By Ann Cason and Cara Thornley. 

Susan Shaw did not want to get sick and die.  Born in 1947, she was in her 60’s, still young and vital, engaged in important work for the benefit of aging, and one of the baby boomers who carried beliefs that if we work on ourselves and live right, we have a chance to live into our 90’s. For Susan, long life meant a chance to spend more time helping others. When she was first diagnosed with cancer in her early 60’s, she pursued aggressive treatment and turned her attention not to dying but to the energy of life and living.  Before long she was back at work and thriving. She got three extra years, but when the cancer came back she decided not to fight a losing battle which would only give her a couple of extra months of sick living.

Susan lived in the village of St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  Nine years earlier, she had begun the process of turning a dull and limping senior center into The Center for Good Living and was a vital member of her small community.

St. Johnsbury is an interesting mix of people and place. The old families whose roots go back to before the Revolutionary War are traditional. Dairy farms with numerous cows grazing on green meadows dot the landscape.  In the spring, the maple syrup streams through the forest and life is lived in accordance with the seasons.  In this environment there is a strong sense of durability of place combined with the noticeable march of the seasons from the excitement of autumn leaves, to the long contemplative opportunity of winter, to proclamation of melting and growth with mud season and black flies in spring and then a magical summer.

The summer people come from New York or Boston to live for three months.  There are people from the back to the land movement who came in the 60’s for a freer less complicated life style.  And in the 1970’s the Shambhala Buddhists arrived.  They came to Barnet (exit 18 off the freeway) and turned a small farmhouse on 600 acres of land into the thriving meditation center, Karme Choling.

It was within this community that Susan had worked with such heart to transform a stuck little senior center into a center of activity and service.  The whole town felt a pride in her achievement and she had received numerous awards for her accomplishments at the Center, including receiving a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

People chat at Susan Shaw's retirement party

Susan Shaw’s retirement party. Photo: Cara Thornley

Susan, who had created a Board of Directors for the Senior Center (and had spearheaded its name change to The Center for Good Living), convened the Board at her home.  Susan, with dignity and presence, told the group that she had been diagnosed with the terminal stage of cancer and that she had months, maybe weeks, to live.   “You need to find a new director,” she told them. “I am going to die soon.”

It was so shocking that someone so alive could die.  Susan was a cheerful person by nature – and very steady.

As an example of her nature, once Susan was working with an old woman who was sitting in a chair next to the sofa where her dog was sound asleep. Susan was kneeling in front of the elder when suddenly the old woman threw her glass of water all over Susan.  Instead of expressing anger, Susan humorously told her, “I can move your dog closer if you want to give him a bath.”

The board wondered how it could be possible to replace a person like Susan.

Susan wanted to die at home but had spent several years in retreat and many years living on a very small salary so private care wasn’t an option.  She emailed her community asking for volunteers to support her in this process.  The sangha around Karme Choling willingly stepped up and formed a care team. The key with her, said Arthur Jennings, her hospice nurse, was that people loved her to pieces…and there was no end of people willing to help.

Key members of the care team were: Arthur Jennings, the hospice nurse; Vicky Giella, the friend and executor of her estate who worked at the Area Agency on Aging; Patricia Anderson, the long time best friend now a retired  corporate executive; Catherine Clark; and Michael Taney, who now also has died.  Sara Demetry, the Regimental Desung Officer, coordinated the daily visitor and care schedule.  So many volunteered and created a circle of care.  Everyone attending Susan was inspired by her humor and unflagging care and curiosity about the stream of persons who came to visit or help.  The reason for her Shambhala name, Auspicious Radiance, was clearly evident.

One Monday evening, members of the Scorpion Seal IV Salon held one of their regular discussions in Susan’s living room.  Listening from her adjacent bedroom, she appeared later in the evening to softly and radiantly join the group.

As Susan’s dying progressed, and the necessary 24-hour care could not be maintained at home, she decided to move into a respite house in Williston, Vermont – a hospice house/hospital directed by Sharon Keegan, a special friend of Susan’s from the days when they had done a three-year retreat together at Sopa Choling, Gampo Abbey.  Sharon related how when they were on retreat together, she and Susan had promised that one of them would take care of whomever died first.  And so it happened that Susan was first.

