… A walk, buttered toast, a child’s soccer game. You’re afforded the opportunity to stop doing and can instead just be here. Wow. Yet you don’t have to be near death or have the depth of Thomas Merton to love and seek it. It’s not navel gazing. Contemplation is the opposite. It’s being a human being, implicit in the job description, what my very old friends have loved most at the end. They can’t look anymore to power, stature, schedules, or fame to fill them up, and they sure as hell don’t feel like entertaining you. All those things turn out not to have been real and eternal. Love did and is, that’s all.
The reason to draw close to death when we’re younger is to practice finding and living in the soul. This grows our muscles for living. In the absence of the illusion of power and majesty, we see that the soul was right here all along, everywhere, and consequently we can once again feel charmed by the world.
Can you even imagine living this way, charmed by the world, in the light of gratitude, for what is real, for the truth of who we always have been and will continue to be, no matter how much ground we lose?Anne Lamott, from Almost Everything — Notes on Hope P. 119
Anne Lamott, from Almost Everything — Notes on Hope P. 105
— John Freeman
We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved will die, too, sometimes – heartbreakingly – before us… Busyness numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.”
— Janice Turner (link)
My father died in the early hours and when his care home called to tell me, they asked about “arrangements”. Only then did I realise we hadn’t made any. Could he stay just a few more hours while I consulted my mother? (I didn’t wish to wake her yet, 200 miles away and alone.) No, his body must go, right now.
It is the protocol of many homes to whip away the deceased. Undertakers remove the dead discreetly by the back door. It is thought better that the old don’t ponder bleakly upon mortality, witness their own inevitable fate. So the next day they just see Maisie’s empty place at breakfast, pass her room being cleared. We blinker horses to keep them calm.
Death regrets: I have a few. Not things left unsaid. (Much is covered by “I love you”.) But failing to face the inevitable; not making plans. He was terminally ill, for God’s sake. Why did I not probe to find out exactly how long he had, so he didn’t die alone? The last days are hard to predict, I was told. But I was scared, squeamish, didn’t press to know more.
I’d carried these thoughts around unspoken for five years, until on Wednesday I attended a “death café”. This is not some sinister gothic coffee shop but a group of strangers gathering to address the subject we find hardest to discuss. (There is cake, which helps.) And death, it quickly transpired, is not a single issue but a field almost as rich as life itself.
… The death café movement was founded by Jon Underwood, who died this year aged 44. He pursued the mission of the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz to liberate death from “tyrannical secrecy”. Underwood believed that our anxieties, depression and addictions are fuelled by refusing to confront our most basic fear. He organised death cafés in music festivals, offices, front rooms. Some attendees are young people for whom death seems wholly hypothetical, others are old or sick, looking for solace and truth. “Death denial,” he said, “is the energy that drives the motor of consumer capitalism.” Stay calm, go shopping, carry on.
… Our whole society is death avoidant. Most of us will die in hospitals, not at home. I’ve never seen a corpse. My family believed children shouldn’t attend funerals, so when both my grandmothers died I stayed home helping northern matrons to butter ham rolls. Now there is a trend for funerals without the dead: unattended “direct cremations” followed by a broader celebration of a life. Some people, such as the author Anita Brookner and David Bowie, insisted upon no funeral at all. As if a loved one just disappears. It is the very opposite of Indians by the Ganges throwing sandalwood upon a pyre.”
— From ‘How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to live a modern life’ P. 42
And that reality includes the fact that no one is immortal, no one is ‘ours’ in the sense that we are entitled to him or her. Understanding this is not just a way to maintain sanity when a loved one dies, or a dear friend leaves for another country. Facing this reality also reminds us to enjoy the company and love of our fellow humans as much as possible while we can, trying hard not to take them for granted, because it is certain that one day we and they will be gone and the only right ‘season’ for appreciating them will have passed. We always live hic et nunc — here and now.”
— Ninety-four-year-old Edwina on Dying, From “30 Lessons for Living” P. 143
It has made me realize that there’s always that question of why nobody knows where we go. Well, there must be a reason for that. We’ll never know because that’s a mystery. I know about as much about it as the most learned men in the world, I would imagine. Because nobody really knows what happens to you.
But I am very comfortable. I am not afraid to die. Being near to death impacted me greatly, to be honest, and I don’t talk about it. It’s something that’s very personal. But I’m a better person for it. I do wonder — I think God must be saving me for something and I can’t figure out what it is. Maybe I’ll know someday when I’m 110.
But about dying, I’m not one bit afraid. Well, if you stop to think about it, it’s a natural thing. Everything dies. Whether we come back or not or what happens there, I don’t know. But it’s like my husband used to say whenever we discussed it: ‘If you go to heaven, how wonderful. But if you go to sleep, what’s wrong with that?’
— From A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by WILLIAM B. IRVINE
A primary motive in going to Walden, he tells us, was his fear that he would, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
“Is this what the person who died would want me to do? Of course not! She would want me to be happy! The best way to honor her memory is to leave off grieving and get on with life.”
On the way to his execution, when someone asked about his state of mind, Canus replied that he was preparing himself to observe the moment of death in order to learn whether, in that moment, the spirit is aware that it is leaving the body.”