“The poet reminds us that a civilization that denies
death ends by denying life.” —Octavio Paz
By Cat Saunders
I dream of a culture where the Wise Ones give a sacred gift to young adults at puberty. They would impart the teenagers’ predestined death timing in a rite of passage everyone has heard about since birth. When adolescents become biologically capable of creating life, they receive the awe-inspiring foreknowledge of their appointed date with death.
There are many ways to confront one’s own mortality. However, as anyone facing a terminal illness knows, the “when” factor changes everything. Knowledge of one’s probable exit date can blast holes in all but the most solid walls of denial.
Dream with me for a moment. Can you imagine how different our country would be if no one was afraid of death? Fear and avoidance rule prevailing attitudes about death, so it might be difficult to imagine a completely different scenario. Nonetheless, I invite you to dream with me….
The Senoi, Big Dreams, and Naked Tricksters
Two decades ago, I read a book called Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield. My favorite chapter was about the Senoi people of Malaysia. I was enthralled by descriptions of Senoi families sitting around the breakfast table each morning, talking about their dreams. For the Senoi, dreams form the centerpiece of life, guiding every aspect of their existence.
Early in life, children learn how to transform dream monsters into allies. They also learn how to increase their capacity for pleasure by pursuing it passionately and creatively in their dreams. In addition, everyone learns how to identify “big” dreams, which hold information for the entire community.
I have a big dream. It comes to me at night, and it dances with me during the day. It dazzles me with its luminous beauty. In my dream, no one is afraid of death, and everyone knows about their death timing in advance.
In this dream, there are threads of wisdom that bear testament to my love for the Senoi. I can see families sitting around the breakfast table, speaking not only of their dreams, but also of death. Since all adults have been informed of their predestined death timing, everyone celebrates their own deathday each year. They do this as joyously as they celebrate birthdays.
Children grow up knowing how long their parents will accompany them in physical form. Children also know who will care for them if both parents die before the children are grown. Even the littlest ones are included in conversations about the facts of death, just as they are included in discussions about the facts of life.
Parents use words the children understand, and no one uses euphemisms when talking about death. Every question and concern is addressed with honesty and respect.
In addition to practical and esoteric instruction in matters relating to death, there is also a lot of joking about it. Black humor permeates every form of media, and it shows up in all but the most sacred death rituals.
Even memorial services, which are actually big celebrations called “awakes,” are not immune to practical jokes and displays of debauchery. No one takes death seriously, because everyone takes it very seriously. This paradox is itself humorous to the inhabitants of my dream.
There is always at least one trickster in every family. During the occasional “awake,” such a person might be found naked, her face painted black, walking across the middle of the food table. This jokester is regarded as the holiest of holies, because she makes fun even in the face of death. Little children often dance behind her, learning by example that there is nothing to fear.
Time and the Mystery of Death
In my dream, there is an appreciation for time-as-an-ocean, with all things past, present and future existing simultaneously. Information from any time is accessible not only to the Wise Ones, but also to anyone who knows how to “time travel” through dreams or shamanic journeying.
In my dream world, time is not seen as a linear function. Since everyone knows the future already exists, people speak of it with as much comfort as they talk about the past. No one harbors any delusions about manipulating or controlling the unfolding of life.
On the other hand, people retain their childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for life-to-come, in the same way you might get excited about an upcoming event you’ve been planning with friends.
Even though you know in advance when, where, and with whom an upcoming event will happen, your experience of the event will be much different from your imagination of it. In the same way, instead of focusing on the time of death as a mystery, people in my dream focus on the mystery of death itself.
People in my dream appreciate this difference. Yet they also realize that good planning can enhance the experience of an event, however mysterious its actual experience may be. This respect for good planning also applies to death.
In my dream, foreknowledge of death timing is valued not only because it enhances the experience of dying, but also because it enhances the experience of living. Since people already know about their death timing in advance, they don’t waste time obsessing about how to prolong life. They simply live life to the fullest extent possible.
Death at Any Moment vs. Death by Appointment
In some cultures, spiritual masters maintain that the most enlightened attitude toward death is to act as if each moment is your last. But if you really acted as if this is your last moment, would you buy groceries for tomorrow’s dinner? Would you make plans for next weekend?
If you were really acting as if this were your last moment, would you pay next month’s rent or mortgage? Would you have children?
In general, the human brain struggles mightily against the fact of its own mortality. The trick of acting as if I could die anytime is just that: a trick. What counts is how I feel, and how I act on what I feel. If I think I could die anytime, yet I’m busy making plans and restocking groceries, it’s clear which belief is actually running me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that people should deny the fact that death can strike at any minute. I definitely encourage people to remember their mortality. However, I believe there is another alternative. The other alternative acknowledges death’s ability to preempt life, while also acknowledging that death has a date with me.
I bet if there weren’t so much fear and mass hypnosis about death, foreknowledge of one’s death timing could bubble up from the collective unconscious upon request. It might come from dreams or body messages or spiritual helpers or worldly omens. One way or the other, though, I believe the information is available.
For example, there are many stories about people intuiting their death timing as it draws near. During a family Christmas dinner in the mid-1970s, my own grandfather announced that he didn’t think he would be present for the following year’s gathering.
Everyone discounted my grandfather’s words except me. I knew he knew. I wrote him a little note of acknowledgment that said I believed him and loved him. He died suddenly the following spring.
The Wise Ones Explain My Job
There aren’t many people who love and honor death as a friend. So I like to talk with the people in my dream about their relationship with death. My time with the people in my dream is precious, whether we talk when I’m asleep or when I’m awake. They help me keep going when it feels hopeless to write about death in a culture that runs from it.
In my dream, I’ve been talking with the Wise Ones about what it would take for people in my culture to want to know about their death timing in advance. They said that people must first come to peace with death in general before they can receive information about their own death in specific.
The Wise Ones said that if people are scared of death, foreknowledge of their predestined death timing could wreak havoc in their lives. They said that exposing people to this information without first providing years of spiritual preparation would be as foolish as giving a butcher knife to a two-year-old.
The Wise Ones said that in our culture, there is much work to do in changing attitudes toward death. They said that Americans are only now beginning to face death in ways that show respect for its beauty and intrinsic value.
Because I’m willing to talk openly about death and dying, it’s my job to join others who are helping “prepare the ground” for new perspectives about death. Although I will not live to see the harvest, I know the seeds will surely grow.
This article is from a series of articles on death originally published by The New Times (1998-99) and updated in June 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).