I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.
I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday morning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.
Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.
A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.
She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies… Lucky us.
If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust. (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further… There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.
(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)
There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.
Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?
I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.
A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:
“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”
At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?
Over to you. Comments welcome.