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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

The Labyrinth: Birth and Death

After one of my recent “Touching Mortality” workshops, one of the participants suggested that I write about something I had briefly touched on during the workshop. I had suggested that one of the exercises we had done was a way of “celebrating” our lives and that doing such things were a rare experience in our culture. I shared about my awareness that we celebrate impending births in quite an amazing, purposeful, celebratory way in our culture. (Quite different than the typical experience the last nine months of our lives.)

  • We begin getting ready for the event by planning and having parties to celebrate the pending birth.

  • Gatherings are designed to provide support and comfort to the “to-be” parents.

  • We engage in strategies to prepare existing family members about the permanent changes that are about to take place in their family with this yet-to-be-seen entity.

  • As many friends and family as possible meet over the months following the announcement of the impending birth.

  • If someone can’t attend one event, there will be others that they can attend.

  • Special rooms, spaces and places are prepared.

  • Poems are written.

  • Scrapbooks are made.

  • Rituals are invoked.

  • Special clothing and items to comfort and support the new baby, parents and siblings are given.

It seems for the most part, in our culture, when we hear of, or sense, an impending death, we go mute. Not sure what to say or do.

  • Do we pretend that we don’t know, that we didn’t hear, can’t see what is before us; whether we are aware that we are in the final stages of life, or are awake to the fact that someone else is?

  • If it is another person, it seems that there is little guidance our culture offers for acknowledging the fact.

  • Seldom are there a series events to celebrate the life that is ending.

  • Seldom are there gatherings that provide support and comfort to those who are about to lose a loved one, or the loved one that we are losing.

  • Seldom do we organize an event to help prepare existing family members and friends for the permanent changes that are about to take place in their lives.

  • Typically, the gatherings that do occur, happen after the loss.

I remember thinking about this several years ago when I had an encounter with a labyrinth. A labyrinth is an ancient, maze-like, circular walking path. Evidence of its use and existence is found in many different cultures, and it has been used as a contemplative/meditative experience. One story is that it was used as a substitute, by the early Christians, who could not make the actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Crusades because of the dangerous political and warring conditions.

One of the insights I remember taking from my experience relates to this topic. I noticed that the entrance and exit point of the Labyrinth are in the same place. Though life, as does the labyrinth, begins and ends in the same place, it seems that we don’t recognize, honor and accept both of those experiences in quite the same way.

We enter life with no teeth, not very good sight, can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t understand what people are saying to us, can’t control our own body functions, don’t know where we came from or where we are going, are dependent on having someone feed us and protect us…. For the most part, despite all these things, our imperfections, we are unconditionally accepted, celebrated and loved, just for the fact that we exist.

For some of us the very same conditions (no teeth, not very good sight, can’t walk or talk, can’t understand what people are saying to us, can’t control our own body functions, don’t know where we came from or where we are going, have to have someone feed us and protect us) will be true as we exit life.

I have seldom demonstrated (I’m getting better at it) or witnessed others demonstrating the same level of acceptance, enthusiasm, celebration, and unconditional love of the exit stage of the journey, as they do with the entrance. Instead of wanting to be around the exit stage, (as we are with newborns, especially those who we are related to), my experience is that we tend to stay away from those experiencing the last stages of their lives.

Doesn’t it make sense that there might be at least as much to celebrate at the end of life as there is at the beginning? It’s like loving the sunrise and because we refuse to look west, failing to experience the spectacular sunsets. I’m left wondering why it doesn’t happen very often……

The journey of the Labyrinth takes us to its center. To the heart of it all. Walkers of the labyrinth celebrate their accomplishment of finding the center, and in the tradition of walking the labyrinth, are often invited to leave a part of themselves there. A great metaphor for having arrived at the center or purpose of our life. As in life, we can’t stay there forever. As we make our way back through the labyrinth and return to where we started, we celebrate the journey. Oh, that the same could be the norm for the end of our life’s journey.

I know that in some cultures, the end of life as we know it, is celebrated while the person is still alive and can enjoy it. Just as the beginning of life is celebrated. Each phase of life, with its own unique rituals and customs is celebrated. The culture I live in doesn’t have much to offer.

Those of us who gathered for those few days of the workshop, began changing this for ourselves. We began creating our own unique ways of celebrating our last phase of life. Establishing our own customs and rituals. Unashamedly sharing this part of our lives with others who would listen. It was an incredibly rich experience that has had the effect of enhancing life right here, right now.

Thankfully there are new movements throughout the western world that are bringing us back to being able to acknowledge and celebrate the ending as well as the beginning and middle stages of life. I would invite you to begin investigating this rich part of the human experience. It can make your experience of each day more warm and valuable.

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