Maintaining a conscious relationship with death is a necessary for living a sacred life. That’s one of the ideas behind the Bridges of Bardo, a series of public art performances, installations and conversations that all invite participants to consider and reflect upon their relationship with death. One of those installations is the Before I Die wall, an interactive art installation at 35 Biltmore Ave. in downtown Asheville.
Part of a worldwide network of similar walls, this public art piece allows passersby to pick up a piece of chalk and fill in the blank at the end of dozens of painted sentences that all begin with the words “Before I Die.” First launched by Candy Chang in New Orleans in 2011, the Before I Die walls have gone up in 65 different countries in 30 languages.
The name derives from the Tibetan Book of the Dead called the Bardo, explains Said Osio, co-organizer of the Bridges project. “One thing the Tibetans nail is death and dying,” he says. “That’s their teaching. And so we’re spinning the Bardo in a way that can at least have resonance with different cultures.”
“Bardo really just means ‘suspended in between,’” adds Greg Lathrope, a nurse of 30 years and apprentice of the late Cherokee elder Will Rockingbear. He co-directs the Bridges of Bardo. “Ultimately, when you really live into the teachings … you see that even our life before we leave this world is a Bardo … because we are suspended in between from where we came and where we are going, and the truth of living and dying is reflected in the suspension,” he explains.
Lathrope and Oslo met at a workshop on Integrative Medicine at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville.
“I missed every class in the series except the last one, which Greg was teaching,” says Osio. “And then Greg comes out and plays the flute. I was blown away.”
“I was never interested in the healing path,” he says. “If anything, I would have to define myself within the construct of the metaphysical interest — more like a monk. And that served me up until the last 10 years — always being a seeker. But then I had a daughter who got sick, and everything seemed to become less interesting when she got sick, because it seemed so self serving.”
When his daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Osio committed himself to serving her needs, and through this confrontation with her death, he discovered the power of a life of service.
“As I became her caregiver, it became very clear to me that the system, which I had no understanding of at the time, wasn’t really serving her. She needed a navigator. She needed someone who could … advocate for her, because the physicians would talk to her and ask her all of these questions about her own treatment while she was drugged up, when she had no capacity to answer. … It became clear to me that there was this whole angelic realm alive and well within the hospitals and that is the nurses. The nursing profession, I thought, was God’s gift.”
When a rushed medical decision to operate on his daughter led to further health complications and a downturn in her recovery, Osio began to question what seemed to him like a manic paranoia within the medical establishment around the concept of death: It must be avoided, snuffed out, held at bay at all costs, he explains. But as he focused on this attitude within the hospital, he began to see that it was just a distillation of a greater cultural imbalance outside the hospital walls.
“I watched what is a very typical experience in our culture: How fear of death just totally is a distortion of harmony. It locks down every experience, and people suffer unnecessarily,” says Osio.
“Working in critical care, emergency care and hospice … is one very big aspect of what I call constant, engaged spirituality,” says Lathrope. “You’re engaging and you’re working in a way that is a very intimate, sacred time for people. Even if they’re not dying … I can guarantee you that somewhere in there, they’re contemplating it.”
Lathrope also explains how indigenous communities understand the connection between life and death, and he highlights how we could learn from their methods, keeping that relationship alive in the day to day. “If you look at indigenous ceremony in general, I think it wouldn’t be hard for you to see very quickly that just about everything that goes on in the indigenous community around spirit and ceremony is a dying ceremony,” he says.
“Vision quest is a dying ceremony. You go on the mountain to die, and you come back reborn. You go into the sweat lodge to die, you come out of the sweat lodge to be reborn. It’s all there, and I think our elders saw the importance of that — living and dying in the everyday.”
After meeting at the workshop, Lathrope and Osio discovered their common passion to bring spiritual wisdom into modern medical practice and into our culture at large, and they both understood that a healthy relationship with death as integral to such wisdom.
During the fall of 2011, they began laying the groundwork for what has now become the Bridges of Bardo project. In partnership with another Rockingbear apprentice, Jason Hebal, the project is committed to creating a cultural shift whereby the sacred is brought back into our daily experiences. Their method? Bringing death from the obscure periphery of our cultural consciousness to the center.
“Our culture doesn’t tolerate death, and the consequences of that are deep and many. One of them is unfortunately guilt — guilt of not being able to sustain a livelihood where you are healthy, that there’s something wrong with being sick, that there’s something wrong with dying, that you’re a bad person and you’re not supposed to die,” says Osio.
“The idea that you did something wrong is huge in this culture, with disease” says Lathrope. “Ultimately there’s a tendency to [think], ‘I must have done something wrong.’ I haven’t eaten the right food. I haven’t taken the right medicine. And this thing that’s looming over me creates this fear that not only am I going to die, but it’s because I’ve done something utterly wrong.’”
Osio says that this intolerance, fear, and guilt gets expressed in the medical establishment in tragic ways. “Another casualty of this fear is the brashness with which physicians will make hefty and consequential decisions to avoid death,” he says, “Their technology is, ‘I don’t [care] if you are a vegetable, at least you’re alive.’ And mortality rates in hospitals are the way they say how great they are.”
In addition to the Before I Die wall, the project has produced several other public art pieces since last December in Asheville, including six Death Cafes — conversations open to the public that center on the subject of death. These have been held primarily at Dobra Tea and Co-Luminate. Additionally, in collaboration with Solace and Care Partners hospice centers, the group presented Lasting Impressions in January and February — a slideshow of Victorian-era Memento Mori photography, interpreted and digitally remixed by Osio and accompanied by original music with Lathrope on flute and Hebel on electric guitar.
The wall at 35 Biltmore is open until October 4.