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End of Life Traditions Vary Among Cultures

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – [Ambient sound of Buddhists chanting]

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Devout Buddhists in Dallas begin each morning with 90 minutes of devotional meditation. They dress in black robes and sit on tiny platforms while incense and the steady beat of a spiritual chant fill the air.

[More chanting]

Sprague: The chanting is led by Wu-kai, a Buddhist monk originally from Taiwan. As a religious leader, Wu-kai is sought out by local Buddhists for guidance about life and death. Wu-kai, Buddhist monk: Just changing. It's just a new experience. Never die. We cannot die.

Sprague: Buddhists believe they are reborn to another place when their bodies give out. They can be reincarnated as any living creature, but the quality of their next life depends on how they have spent their time on earth.

Wu-kai: If you do so many good deeds in this life, then the changing will be very, very nice. But if you do so many bad deeds, then the changing sometimes very bad.

Sprague: Wu-kai calms and consoles the dying, to help them face their fate and find faith in Buddha. Wu-shien, a Buddhist nun who works with Wu-kai, remembers one woman who had entered a vegetative state at a nearby hospital. Her husband and doctor decided to remove her from life support, but the woman appeared tense and rigid; so Buddhist monk Wu-kai sat with her until after the machines were turned off.

Wu-shien, Buddhist nun: Talked to her. Convinced her to take this Buddha as her refuge. Chant this Buddha's name in your mind. Let the Buddha guide you when the time comes. [Wu-kai begins to chant.] It is a way to calm them down; you know, to take this Buddha in their mind.

Sprague: Wu-shien says the woman could still hear the chanting and benefit from it, even though she was clinically dead. And Wu-kai reports that after half an hour, the dead woman appeared content with something of a smile on her face.

[Chanting ends.]

Sprague: The Dallas Buddhist Association, where Wu-shien and Wu-kai work, is located in Richardson, which is rich in religious diversity. The city is also home to the Dallas Central Mosque, where thousands of Muslims, like Muhammad Afzal, come each week to pray to Allah.

Muhammad Afzal, Muslim: We just pray all the time for the departed soul that may Allah forgive his or her sins so he or she may go to Paradise. Sprague: Like Christians, Muslims believe a person's soul is destined for heaven or hell, based on the life that person led on earth. And those who remain behind often say prayers of intercession to plead for the eternal life of their departed loved ones. Syed Qadir is a Muslim from Richardson.

Syed Qadir, Muslim: Sometimes I go to the graveyard because nobody is buried from our family, but still I go for others. And we just pray for the sins to be forgotten or something like that.

Sprague: Death in Islam is a very solemn event. Women prepare the body of a female and men, the body of a male, for immediate burial, usually within 24 hours. Muhammad Afzal, a senior member of his mosque, says Muslims believe the time of death is pre-determined by God, called Allah in Islam. Still, Afzal prays for a merciful end to his life.

Afzal: All of us would like to die in our sleep. It is the most dignified and peaceful way of going from this world. But Islamically speaking, I have discussed this matter with the scholars. They say, at the same time we should also accept the will of God.

Sprague: That poses hard choices for the end of life and what should be done to prolong the life of a terminally-ill Muslim.

Qadir: Give the medication, proper medication and still if he has got to go, he's got to go.

Sprague: Qadir says the difficult question is when to stop providing that medication. Qadir says Muslims don't believe in keeping patients clinically alive on machines, but Qadir also acknowledges many families need the extra time technology provides to come to terms with death and say their goodbyes. In other cultures, however, the end of life isn't a finite point in time. It is celebrated for years after someone has died. Take the early November Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead.

Cora Cordona, Artistic Director, Teatro Dallas: The Day of the Dead is one of the oldest rituals of the American continent. Sprague: Cora Cordona is the founder and artistic director of Teatro Dallas, which marks the Day of the Dead each year with a performance or festival. Cordona says the origins of the holiday date back to the pre-Columbian period, when the indigenous people of Central America wanted to honor how the bodies of the dead nourished the soil and completed the circle of life.

Cordona: We celebrate all the death that is giving us this life back. And so it's a time to be happy. It's not a time to be sad or anything like that.

Sprague: Families celebrate the Day of the Dead by erecting small altars in their homes to their loved ones who have passed away.

Cordona: My children know when I pass away they're going to have to set up an altar with all kinds of things that I enjoyed. That will have my mescal and tequila bottles, because I like to drink often, on that; and all the foods that I enjoy; and probably masks and things that relate to theater.

Sprague: In Mexico, many people mark the day of the dead in the same way Americans mark Memorial Day: by bringing flowers to the graves of loved ones. But the Mexican tradition also involves celebrating with special music and food.

Cordona: And all night they play a particular instrument, a pre-Columbian instrument that they drum all night. And they dine with the souls. They open up all the food: the tamales, the chicken, the breads. And of course it's a time with crafts, beautifully made just to honor the dead.

Sprague: For example, friends give each other skulls made of sugar with a note, written in dark humor, that foretells how the friend will die. Cordona says the tradition doesn't make light of death, but rather helps the community to be more open about dying and less grief-stricken in later years. Cordona's Teatro Dallas is hosting Circo de Muerte, or Circus of the Dead, this year to honor the Day of the Dead. The performances begin October 25th. And the Dallas Museum of Art will also exhibit Day of the Dead artwork in early November. The PBS special On Our Own Terms, hosted by Bill Moyers, continues tonight on Channel 13 at 8 o'clock. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.