Build Your Ship of Death: For the Longest Journey Over Endless Seas


I take the title for my talk at this conference from an unlikely source —D. H. Lawrence.  It is my belief that Lawrence had  wisdom about how we deal with death that is superior to almost anybody who has written about the subject.

I’d like to start off with a reading:


“Now it is autumn, and the falling fruit and the long journey toward oblivion.  The apples falling like great drops of dew to bruise themselves and exit from themselves.  And it is time to go.  To bid farewell to one’s own self and find an exit from the fallen self.  Have you built your ship of death?  Oh, have you?  Oh, build your ship of death for you will need it. We are dying!   We are dying!  So, all we can do is now to be willing to die and to build the ship of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.  A little ship with oars and food and little dishes and all accoutrements fitting and ready for the departing soul.  Now, launch the small ship.  Now, as the body dies and life departs launch out the fragile soul in the fragile ship of courage.  The ark of faith with its store of food and little cooking pans and change of clothes upon the flood’s black waves, upon the waters of the end, upon the sea of death where still we sail darkly, where we cannot steer and have no port.”


I offer my reflections on death from the point of view of an amateur. There is an enormous difference between dealing with death and grief as an objective occurrence and as the primal, existential fact of my death and my grief. I am dedicated to trying to understand human existence through the mirror of the life of Sam Keen, and I am convinced that I can best understand what’s going on in my culture by reading my own psyche and my own soul. As a philosopher, it is my hope to be a physician of the spirit and the soul. And, that means that I must first be a physician to my own spirit and my own soul.  Philosophy is about the healing – or if you want – the salvation of the soul, not particularly or necessarily in a religious sense of the word.


It has been said that philosophers are perverts! And it’s true!  That was the charge made against Socrates. Everybody in Athens pretty well understood the cultural norms until Socrates came on the scene. Euthyphro, for instance, was on his way to turn his father in for impiety when he met Socrates who started asking him questions. By the end of the dialogue Euthyphro has no idea what piety is. For this disturbing habit of questioning,  Socrates was charged with perverting the youth of Athens and given a hemlock milk shake. And that is the job of philosophy, to turn things over, switch appearance and reality.


As a philosopher of sorts, I would like to examine the ways we think about death and suggest that maybe we’re dealing with it the wrong way.


The structure of my remarks is going to follow a scheme I learned a long time ago from Paul Tillich. Tillich taught us that there were three questions that any religion, philosophy or therapy has to ask and answer.  First, “What’s wrong with us?  What’s the disease?  What’s the pathology?” Second, “What would we look like if we were whole? Healed?” (We don’t even have a word for a state of positive health, or ideal.)  Third, “How do we get from one to two?  What are the means of healing?” My remarks are going to follow these three questions.  First, I will look at the pathology of death. Second, at a good or ideal way of dying. And, third I will ask, “Is there any way to achieve a better death?”


The pathology of death in the modern world.


Conferences like this on death and grief wouldn’t have happened thirty years ago.  Death has come out of the closet. We’re living in a time when we talk about death in ways that we did not before. The question is on our minds.  We see documentaries on television about death. There is certainly a death revolution, a death liberation movement in process.


It’s tempting to believe that we are beginning to deal with death in a way that is more creative. But, there’s a danger here.  Let me suggest an analogy. We’ve had a sexual liberation movement, a women’s liberation movement and now, a man’s liberation movement. But what has been liberated?  And, at what cost?

I suspect the sexual liberation movement may have increased our bondage in some perverse ways.


Some of you old timers are veterans of the sexual revolution. Now, with AIDS and herpes many of you will have only heard about that blessed period, not as long ago, when we thought that to liberate ourselves sexually we only had to connect any two or more pairs of genitals of consenting adults. Getting together in any constellation for any reason held the promise of liberation.



Playboy and Cosmopolitan promoted casual sex and Erica Jong insisted that women had the right to the “zipless fuck”.  The sexual revolution promoted the impossible idea that sex was something any two consenting adults did without too much emotional involvement, that was, nevertheless, supposed to free us. We had the Reichian full body orgasm.( Probably, many of you didn’t have one. It’s colder up here in Canada. ) Salvation by orgasm. When even that proved inadequate we discovered that women could have more orgasms than men— four of hers for one of yours. . In due time we discovered the  “G” spot and the “O” spot and the long repressed news that there were only clitoral orgasms. Thus, the vibrator replaced that part of the male anatomy of which we men are so fond and raised a question as to whether women should bother with men.


