Death & disposition

Death poems and disposition after death often reveal the writer or speaker more than any other writing or saying. Sometimes these words are too polished to be other than apocryphal, but the words and sentiments do intend to capture the style of the one to whom the words are ascribed.

While the practice is or was widespread in the East, it has an occasional counterpart in the West. But perhaps Westerners need to reflect more upon death in order not only to write a last poem or saying but in order to write more worthily along the way.

A poet’s death poem should not be the epitome of his or her writing but sometimes is taken that way. Perhaps because of our insistent curiosity or our insatiable desire to witness a grand finale, death poems or statements about disposition of one’s body fascinate us or give us vicarious pleasure as something we hope we can have the courage enough to write or say so forthrightly.

Today, when death is a drawn-out process of enormous expense, bureaucracy, and distraction, the tranquility and equanimity needed to reflect and sum up is cheated from the dying. Perhaps the living should start summing up even as they live, day by day.

A favorite death statement is ascribed to Nyogen Senzaki, the Japanese teacher of Zen who came to live in the United States and died in 1958. He is well known for his wonderful anthologies of Zen sayings: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, The Iron Flute and Like A Dream, Like a Fantasy. Instead of writing a death poem, he had apparently made a tape recording that was played at the funeral — after arrangements had been made and mourners crowded in. They had already filled the place where his body lay amongst flowers and chanting led by twelve monks and much ado when unexpectedly the tape began playing. Nyogen Senzaki told them:

These are my last words to you.The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sutras may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. … Remember me as a monk and nothing else. I don’t belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of that sort. I want to be free of such nonsense and die happily.

As to the disposition of his ashes, Nyogen Senzake stipulated that some should be sent to his old friend Soen Nakagawa in Japan. The rest should be buried “in some unknown, uncultivated field.” As to that field:

Do not erect a tombstone. The California poppy is tombstone enough. … I would like to be like the mushroom in the deep mountains — no flowers, no branches, no root. I wish to rot most inconspicuously.

These wishes of death and disposition are hard to match in their pithiness and their value in putting things into perspective. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. We ought to think such arrangements through while we are able to shape them, though the living will always insist on its perogative of celebration and ritual.

But Senzake’s words, especially about disposition, remind us of a Western equivalent, the poem “Solitude” by the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, especially the last stanza:

How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breathes his native air,
In his own grounds.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide swift away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most doth please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unheard, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.