Death. For some, it signals the beginning of a more perfect life. For others it is the end. Ultimately, for everyone, death is part of the life cycle and no amount of medical intervention will change that.
Filmmaker Cathy Zheutlin became fascinated by the way that different cultures and religions view the death experience, and in the process she has made a remarkable film titled Living While Dying, which features people who are going through that process and their varying emotions.
Zheutlin was among the first women in America who worked as camera assistant and cinematographer, and she freelanced as a shooter on many documentaries. She has occasionally directed and produced films including a short personal film called Lost Love (1982), and a feature documentary about the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, a nine-month cross-country journey of roughly 500 dedicated souls in 1986. Prior to producing Living While Dying she created online media for Holy Rascals: Explorations of perennial wisdom from all spiritual traditions.
For an emotional, engaging, and educational look at real people who are living while dying, take a few minutes to watch Dying Well, which is an interview that Cathy did for the weekly public TV and internet series Immense Possibilities.
HealthCentral interviewed Cathy by email about her background and how she came to make her film Living While Dying. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
HealthCentral: Cathy, could you please tell us how traveling and absorbing how other cultures view the death experience helped you as you made Living While Dying?
Cathy Zheutlin: I need to clarify that I am commenting as a filmmaker, not a cultural anthropologist. The traveling that I did in the course of making my film took me to three different cultures — the aboriginal culture in Australia, and the Balinese and Mexican cultures.
Early on in the process of creating my film, Living While Dying, I had a house trade in Australia. At that time, my project was a bit more amorphous, part of my work for Holy Rascals media. My film partner encouraged me to seek out the wisdom of aboriginals, to learn about their views of death. Through networks of friends, I was privileged to meet Uncle Bob Randall and visit with him for a few days in a desert village near Uluru.
Uncle Bob held on to his aboriginal culture. He preserved its values to pass on to future generations. Uncle Bob worked as an educator and leader advocating for Aboriginal land rights, responsibility to the environment, and indigenous cultural awareness. His teachings are based on the Anangu (central desert aboriginal nation) “kanyini” principles of caring for the environment and each other with unconditional love and responsibility.
Here is what he taught me about facing mortality:
Our culture is based only if you do the right thing in the moment. It’s a culture that lives in the moment.
Death is a doorway into another world.
We leave our physical bodies behind because we don't need them anymore. The spirit is eternal, and that's one part of you that'll never die.
HC: You had so much more to say about Uncle Bob that it’s almost painful to move on, but for the sake of brevity we need to jump forward. We’ll leave Australia here and skip over Bali to Mexico. How did that experience change you?
CZ: During a recent trip to Mexico, I found myself saying: If I had lived in Mexico I would never have made my film. There would be no need for it. Knowledge of mortality feels like it is culturally imbued and integrated into life. This is evidenced by prolific images of skeletons everywhere you look, in art, kitsch, churches, and of course during The Day of the Dead. On that important day, the gates of heaven open, and people who have died reunite with their families. The celebration is joyous, full of what the people who died would have enjoyed when they were alive.
I brought home a little cheap tin-skeleton magnet. She is wearing a spring dress and hat. I keep her in my car. Every time I get in the car, I look at her, and I'm reminded of my own mortality. That's how it felt being in Mexican culture, seeing skeletons everywhere. It was impossible to block out awareness of mortality.
HC: In the video clip, Dying Well, you make it clear that each person is unique in how he or she will face death. Some people in the interview were actually joyful. Others showed anguish and tears. Likely, most people feel both emotions at different times, because leaving life would involve a grieving process as well as absorbing the fact that one is facing the unknown. Do you feel that religious backgrounds make a difference in how people accept imminent death or do you feel that their attitudes are more a part of their personalities?
CZ: In the face of big mysteries, death being one of the biggies, religions can offer comfort, and stories, and rituals. Ultimately however, I think that people will die the way they live. If religion plays a big part in one's life, it will play a big part in how one faces death. But I think personalities have the trump card. In whatever way religion has supported or influenced an individual — that does show up at the end of life.
One person in my film, Azul, points out an irony of our culture. Religions all talk about heaven, or nirvana, or some other lovely sounding description of eternity, and yet collectively we still fear death. Our fear makes it seem as if we don't believe what our spiritual traditions are promising us.
Azul did not fear death. He had very strong spiritual practices, based mostly in eastern Hinduism. He believed that death would simply be a matter of “drop body, drop mind “ — akin to his meditation practice.
Don, a friend of mine from the tango community, didn't have a religious practice. He did however have strong loving support from family and tango friends. And that community was there for him until the end.
Personally, I like drawing on the wisdom of many spiritual traditions. They serve me now, and they will serve me in any phase of life, including the end.
As I write this I'm thinking about the importance of community, no matter what its source. Yes, religion can provide that, but there are many other possibilities for communal connection and support. Social (support) definitely helps at the end of life. Most things like love, gratitude, and social ties that are helpful at the end of life are helpful all through life. That was my primary discovery while filming people with terminal illnesses — that we need to live up to our highest values right now, not wait to do the work of a lifetime at the end.
HC: How did you become so interested in end-of-life journeys?
My interest evolved. From early on, when I was simply curious and mentioned my curiosity about death to Wendy Russell, my partner in Holy Rascals, to now, including five intervening years, it has felt like the film made itself through me.
My mom's 92-year-old lover was told he had terminal cancer. He called hospice and got into bed. I called him, and asked permission to film him. It was a sacred and challenging time of goodbyes and letting go. For me, there was a revelation: Clair was still living, even while dying. From there, things kept unfolding. Doors opened, and I walked through them. Death became a trickster as my friend, Alan Rosenberg, reacted to his terminal diagnosis with a new romance and three stand-up comedy performances about dying. He, too, allowed me in with my camera. Alan, a realtor, writer, and marketing consultant, was a little younger than me, and he was grabbing life by the horns.
Along the way, I discovered death cafes, and the grassroots death awareness movement. Through that I learned about the importance of talking about what one wants at the end of life.
Basically, in the making of this film, I discovered that death is a great educator. Not about dying though — about living. I learned that what matters most is how we live, especially in light of death's randomness. Ironically, by acknowledging death and preparing for it, I am discovering comfort, joy, and connection. Death awareness prompts me to create opportunities to practice gratitude and notice the little things I appreciate and stay in the present, and embrace the mystery of life.
HC: Where/when will we be able to see the film?
CZ: I plan to travel with Living While Dying and hold screenings followed by discussions. People can contact me via my website: www.livingwhiledying.org or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/livingwhiledyingmovie/. If people sign up for my mailing list at the website, I will let them know when DVDs are available, and when the video will be ready for online streaming.
HC: Thank you, Cathy. End-of-life stories touch me deeply and your work has shone a light on a reality of living that our culture tends to keep in the shadows. Thank you for taking this time with HealthCentral.