Gradually, sexual liberation trivialized sex and stripped it of sacredness because it overlooked the fact that genitals are connected to human beings who have histories, dreams, hopes, continuity, and children. Lately, we have found it necessary to  re-own the old notion that vital and whole-hearted sexuality is the touching of incarnate spirits.  Sexuality that does not honor the totality of another person —body, spirit, history, story—- creates its own special kind of repression.


It is important for us to ask whether the death liberation movement is in danger of encouraging a more trivial and alienated  style of dying.  Why?


First of all, human death, is not a natural phenomenon, not a biological occurrence. Human beings are the only bio-mythic animal, our biology and mythology are inextricably connected. We are the self-conscious animal who cannot separate biology from the stories that we tell about ourselves.


And, one of the primary stories we tell about ourselves is, about the meaning of death?” Every culture has a mythology, a repertoire of stories about why people die.  In some cultures people are thought to die because they’ve offended the gods.  Many primitive mythologies assume that death comes as a result of breaking a taboo. It is not natural, doesn’t just happen.  You’ve offended a god, or you have done something you ought not to have done. To understand the meaning of life you have to ask about the meanings that are assigned to death. What are the stories that govern death?” What kind of death is focal in a given culture?


The operative myth or narrative of any culture is mostly invisible to the people who live in that culture. The fish does not see the water in which it swims. In Eskimo culture, in the old days they took the old people out and they left them on an ice flow and thought goddess Sedna would comfort them as they were dying.  I can look at that practice and say “It is very mythological, isn’t it?” But when I look at my own culture, where we take people to the hospital and have weird people dressed in white (never in rainbow colors, or like a clown) attend them, I don’t see that as mythological.  That’s science. That’s modern medicine.  In order to decipher death, and understand what we are doing and NOT doing we have to examine the, largely unconscious, mythology of our culture.


One of the best ways to get a handle on this is to look at the death of the hero upon which a given culture focuses–  the myth incarnate.  Every culture has somebody who, in their dying, becomes a model for the meaning of life and death.


A bit of history;


In agricultural cultures the model for death is the seed. The seed goes into the ground, dies, disintegrates, and comes to fruition again.  The seed is the metaphor for the soul.  So, death is understood as a passage, a transition, a transformation, a going down into the darkness a disintegration and a rebirth.


Mythology is not just something in the head, it’s in the way we experience nature.  In the degree that the natural order is felt to be maternal, the soul will be regenerated, reborn, reincarnated  or transmigrated,. But it cannot die.  Death is just a part of the cyclical existence of the human soul. This is an assurance we no longer have because we don’t look at nature that way.


Consider other focal deaths. In the pre-modern world the two iconic deaths that gave people the meaning of life were the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus.


Remember Socrates’ last words? Socrates is dying, the poison has reached his waist and he leans over and says, “Crito I owe a cock to Asklepios”. That’s very interesting, because Asklepios is the god of healing. Socrates, in the middle of dying says, “I am being healed.  I owe a cock to Asklepios”. Almost all of ethics after the time of Socrates, in Aristotle, in the Stoic ethics – is a reflection on the life and death of Socrates.


And, why didn’t Socrates escape from Athens and save his own life?  He didn’t escape because, in his view, the highest good was found only in community. Human beings are human only when they are social, only when they’re in a community. And a community can only exist when there is law. Therefore the law of Athens must be obeyed even if it is wrong, otherwise one ceases to be fully communal human being. Ergo— Socrates swallowed the hemlock voluntarily rather than violate his vision of the communal nature of the good life.


Socrates also said that his reason told him that the soul was not born and would not die. Therefore, he should go to his death voluntarily without fear.  He says, “All of my life I have been practicing dying. And now, when it comes to the act of actual dying should I be afraid?  Should I run away?  That would show that my entire life was a fraud.” Socrates taught that philosophy is the practice of dying, moving away from mere sense of knowledge and geting in touch with the soul. To die was merely to finish the process of getting to the essence of the soul, to be liberated from the bondage of the body and time. In bearing witness to this, Socrates became a savior, a comforter, an incarnate exemplar.


