put a huge percentage of our population out of touch with the natural cycle of life and death. So much so that both births and deaths now occur primarily in hospitals or care facilities. Our culture has made pathology out of two of nature’s most natural events.
Though most Canadians, 70%, want to die at home most deaths occur out of the home environment usually behind closed doors in a hospital or care facility. Death has become an enemy, something to fight to the last gasp, something to avoid because we are afraid to experience it directly or indirectly. We are simply out of touch with the natural flow of life.
In order to get back in touch with the beautiful cycles of birth and death here are a few practices you can do in order to get back in touch with the natural flow of life.
Plant a family garden.
Go for walks in nature by rivers, lakes or oceans if possible.
Make a practice of ending each day consciously.
Welcome the beginning of each day with a simple personal ritual.
Visit a farm.
Shop at a farmer’s market and shake hands with the growers.
Celebrate the change of our seasons with a gathering or party.
In a more conscious way acknowledge the beginning and ending of each month.
These simple practices will help you get back in touch in a mindful way with all the unique births and deaths life has to offer. A regular habit of acknowledging beginnings and endings will help you stay present to the very natural flow of life from start to finish.