At this time of year, it becomes almost painfully clear that we are moving into a change of seasons and in many ways the closing of a cycle. The days are becoming cooler here in Ontario, and the cold nights are laced with frost. The variety of maple trees are displaying vivid yellows, oranges and deep reds to the streets and parks. The sight is filling me with a sense of awe and inner expansion of my chest. I am inspired to take out my camera and follow the masses of leaves on the ground as well as the shimmering leaves still on the trees being lit by the sun. There is a reminder of death and cold. A gorgeous breath before the long, cold winter of hibernation.
This season is also the time of Thanksgiving, of gathering in the bounty of the year, and celebrating endings. Thanksgiving in Canada occurred this year during Tabernacles, the 7-day holiday when some Jews still build a Sukkah, a temporary hut where one is supposed to eat, and even sleep. It is supposed to commemorate the huts in the desert during the Exodus. In addition, on the last day of the holiday the circle of Torah reading ends and immediately is started from the beginning. The Jewish ending and beginning of the year. The last portion in the 5 books making up the Torah is a song. This is the poem attributed to Moses before his death. He is talking to his people. It is the lamentation of a great prophet who led his people out of slavery to receive the Torah, and to wander 40 years in the desert before fulfilling the dream of entering their promised land. It was a land that he so yearned to enter. A dream he prayed to fulfill. But all he was able to do was to see it from afar, and die. He died, however, knowing that he had transferred the leadership to someone else, someone he can trust to continue the task and fulfill the dream.
Blessing the nation or the family and your loved ones on your death bed, appears in all traditions from ancient times until today. Ceremonies of transferring spiritual leadership can be found in many indigenous stories. Some of those ceremonies are still performed today by Shamans who practiced the tradition for generations. In some indigenous communities in Canada, when a person is on their death bed, ceremonies of medicine and prayers will guide the person’s spirit back to the spirit world. When it is a spiritual leader, a medicine man or a chief, the ceremonies are more complicated and reflect their service to the community, and in many cases involve the new leader or Shaman. Family and clan members will be present, and will hold vigil to bring comfort, pray and ease pain until the spirit leaves the body! Sacred songs are sung and family members have opportunity to speak to the dying person.
Death is a natural transition from the physical world to the spiritual world. If we learn to accept death as part of the cycle of life, and are preparing emotionally and spiritually, mourning our loved ones may be much easier. In hospitals that respect indigenous practices, patients are allowed to request an appropriate ceremony for themselves. Ceremonies are for both the grieving person and the one who is preparing to die. They provide comfort, ease pain, and bring families together. Encouragement, strength, and support are given to the dying person. Stories of life, dreams, visions, fears, regrets, and guilt are listened to by the spiritual healer. The dying person’s mind is calmed through prayer, smudging, pipe ceremonies and sacred songs. Hospital based ceremonials help the grieving family move from anger, fear, guilt, remorse, or internal division to expressions of love, acceptance of fate and peace.
Teachings by Elders and spiritual leaders each evening on the importance of recalling ancestral lineage and understanding that we represent the sum of all our ancestors becomes a powerful tool to assist those who are still grieving. Community support is recognized by many religions and groups as an important part of the grief process. The practice of Shiva, the 7 days of mourning in Jewish tradition is based on similar principals. The spiritual leader, Rabbi, visits and leads learning. Relatives, friends, and community members visit, tell stories, bring food to comfort mourners. Neither the dying nor the mourners are alone, which ameliorates the pain of separation. During the last 2 years we have witnessed too many of our elderly and frail people dying alone. Hospitals and nursing homes prevented family visits during quarantines. Many of us felt pain and anguish that our close ones died alone and we did not have in many cases the community support we needed.
I wonder how my mind brought up these existential thoughts from experiencing the beauty of the falling leaves. They are so beautiful in their death, and we know from experience that it is a natural cycle. They carry all these colours within them throughout their life but we do not see it until just before they prepare to fall. We also carry many beautiful things within us which we inherited from our ancestors and we are gifting to our offspring. Now we even know that we carry DNA from our Neanderthal forefathers. The finding was aided by a recent discovery of a family of 6 in a cave in the mountains of southern Siberia. They perished together about 54,000 years ago — perhaps tragically, from starvation or a big storm. DNA extracted from their bones matches some of our DNA. There is much more to learn. We carry within ourselves much that we inherited and developed. With time some of the beauty is recognized, but some is discovered only posthumously from stories shared by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances after our passing. Some of the leaves on the ground have a special beauty, which I found compelled to photograph and preserve. Even in death nothing is lost, and if we listen and look carefully, we can discover the beauty and purpose. But then I remembered some of the wisdom of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) who said:
כִּ֛י יש דברים הַרְבֵּ֖ה מַרְבִּ֣ים הָ֑בֶל מַה־יֹּתֵ֖ר לָאָדָֽם׃
Often, much talk means much futility. How does it benefit a man?
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains the same forever.
Let us hope it is so.