bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.


Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump




The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.





Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.



CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.


the sacred and profane of death and dying

Book review of Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

Katy Butler is a daughter, a writer, a life partner, a Buddhist. Mostly, Katy Butler is a daughter of whom more was asked by the medical system than should have been and more was expected of than could have been imagined by anyone as her father journeyed into his death.

This is the story of a family caught in the velocity of a medical momentum which erupts when someone enters the chaotic zone between a good life and good death. It is a heart-wrenching telling of what happens when we unwittingly place our trust in systems rather than people, in hope rather than clarity of thought. It is also a revealing, investigative and hard-nosed exposé of the death-preventing devices we hope would be life-sustaining. Butler invites us to journey with her to the realization that “(t)he honest, natural death is no longer the default pathway.” She begins by bringing us into her parents’ kitchen, sharing a cup of tea with her mother. This is a scene that can evoke memories of sweet poignancy of beginnings or endings; but here, here, there is a different evocation, a different prayer for an ending.

In  my role as a therapist, I have had the privilege to sit with spouses and adult children who were in the center of the turmoil of a loved one’s passing. The primary referral for “treatment” was triggered, they tell me, when they blurted out to their physician a wish that their loved one would die rather than continue to suffer. Typically, the physician panics and sees this as a pathological response to caregiving; some may even report this fearing the distraught spouse or child may act on those wishes. Butler explores with tremendous sensitivity this unspeakable longing for suffering to end without ever dropping into unnecessary angst or drama. But that is just the first three pages. The entire journey she takes with her mother and siblings is a wisdom trail from unknowing to being with not knowing, from waiting to bearing witness, from reacting to systemic demands to compassionate action.

The event line of the book is typical: her father has a stroke. In the usual process of rehabilitation treatment, decisions are made. It is not the decisions themselves but the revelation, through Butler’s skillful foreshadowing, that there are always unforeseeable consequences. And for many of those consequences, the mission of the medical industry often runs orthogonal to the values of the family and ethics of a supported death. The medical history of life-sustaining devices and interventions (surgeries, medication) is brilliantly interwoven into the narrative. Without taking us away from the unfolding tension, it makes us want to shout into the book “Oh, don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

But this is more than a story of one family’s tumultuous love for each other and their battle with the medical system. It is a cautionary tale for each of us, even if we think death is occupied with our future and not our present. It revealed for me that it is not about finding that right person to “pull the plug.” In fact, by the time it gets to that significant point, too many decisions have been made without full awareness and “pulling the plug” plays the smallest role in ending suffering. Butler writes tenderly, “Dying is hard on the dying. Death is hard on the living.”

Dying is not an acceptable topic of conversation. Still. Yet. Even. But converse on it we must because by looking away we only create a larger cauldron of suffering for those to whom we have entrusted our final moment – so wrongly believing it will only be that moment in which they will be called to act. Butler’s story carries this urgent message. We can honour the concept of dying as sacred but it can become a tragic process if we do not consider that getting to death itself can be a tainted and misguided journey.

It is worth mentioning that this book stands as an act of profound courage. It is brutally honest about the nature of relationships, searingly insightful in the potential of healing, and shines an intense light on our ignorance of what naively assume is a good death. For that alone, it is an important one to read.


If you are interested in learning more about how to prepare and be with that honest death, here are some resources:

The Metta Institute offers training and workshops on end-of-life care as well as resources for practice.

The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care offers grief and bereavement counselling, end-of-life programs, and meditations. Contemplative Care: A Film is an excellent resource.

Being With Dying Training at Upaya Institute is a rich program ranging in its training by Frank Ostaseki (Metta Institute), Laurie Leitch & Loree Sutton (Social Resilience Model), and Susan Bauer-Wu (Living with chronic illness).

The Canadian Palliative Hospice Care Association lists resources and programs for several professional groups (interestingly no psychologists), family caregivers, and volunteers.

The Quality End of Life Care Coalition of Canada document is a “Blueprint for Action – 2010-2020” to improve end-of-life care and ensure training and funding for Canadians.