Switch cultures and focal deaths. In the case of Jesus, as with Socrates, we are dealing with a death that is chosen, voluntary, and could have been avoided. Jesus is condemned to death for  reasons that are not clear but he does not try to escape. He prays that “this cup” could be taken from him but he goes to his death in obedience to what he conceives of as the will of God. In so doing he demonstrates that the meaning of life is found, not in reason, but in direct obedience to God. The authentic life is one of obedience to a covenant with a personal God. In accepting suffering and death Jesus re-affirms of the meaning of life.


One of the few deaths, in the modern world, that has become iconic is the death of Che Chevera. For the communist world, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only hero who inspired youth was Che Chevera. After the Cuban revolution he voluntarily went to South America and was killed and became a martyr.  Some say that one of the reasons the Soviet Union supported Cuba for so long was because they had the only martyr of the revolution .


Three iconic deaths, three stories, three incarnate mythologies, each of which tells us how to live and what to die for.


Death  Modern- Style.


Forget what you know, forget your expertise for a minute and let’s just read the newspaper , watch television and ask ourselves “What  deaths are focal, or exemplary in modern culture? How, when and where do we see death portrayed?  What is the face of modern death ?


The image of  death we see most frequently on the media is the death that comes out of anarchy, disintegration, and poverty in the places where tribal consciousness and tribal hatred are re-emerging—Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo, Syria, Somalia. We see bodies blown apart by suicide bombers or hacked into peaces and floating down the river.


Strangely, the horror of death in the third world is a perverse comfort to us, because it is not our death. It is not the one we think about We read the stories of incredible savagery and say, “Isn’t it awful?” But under our breath there is a self-righteous refrain: ‘Thank God we are not as they. Thank God we are not primitive. Thank God we are really civilized. Thank God we don’t have deaths like that. Thank God.”


It is only with the events of 9/11 that the spectre of death by terror has imprinted itself on the American mind. Even though American forces are involved in the business of killing and being killed in two or three wars (depending on who is counting) we seldom see pictures of the causalities we have inflicted or suffered.  Mid-East media shows the mangled bodies that result from “collateral damage” but American are not allowed to see the blood of the victims of violence. (Except on entertainment programs on prime time television.)


For the most part, in America, disease and death are experienced as something that happens to us–an invasion or bio-technical failure. Death strikes us, lays us low. Outside entities, enemies of the body–germs or viruses–breach our defenses and overwhelm us. Or, suddenly, through no fault of our own, the adrenal or pituitary glands malfunction. “Death” and “disease” are nouns that we must name before they can be conquered. When we first fall ill we wonder anxiously: is it diabetes or appendicitis or  C_ _ _ _R?  As the illness looms large ( is it fatal?)  we become small, confused and in need of an authority who will take over the responsibility for diagnosing and prescribing the cure for our condition. Further, we usually expect that the process of repairing the damage will involve a technological solution–a pill to restore chemical balance, an antibiotic to combat an infection, an operation to correct a structural malfunction.


Nowhere do we see this paradigm of illness so clearly as in the  mythology that surrounds our most highly cathected disease–cancer. Cancer –the enemy, the dark, insidious, irrational thing — strikes its victims without warning or rationale. It is a metaphor for the evil that attacks the innocent.


The deaths that we most focus on are those in which we feel ourselves to be victims of something. Increasingly, we are a society where there is a rush to victimization, where illness, and especially catastrophic terminal illness, is thought of as something that happens to a person—a cancer victim, a victim of a stroke, etc.


Ivan Illich has argued in Medical Nemesis that modern medicine has disempowered us to deal with our own suffering and dying. As experts take over the management of our bodies in every crisis from borning to dying, and redefine moral conducts such as addiction or greed as diseases, we are reduced to being passive consumers of professional body tenders. Increasingly our medical system infantilizes patients. How obediently we tolerate the authoritarian atmosphere of doctors’ offices and hospitals! We wait patiently and submit to procedures we do not understand because the experts assure us they are necessary. And we die in hospitals because that is where we can get professional care. Only the lucky among us get help from hospice providers and are allowed to die in he comfort of our homes.