Susan Shaw exemplified the warriorship of dying.  Even though dying is not easy, she didn’t doubt or lose faith in her humanness.  Susan touched her human worthiness and celebrated it through the process of her dying, willing to share the great teaching of the suffering of dying as a gift to her closest friends. To me (Ann Cason), who had the chance to speak with her a few days before she died, she said, “It is harder than I thought.”  That has been such a help in preparation for my own death and in teaching others.

In addition to Sharon Keegan, two other sangha persons were present when Susan died on the morning of May 6, 2013.  They helped bathe her body in saffron and lavender water according to instructions sent by Lindy King of the Boulder sangha.

The Shambhala community has a position called desung – someone who looks after the harmony of the community.  It is a subtle role that keeps its finger on the pulse of the community and protects the access to basic healthiness where blockages may occur.  It is a kind of position that is sometimes in the background and quietly offers help where needed.  In this case, the desung, Gerry Haase, had researched the Vermont laws about home funerals and discovered it was not necessary to use a funeral director and traditional funeral services. Susan who was extremely well organized had put aside $3,000 for her funeral…When Gerry told her she could have a funeral that would only cost $500 –the major expense being only a casket- Susan’s view/reaction was: “Great! With the money saved you can have a big party!”

While Susan lay dying, Gerry obtained a casket, wholesale.  He researched the laws for transporting bodies in the state of Vermont.  He acquired a burial transit permit and, in lieu of costly traditional vehicles, was able to transport her body in his Suburu from Respite House to the Pavilion at Karme Choling where it lay for three days.

According to Buddhist custom, this is the amount of time it might take for the mind and body to separate. During that time, the local and Karme Choling sanghas practiced around her and the Karme Choling Iron Wolf Squad provided overnight kasung shifts.

After her lying in, the Shing Kam Pure Realm of Shambhala funeral service was performed for her by another of her retreat heart- friends, Cara Thornley.  Sangha members set up the shrine and Pavilion seating, provided flowers, music and amplification, handed out programs and were pallbearers.  Michael Taney coordinated the event. The Pavilion was filled with sangha and community friends and was vibrating with warrior energy.  Susan’s “big party,” both joyful and sad, prepared and served entirely by sangha, was held in Karma Choling’s main building after the service.  Her brave dying process was an opportunity for a host of Northeast Kingdom sangha to come together and manifest their extraordinary heartfelt generosity, exertion, creativity and basic goodness altogether.  Without doubt Susan’s life and passing were a gift to the community.  At virtually the last minute, Gerry had learned that a death certificate (without which cremation cannot occur) can only be filed by a  mortician or by medical personnel so  he had to call the Respite House  and get them to file the death certificate. Only then would the crematorium accept Susan’s body. It was then that Gerry learned that Susan, the meticulous warrior,  had signed her own Permission to Cremate the Body form, saving her estranged sister from having to do it. In another even more unusual gesture, Susan had already told the community that she wanted to donate her nice pine coffin to the community for the next person who died. So he left her body at the crematorium and brought the coffin to Greg McNally’s barn for storage.

The aftermath of dying is so important for the friends and loved ones left behind.  So often, we are born, we live, we die, but we have to finish properly – a goodbye down to the last detail.  Sometimes the illness makes the dying hard and the friends feel grief for something not quite finished.

Susan, in her meticulous manner, had laid the groundwork for the details of her death and funeral, leaving no loose ends.  Vicki Giella, an old and dear sangha friend and executor of the estate, had been charged with approving all financial and legal decisions around Susan’s dying, death, funeral and disposition of her worldly goods – the proceeds from which would go to the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center and Karme Choling Meditation Center in Barnet, Vermont.   In the aftermath of Susan’s dying and funeral and cremation, five of Susan’s friends went to her apartment, saw to the final disposition of her possessions and cleaned her already clean apartment.  They made it shine: inside the oven, the back of the plumbing and the windows where the Vermont sun shone through.  When they were finished with the work, they brewed fresh coffee and ate fresh scones and had a nice time – almost as if Susan was still there among them.

**Anyone interested in community-managed funerals may contact Mr. Gerry Haase at [email protected].