There is some disagreement about when death actually occurs. Physicians insist that it is when their shiny instruments can no longer discern life's presence. They imagine it departs with the last breath. Others say death begins at conception and does not end until that which noisily hurls itself into birth has realized that which remains silently unborn. Still others claim the moment of death occurs when the heart stops. But the heart never stops, for when it is no longer contained between opposing ventricles it expands slowly into its inherent vastness without missing a beat, expressing the truth it has embraced for a lifetime.
Death, like birth, is not an emergency but an emergence. Death is akin to a flower opening: It is nearly impossible to tell exactly when the bud starts to become the blossom, or when the seed-laden blossom begins to burst and release its bounty.
Those who know the process directly—from experiences shared with the dying, from decades of meditation, from moments of spontaneous grace, from eucharists of every description—do not speak of death as a single moment before which you are alive and after which you are not. They refer instead to 'a point of remembrance' in which the holding to life transforms into a letting go into death. It is, just a little way into the process, the moment when something is suddenly remembered that it seems impossible to have forgotten. We 'remember' how safe death is, we recall the benefits of being free of the limitations of the body, and we ask ourselves somewhat incredulously, 'How could I have forgotten something so important, and what was it again that made me want to stay in a body?' Death takes on an entirely new context.
At that moment, just before we feel the lightness lifting us from our body, while we are still trying to capture each molecule of oxygen just to stay alive another instant, we suddenly remember we are not the body, never have been, never will be! Resistance vanishes into a glimpse of our long-migrating spirit. We cut the moorings and dive into the ocean of being, expanding from our body, the mind floating free.
I do not know if this is 'the moment of death,' but I do know this insight changes everything. No longer holding back, we feel ourselves dissolving safe and sound into an increasingly joyous, even youthful, sense of heading home.
From this boundless perspective we can appreciate, beyond all worldly reason, how perfect a teaching even death can be, and how immense and intricately woven is the miraculous process of our evolution.
Excerpted from A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last (Crown, 1997).