I want to call your attention to a small difference in the way we think about death that makes all the difference. If I ask, “What did Socrates die from?” a medical pathologist might say,  “Hemlock” and give me a clinical description of death by poison.  If I ask, “What did Jesus die from? the answer might be: Blood loss, In both cases it is the wrong question.  The right question is, “What did Socrates die for?”,”What did Jesus die for?”


I would like to try an experiment with you.  I hope you’re not too sophisticated. Put aside your professionalism for a minute and just do a simple sentence completion test. When I say the first part of the sentence, you say the first thing that comes to mind.


He died for—————(his country)

He died for —————(honor)

She died for————–(her children.)

She died for ————-(love)

(Most common responses)


This suggests that apart from men dying for their country and women dying for their children we don’t have a very clear ideas of anything that’s worth dying for —-and, therefore, worth living for. Two words make all the difference! Do I die for something or do I die from something?”


If death is the result of a purely biological event, it makes sense to medicalize the problem of dealing with illness and disease.  We turn it over to a physician.  We take our bodies to doctors and say “Here,” “I’m dropping this off.  Fix it.” There are alternative movements where we’re beginning to understand our responsibility, but, by and large, we think and deal with disease and death as victims.


In our imagination death is an enemy.   Physicians are taught that  they must defeat  it at all costs even though it eventually destroys us all. Death confronts us with our helplessness. —very unAmerican. We’re not used to being out of control or surrendering. All of the emotions that are an embarrassment  to our self -image as autonomous and independent beings are put in the waste basket of death.


As Americans, our ego ideal is to be:







In control





In dying we are:




Abandoned to professsionals



Out of control




We burden the dying with the impossible task of dealing with the psychological garbage of a lifetime, and expect them to accomplish the task with dignity. When we avoid dealing with death until we are terminal we ask ourselves to do the impossible— learn to die well when we are already dying. Death education should begin when we are young and vigorous and it should not be left to the medical  or psychiatric professions. Dealing with death should be an amateur enterprise, a form of wisdom best learned from a dilettante. (“amateur” from the Latin amator lover”—-“dilettante” from dilettare, to delight). Those who most delight in life should be the ones who teach us about death. We best learn about our mortality where we are enfolded within a context where we are loved and where the ten thousand living beings that surround us day by day are greeted with wonder and appreciation.


How might we think about a wholehearted way of death?


The most extreme example I know is in the yoga tradition that holds out the possibility that a person who has practiced meditation and learned wisdom and compassion will come to the end of life and die voluntarily. If you are constantly learning to let go and surrender to what is deepest, you are always learning to die. Such a person does not die from a disease; they surrender to death at the time (kairos) of readiness and ripeness.


In our culture, the best example of this I know was Scott Nearing.  Scott Nearing was a philosopher, an organic farmer who believed deeply in the connection with the earth.  When he got to be 100 years old he said, “I’ve lived long enough.” He stopped eating and died.  Almost an inconceivable thing in the United States for somebody to do that!  Inconceivable .Was it suicide?


I notice that as I think about various death-myths I hold my death at arms length. I can keep my anxiety under control when I deal with theories of death but when it comes to my mortality I resist, postpone, deny.


There is nothing for it but to plunge in.


In my early years, death wasn’t a problem. Jesus  died for my sins and if I only believed in Him I would have eternal life. I took John 3:16 literally. Although, I couldn’t dredge up any major sins I did locate enough peccadilloes so I could ask to be forgiven —therefore to be saved— therefore to have eternal life . My faith wavered constantly but I worked at believing and surpressing a multitude of doubts. When my father died my whole structure of belief tumbled down like Humpty Dumpty. Death was more powerful than all my theories and explanations.


Death is the rock upon which all systems shipwreck, the question for which there is no answer, and yet, strangely, the most seasoned philosophers and realistic mystics have always advised us to practice daily awareness of our own death. Philosophy, according to Plato, is the practice of dying. I think it may be more like learning to penetrate the many disguises in which death wraps itself to remain unrecognized and undetected.


When I struggle to remain aware of my mortality I am able to detect the ways in which death dogs my days and nights, how it creeps in and evades my defenses. Every night it lurks just behind my thoughts when I resist yielding to sleep—-fearful of giving up my control of awareness, my ability to direct my mind.  Or, I wake in the middle of the night and have to pee and I look in the mirror and think, “Oh my God!  When did I get that wrinkled face?” Or, being male, I look in the toilet to see if there’s blood in my piss. I wonder if the mole on my arm is changing shape, if it is pre cancerous. Driving on the freeway at seventy-five miles per hour death is never very far away.


