November 21st was the 49th day after Sandra's death. We held a memorial service at the Brooklyn Zen Center. Day 49 is a significant day in the Buddhist tradition because it's believed that it takes 49 days of transition time from this world to the next. It's a period of time needed for the consciousness to find a new channel, vessel, or place to go.
Some people have told me it's simply because it's going to take around 49 days for the reality of death to start to sink in. Either way, it's a big marker so the memorial service was very timely.
Greg, the priest residing over the ceremony, talked about our intentions for the service and that to grieve a loss and simultaneously celebrate a life we need an open heart - a heart that is more often then not broken open in a most painful way. Honestly, after hearing that, I was a bit overcome and didn't hear what he said next. I tuned back in as he was talking about the mystery of death which is the mystery of life, and how we just don't know what happens after death but we bring the intention to help Sandra's transition nonetheless. He referred to Sandra as a pioneer, one who has fearlessly taken this journey before us, who knows by how many years, months, or days.
In the spirit of helping clear all obstacles from Sandra's path of transition, we offered incense at an alter with Sandra's picture and some of her ashes while the rest of the sangha (congregation) chanted.
Then Greg talked directly to Sandra (which is also another part of the tradition). As you could imagine, this was very moving and powerful. He talked about being deeply touched by Sandra's presence even though he met her only once. After Sandra was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she wanted to meet with Greg to see if the Zen tradition could offer her a perspective on the whole life/death/cancer thing that might help her deal with the upcoming onslaught of treatments. However, Greg was so struck by her attitude of acceptance and inner peace that he said that he left the meeting that day as the one who learned something about life. I think he can imagine those of us who were lucky enough to spend years with Sandra, let alone one lunch!
I was invited to speak, but it would have been useless. I was too choked up by the beginning of Greg's talk, never mind by the end of it. Besides, I talk directly to Sandra every day. Most importantly, I talked with her while she was alive and healthy, and there was nothing left unsaid between us. Anything I would have told her, she knows already. Anything she would have told me, I know already. My gratitude for that gift alone is far beyond words.
I'd like to thank, with as much heart and sincerity as I can muster, Greg for his openness which is apparent by his selfless sharing of his time, words, and compassion. I'd also like to thank the sangha at the Brooklyn Zen Center for their amazing love and support. It consistently overwhelms me.
**Just a small addendum by Greg:
"...the 49 days is not so much from this world to the next. It's more a matter of how long consciousness after death is in transition before rebirth into this world – 49 days being the estimated time it takes for the spirit to be reborn again into a new life. That said, it could be a symbolic number for two reasons. First, as you mentioned in your blog, it could be a ritual device to care for one's emotions. Or, if rebirth is the case, it could be a ritual device simply to mark return when this passage to one's new life actually has many time frames. Some in the Buddhist tradition feel rebirth takes 3 days, 21 days, 49 days or 100 days after death, and in some even feel it's 7 years. After all, everyone taking exactly 49 days seems like a math that might be a little too exact for life!"