Mind Matters — Life to Death to Life Again

Funny how facing death head on can be a celebration of life. Recently, I saw the Japanese movie, Departures, where a young man, Daigo Kobayashi, newly married, finds the symphony in which he is a cellist has become defunct. Unable to land another position as a musician, he returns to his home town. The work he reluctantly agrees to perform there is that of the preparer of corpses prior to cremation.

Daigo’s ambivalence and his apprehension, however, slowly transform. He becomes a conduit for the deceased and the grieving family and friends to make the passage from life to death and to whatever is beyond. He, in ritual ceremony, with the mourners witnessing, prepares the body with a contemplative gentleness and loving compassion.

The film pendulates between death and life and its bittersweet charge. Between death ceremonies, Daigo plays the cello soulfully in a land where snow geese fly above rugged mountains.

In Departures, we vicariously face loss, abandonment, broken dreams and limitations not with rancor and resentment, but with deep grace. In each ceremony, we feel Daigo’s gentle caress of a lifeless face, and in that touch, a memory of life is reborn. The sense pervades that life in its fragility needs quiet honoring even, if not especially, in death.

Perhaps, it is not so ironic that I should view Departures on the day of Senator Ted Kennedy’s own departure, i.e., funeral. Would that I could metaphoricaly be like the young ceremonialist of the film and guide my reader to a new relationship with the deceased, despite any political leanings—to see the larger picture of what is important in both death and life: a connection of care.

Kennedy was a man who deeply cared for others. My father used to say “your virture is your vice”. Or perhaps instead it is in the redemption of our vices that we find our virtue. Kennedy appeared to have had the courage for that redemptive transformation.

In a National Pulic Radio interview, I heard a father of a soldier killed in Iraq talk about his relationship with Senator Kennedy. He remarked that he had always been a Repuyblican but that it was Senator Kennedy who came to his aid after his son died. His son, along with army vehicle, lacked protective armor. When the father approached Kennedy about this, the senator went into action and got the funding for this armor passed. However, the father wanted to make it clear that Kennedy’s care went beyond the legislative. Kennedy came to Arlington Cemetery to be with this man and his family when he found they would be visiting there. No one knew, there was no PR, just quiet presence. The interviewer queried, “So what did you learn from Senator Kennedy?” This grieving father’s response was, “Empathy.”

Empathy has been bandied about as a dirty word lately, yet it is one of my favorites. Empathy is what allows us to understand another in the way they wish to be understood. “We get” the other. Furthermore, being able to put oneself in the shoes of another person and experience situations and emotions as the other has experienced them defines altruism that goes beyond self interest. This is what the father of the fallen soldier described in his relationship with Senator Kennedy.

Even in death there is empathy. Daigo in his ceremonial care of the dead seems to understand the deceased in their life and through a sacred ritual creates an empathic bridge between the deceased and the grieving community. Only with empathy can we face death head on, and in that act, can celebrate life