At the very core of my being I have two opposite, ineradicable feelings about death.


In the bottomless pit of my stomach I have a sickening feeling that I am simply wiped out at death. Death is the end of Sam Keen, the end of my consciousness, the end of my world. What awaits me is complete annihilation, the Void. Nothingness.


I have an equally strong opposite feeling. Something deep and primal raises a voice of outrage, protest and refusal. “No. God damn it.  No!  Death is not acceptable! I refuse to simply vanish without a trace. I wasn’t consulted. I didn’t agree to death. I didn’t sign the contract. In some way I cannot imagine, I remain eternally within the Creating Source of all that was, is and will be. Hard as I try, I am unable to exorcise either of these feelings.


As I give up explanations and theories I find I am able to develop a practice that allows me to live thankfully and joyfully in the presence of the ultimate mystery of  death. The primary rule of this practice is—- when you meet a demon don’t run. Go toward  the unacceptable thing.


Supposedly, there’s a tribe in New Guinea where the right–of-passage for men involves drinking a strange kind of poison that can be absorbed in the esophagus, but it’s neutralized in the stomach.  If you take the poison neat, in one gulp, you are safe. But, if you hesitate and gag, you’re dead. Whether the story is true or not, the principle is sound.


A spoonful of death a day keeps illusions away.


When I am able to swallow the terror raw and not run from it, I  can look back over my life and see the ways in which I armor myself against the awareness of my mortality and construct what Ernest Becker called, my immortality projects for denying death.  Clinging to orthodox Christianity, working obsessively to be worthy of fame, striving to make a name for myself, conforming to social niceties to be deserving of love, adopting rigorous health routines to protect me from age and decrepitude —all these are ways armoring myself against the terror of death.


As I learn to take the fear of death straight, my character armor begin to loosen. I give up perfectionism, orthodoxy, the habit of anxiety and the obsession with knowing the answers.

Inviting the awareness of death into my conscious mind, I no longer have to build a wall of sand against the incoming tide.  Acknowledging terror as a legitimate part of human existence I am surprised by a rebirth of wonder. There is room enough in my spirit for the Siamese twins —-terror and wonder, the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinans to live side by side.


Gradually, my whole understanding and practice of the life of the spirit is changing. I dont have religious answers. Instead, as Rilke said, I have learned to love the questions themselves. Where did I come from? What is my ultimate destiny? What is my vocation? What is the meaning of death? How can I be healed? How do I forgive? How can I be forgiven? How can I love more deeply?  These great questions have become my daily bread.


There is a great sense of metaphysical relaxation that accompanies the realization that the world is ultimately mysterious and beyond explanation. It relieves me of the burden of having to know what I cannot know and the temptation to place my faith in so called “revealed truth” of some institution that promises me mystery, miracle and authority. In place of an ersatz revelation of the meaning of life, the wonder and simple beauty of Mockingbirds and Pine trees is given me day by day.  My life in an overflowing world that is always borning and dying is given me moment by moment.


There will come a time when I will be done with the little deaths of the ego and will face the definitive end of my life. I wonder how I will face this conclusion.  Years ago I talked with my great friend Howard Thurman during the last weeks of his life. He told me “I am not going to die until I am in the room where the ultimate decision is made about my life and death.”  I am certain that when he died a week later he was in that room and gave his consent . I hope his example and spirit will be with me when my time comes.


I would like to close, as I began, with some words of D. H. Lawrence :

” Oh, when man escaped from the barbed wire entanglement of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices there is a marvelously rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty. And, fearless, face to face awareness of our now naked life…

When at last we escape the barbed wire enclosure of “know thyself” knowing we can never know.  But, we can touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort, and dangle in a last fastidious, fine delight as the fushia does – dangling her reckless drop of purple after so much putting forth and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.”


Sing the song of death.  Oh, sing it.  For without the song of death the song of life becomes pointless and silly.  Sing, then, the song of death, and the longest journey, and what the soul carries with him, and what he leaves behind, and how he finds the darkness that enfolds him into utter peace at last, at last beyond innumerable seas.”