Death and Dying: Everyone Wants to Go to Heaven, but No One Wants to Die
I recall talking to my pastor from the Albuquerque Indian Baptist Mission, who I respect and love as a brother, and we started talking about the important things in life. I asked him what he thought was the most important thing about being a human being. He responded with a few answers, i.e. “you have to take care of your family, you have to love God, you have to respect yourself and people, etc.” My reaction was “nope, the most important thing is you have to try to stay alive.” It’s true. I don’t know anyone in their right mind who does not want to live as long as possible.
There are different reasons people would rather stay alive than die and most of them are not selfish ones. Most of it has to do with our loved ones – children, grandchildren, other family and friends, spouses, co-workers, etc. This is a big reason our health insurance and health care costs are so outrageous in this country. Many of us try to keep our loved ones alive at any and all costs. It’s simply human nature in most cases to be caregivers for our friends and relatives in their time of dying.
Death is known to many tribal peoples here on Turtle Island as the Great Mystery – because it is mysterious. We have our beliefs about what happens when we die, but most of us are not 100 percent sure. I have faith that there is an afterlife but many people find that absurd. Agnostics and atheists seem to be gaining momentum, especially among our young people who find it hard to believe something that can’t be proved.
Some Native cultures are forbidden to talk about death, which is strange to me. It’s really the one certain thing we all have to face. Why not bring it out into the open? Why not have a discussion with life and death as the main topics? I’ve heard my elders tell our tribal stories about our traditional beliefs and the journey that lies ahead and I’m thankful.
Why do we want to live here on Earth if there’s a better life awaiting us somewhere else? Why prolong the inevitable? If there’s a place called heaven, why not get there as quick as possible? If there’s a place across that big river and all of our relatives are waiting, what are we waiting for? But we insist upon living here on Earth. That’s why we try to have a healthy diet, get exercise and go to the doctor. We are trying our best to stay alive in human form.
Years ago tribes used to build raised wooden scaffolds to put the dead corpses of our relatives and tribal members. When I would see or imagine this image I wondered why we had that practice. The only thing I could come up with when I was younger was that it was probably because we didn’t have any shovels. But I learned that a big part of the reason that we placed our dead on raised scaffolds was so they could be reabsorbed by Mother Earth. The four-legged, the winged and even insects benefitted from our corpses. The spirit of that person was long gone.
What about mourning the loss of our loved ones? Are we really mourning them because I always hear people say, “don’t feel too bad, she or he is in a better place now.” If that is the case, we should feel overjoyed for our deceased friend or relative, so the mourning is really about our own loss. We mostly feel sorry for ourselves when someone we knew or were close to passes on.
I feel fortunate to have lived a half century so far and I plan on being here for at least a couple more decades (hopefully longer). I’m not ashamed to say the most important thing in my life is to stay alive for as long as possible. I believe the world would change dramatically if we, as human beings, didn’t have this preoccupation with and desire to stay alive. Unless you are a trained suicide bomber or kamikaze, staying alive is part of our fundamental genetic makeup. May the wind be at your back and may you live long and prosper. Aho.
Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.