One of the classic forms of Buddhist meditation is contemplation of the decay of the body. To perform this meditation monks would go to the charnel grounds where dead bodies were burned and sometimes simply left to be eaten by vultures. One could observe every stage of decay and these stages are recorded in detail in the Buddhist texts - how the body gets eaten by maggots, how flesh falls away, how bones disassemble, how eventually there is just dust.
One of the 'benefits' of modern hygiene is that there are no longer such places where one can go and see it all in process, however a compensating 'benefit' of modern medicine is that one can now contemplate the decay of the body by observing one's own condition. Nowadays we live with a great variety of ailments that in the old days would have carried one off. Thus, as one gets older the number of such gradually gets grater and, broadly speaking, they tend to get worse rather than better. Getting old generally means putting up with an ever increasing degree of bodily decay.
In my own case, to the casual observer I remain a healthy looking specimen. Making a list of my current ailments, I cam up with twenty items ranging in severity from 'trigger finger syndrome' through psoriasis and migraines to abdominal aortic aneurysm and pulmonary embolisms. There are actually few areas of my body not evidently affected one way or another and one can reasonably assume, I think, that the few areas that are showing no symptoms are, nonetheless, suffering wear and tear much like the rest. After all, they have been around just as long and been through the same degree of roughness of life.
I reflect that I am relatively fortunate that all my different components seem to be decaying at much the same rate. Some poor sould have one bit fall to pieces at an early stage while everything else is still in fair working order which seems like rather a waste.
The whole point of the Buddhist meditation on these matters is to bring one to a degree of objectivity about the whole matter and, thereby, to eliminate one's fantasy that one is a special case, different from all the rest of the universe - a fond delusion that generalises to all manner of other kinds of lunacy - and thereby restore a measure of sanity.
I am writing this while lying in a pull out couch in a hospice in Canada next to a partner who is dying. We have both been here for almost six weeks. We have lived together with the dignosis of terminal cancer for a year now and over that time, until we entered the hospice, I became more and more his full time caretaker. We are now within hours or short days until his death. The last few weeks have felt more and more like a meditation retreat organized by something more universal than the retreats I have done in the past. There is are things to be learned in going through this experience that it will take me months or even years to process. In some ways I feel like a death midwife. There are aspects of the process that remind me very much of giving birth. That strange awesomeness of the mystery of a being coming into experience right inside your own body would then be the process in reverse, the dissolving of the energies of the body and of consciousness. The being comes from nowhere and exits into nowhere. It almost makes life seem to be a slight of mind. Consciouness pops into existence rather like a soap bubble, floats for a few years and then bursts. At the same time there is nothing pretty or bubble like about the death process itself. There are many variations, some less cruel than others but few of them are either wanted or chosen.
I like thinking that part of that decay of the body is just a reminder that we all are part of the same thing, this world and with that, we are also part of this universe. Animals and plants die too, but so does stars.
Dying changes our body and at some point it makes us one with the rest of the planet and the rest of the life that inhabits it, there is no difference between what we were and what the rest is.