Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.
Now this bell softly tolling for another, says to me,
Thou must die.
In our modern age it seems we are obsessed with avoiding death. We don’t say someone died. They passed on. We don’t have funerals. We have memorial services, or life celebrations.
To me this seems odd. Death is universal. Our newspapers are full of it. It breaks through the mundane with a chilling inevitability. It is one of the few moments we all experience. Horace warns (chides?) us in his Odes,
Aequa lege Necessitas
Sortitur insignes et imos;
Omne capax movet urna nomen.
The fatal urn has room for us all.
Yet modernity does everything it can to shut it out. John Stossel, formerly of 20/20, pointed out that the funeral business is full of fraud, price inflation and general chicanery because it’s considered gauche or morbid to price shop or even advertise. Virtue in the Wasteland has a great episode on how, while graveyards and cemeteries used to be central in our towns, now we’ve shut them away and walled them up. Who wants to be confronted with death on your morning commute?
But we can’t escape. Lewis reminds us in a Grief Observed,
It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.
Or, more bluntly,
Torn Between Two Trends
Humanity commonly has two responses to death. The first is a form of fatalistic acceptance or even celebration. Death isn’t frightening, or even something to worry about. It’s normal. This response is found everywhere from the Stoics to modern day Mexico.
The lessons of many of the Stoics can be summed as, “Move on. Stop worrying yourself.” Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations is wholly unconcerned with death, reminding himself that death’s only lesson is that we should do good while we live and think not on when that ends.
Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
Traditional Mexican culture takes this even a step further. Death comes for us, so what? Laugh at it. It’s almost reminiscent of Peter Pan’s idea of death as the last great adventure. Instead of shutting it away from the suburbs, whitewashing it with nice, middle class language, Octavio Paz recommends the opposite course,
The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.
In fact, don’t just soldier on. Dance.
And yet, sometimes, this all feels like very weak tea. It’s a great sentiment when you’re removed from it, or the numbness of loss has gone away. But what about when the drill is actually boring down into you? What about when, weeks later, you wake up when the novocaine wears off?
For these moments, we careen into the other action. Death is terrible. It’s not something we can grin at. That sort of gallows humor is really easy until you actually line up for your turn, or see someone brace themselves on the steps. In that moment we don’t feel like dancing with death. We rage, bargain, weep and even fight. Or maybe that really can sustain us when it’s our time. But what about when it’s someone we love? Lewis likened that loss to an amputation. Who celebrates an amputation?
In the Christian tradition, one of the more poignant moments that highlights this is the death of Lazarus. For a second, it can be odd to see Jesus bitterly weeping at the death of his friend. A friend He would resurrect Himself, not just on that day but on the last day. I’ve heard pastors and priests explain that Jesus weeps not for Lazarus but instead for his friends and family. This may be. This also seems like very weak tea. Dr. Alexander Shmermann at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary instead tells us,
And seeing this [His creation turned into something rotting] He weeps at the defeat of God by something God has not created: death, at the horrible insult…It is life crying over the destruction of life, it is God contemplating the annihilation of His work.
It strikes me as very similar to the midrash about how God commands the angels to stop celebrating at the destruction Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The angels were confused until God explain that His creation was drowning and dying in the sea.
I think on a visceral level we know that Death is not a celebration. It’s an offense. It tears, breaks and dissolves. Even at it’s least brutal, like saying goodbye to my 97 year old great-grandfather, it still cuts. Even when it comes in the smoothest manner possible, there’s something inherently unjust about the whole thing.
The Ars Moriendi; the art of dying
How then shall we live? Or, rather, how then shall we die? Well if I really had the art of dying nailed down, my guess is I’d be a lot more famous or well paid. But I can think of a few responses.
First we should at least think on it. It is genuinely amazing how often it comes up and yet how hard we work to pretend it isn’t. This is the strength of the Mexican or Stoic approach. Death is there. Even at the most joyous wedding or most rewarding work day, Mictlantecuhtli is there. Grinning. Leering. Maybe in the background or in the corner. But there nonetheless. Memento mori. Remember you mortal. On this Marcus Aurelius is right. Do good while you can.
Secondly, think on it. Where do we really go? What really happens to us? Anyone who doesn’t think on these things seriously seems frighteningly naive or unserious. From a Christian’s perspective perhaps what is worse than outright atheism is simple apathy.
Thirdly, confront it. Be brave. This isn’t to say death isn’t awful or horrifying. It is. You don’t need bravery to confront a celebration. We need bravery to confront a challenge. Perhaps Peter Pan is right and death is our last great adventure, but last I checked we need bravery for that too. Fr. Walter Burgadht, S.J., tells us of a priest who was comforting a terminally ill child. He must have looked poorly because the girl woke up, grabbed the priest’s arm and told him, “Don’t be afraid.” I can’t really speak for other faiths or those without faith, but as a Christian I think Fr. Walter has it right. Death is death. It is loss, it is an offense. But the paradox of Christianity is that death is also life. By falling asleep, we “wake eternally.” The passing from one to the other is frightening but that’s where bravery comes in.
Lastly, mourn with those who mourn. I hadn’t meant to write this thinking of the horrid Orlando massacre. I actually wrote this coming back from a funeral and mentally preparing myself for more. While events like these inevitably and rightly take a political turn, let us not forget to also mourn with those who mourn. This can take a lot of forms, mainly being simply present in some way. But where we can we should also take concrete steps to help. Don’t just look for the “helpers” Mr. Rogers spoke about. Be one.
Despite it all, especially given my religious tradition, I think there’s hope. Death rages on and yet life is still here. Once again John Donne can put it much better than I.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
For various & sundry,
- Collection of John Donne’s poems
- Muerte!: Death in Mexican popular culture by Adam Palfrey, Feral House, 2000.
- Preaching about death edited by Alton M. Motter, Fortress Press, 1975.
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis