Death and Poetry – UCSF Memory and Aging Center

18 May

I few months ago, I wrote about my out-of-body experience (spending the evening with a couple of exes)


Crossing the velvet bridge

compliments of the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, where death and dying was discussed through the medium of poetry.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield, poet and the Hellman Visiting Artist at the center (2012-13), led the evening that left me exhausted and exhilarated.

Here’s the link to all of the poets/speakers that evening: UCSF Memory & Aging Center, Poetry & End of Life.  Each video is listed separately.

I want to draw particular attention to Frank Ostaseski, Founder of the Zen Hospice Center in San Francisco. He recites a death poem written by an elderly woman (Sono) who had been homeless before coming to the hospice center to die. The poem, a gift to herself and to him, was cremated with her body.

Ostaseski starts talking about Sono at minute 12:00. The poem is finished at 15:45, but I think you might want to watch to the end.

Ashes to ashes. Let’s raise a glass and toast to our unworlding.



For after all, it is truly part of living—until we are no more.


22 Responses to “Death and Poetry – UCSF Memory and Aging Center”

  1. Carrie Rubin May 18, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    What an interesting concept to write a poem on the day of your death, and what an amazing poem she created. Although sad and heart-tugging, her words are also beautiful.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 18, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

      Yes, there is a certain music, a certain cadence that draws the listener in. And the meaning of her words is stunning.

  2. dkatiepowellart May 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    This is coming on the two year anniversary of my brother’s death; I was in the home with him daily while he was dying. It is a humbling experience, and I was stressed, honored, gladdened, thankful, sorrowful, and both laughed and cried. Thank you for the post.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 18, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

      Oh, you are so welcome. I was with my parents in the week before they died, both in hospice, four years apart. I think there is much for you on the UCSF Memory and Aging poetry site. I am brought to tears each time I hear Sono’s poem, it is so beautiful.

  3. susanissima May 18, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    As my mom was passing into the next realm, she was drawn to poetry and loved listening to me read her favorite poems. Occasionally, she would rally and recite to me, even though she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Poetry is a language, like music and art, that communicates when nothing else will and never dies. Thank you for sharing your experience, Jilanne. ❤

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 18, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

      You are so right and so welcome, Susan. There is a video from an earlier session about poetry and science, also facilitated by Jane Hirshfield and the UCSF Memory and Aging Center where they discuss the findings that poetry and music (listening to them separately) light up the same parts of the brain. They’ve shown this using MRIs. It’s fascinating.

  4. Mrs. P May 18, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Really beautiful poem…it makes me wonder what her life experiences were…such wisdom and passion. I am glad she died on her own terms. Death is the one thing we cannot avoid, being able to die with as much causation as possible is a beautiful thing. Thanks for sharing this concept of death and poetry.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 18, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      Yes, I would say that this woman had learned much about life. And I am glad the Zen Hospice center was there to help ease her passing. Thank you for visiting and leaving a note!

  5. heylookawriterfellow May 19, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    I have never heard the term “unworlding.” I like it. And I loved the poem.

    Thanks for this.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 19, 2014 at 10:10 am #

      Yes, I like it, too. I love making up words.

      Speaking of poets, I’m starting a course today with the Children’s Picture Book Academy (Mira Reisberg and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen) called The Craft and Pleasure of Writing Poetry for Kids. Not necessarily rhyming, it focuses quite a bit on compression, rhythm, and poetic devices. It’s a five-week course, and I’m looking forward to it!

  6. Lady Fancifull May 19, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    That was extraordinary. Thanks Jilanne. I appreciated not just Frank and his thoughtful words and presence, not just Sono and her revelatory poem, but the palpable attentiveness of the audience. The whole thing thrums with meaning, and matters.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 19, 2014 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks, LF. It was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. I was limp at the end of the evening. And profoundly energized.

  7. desertdweller29 May 19, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    That was beautiful — not only the poem, but all the words and thoughts before and after. I especially like “the sacred is hidden in all things.” I feel very fortunate to have been by my father’s side before he passed. Thanks for this.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 19, 2014 at 10:19 am #

      Each time I hear that poem, I learn something or hear something new. Perhaps it depends on what I’m ready to hear that day. I was very fortunate as well to be with both my parents when they passed. Ostaseski’s comment about not wanting to be cared for by a “role/roll,” not a dinner roll or a “social worker,” but by a caring human when he’s dying is important, and something that hospice gets right.

      • desertdweller29 May 19, 2014 at 10:58 am #

        Agreed. My father received hospice during the last week of his life; it was a godsend. I now support them locally. I’m going to re-play that video later…

  8. Call of the Siren May 23, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Your post made me think of Mom, Jil, who passed in December. In a good way. I have nothing but good things to say about hospice, too. I feel so sorry for all those people who exit this world without the benefit of it.

    I agree with one of the commenters above — “unworlding” is a rockin’ good word. I may borrow it sometime. Let me know if I need to send you royalties!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann May 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      I’m glad you like this, Nick. It was an important evening for me, thinking of the passing of my own parents.

      I don’t think I came up with the term, unworlding. I think it was one used by others during that out-of-body evening of poetry.

      It so fitting for whatever it is that happens to us when we die. I think you can feel free to use it whenever you’d like. 😀

  9. Don January 9, 2016 at 7:28 am #

    I love Frank Ostaseski and often taught Jane Hirschfield to my high school kids. Thank-you for posting. Here’s a transcript of Sono’s poem:

    Death Poem by Sono
    Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray
    Soon enough the seas will sink your little island
    So while there is still the illusion of time
    Set out for some other shore
    No sense packing a bag
    You won’t be able to lift it into your boat
    Give away all your collections
    Take only new seeds and an old stick
    Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail
    Don’t be afraid; someone knows you’re coming
    An extra fish has been salted.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann January 10, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

      Thank you, Don! This was such an inspiring evening. I’ve read much more of Jane’s work since then. It makes me feel more connected to the world and to myself. She and Frank have done so much. Thanks for stopping by!

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