A stone angel ponders the meaning of life in Mountain View Cemetery.
“We are all in the process of dying,” my friend said, dropping this tidbit of reality on me with the same air of casualness that one might comment on the weather.
I was probably in my mid to late twenties when he and I had one of our many conversational debates about something or other, and he’d often raise this point to me. Death was not in the forefront of my mind much then. In fact, as I recall my twenties, I was probably more focused on paying my rent, finishing graduate school, and living out my purpose in life than I was in facing the fact that I was dying.
But my friend was right in his observation, even if he meant it with some bit of sarcasm. Death is a fact of life. From the moment we are born, we are on a steady trajectory, however long and winding, towards the conclusion of our time on the planet.
Lately, I have been taking great comfort in this reality. If I am in the process of dying, perhaps I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. When I screw something up or miss an opportunity, oh well! I won’t be around forever to suffer the consequences. What a relief! If I never reach that dream of being a star musician or don’t quite get around to achieving career perfection, not to worry! It may all be for naught in the end, right? Unless I achieve true renown, most people probably won’t remember me in a generation or two.
At the same time, not knowing exactly when I will die probably means that I shouldn’t forgo my deadlines and responsibilities from day to day. I may be around for a while and have to deal with the consequences. Soooo, maybe I shouldn’t eat pizza for dinner, five days in a row, if I want to keep my health going. Maybe I shouldn’t blow off that meeting, if I want to keep good relations. The limitedness of my life on earth doesn’t preclude me from my promises and obligations as a person, a family member, a citizen of my community.
I find there’s a certain irony to this time of year we are in, when Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2) are celebrated in immediate succession in the Christian and Gregorian calendars. We celebrate the saints and the souls in a matter of 48 hours. We celebrate the people who achieved greatness in their lifetime, who exemplified the highest virtues and spiritual demeanor. And we also celebrate the dead, those who have gone before us, who left traces of themselves in our lifetimes through memories and stories we keep. And the deeper we go into November, here in the Northern Hemisphere, we find ourselves with the darker days of winter upon us, with trees losing leaves and colder weather whispering to us like the soft breath of the grim reaper. Death feels closer. We go inward looking for answers.
The proximity of these days of sainthood and death together can be a fascinating exercise in meditation. When I look at all the turmoil that is going on in our world these days — deadly shootings, wars and crimes against humanity, climate change upending our seasons and weather patterns, democracy and freedom in jeopardy — I feel the weight of the world on me. Yet somehow it helps to remember that I am dying, we are all dying, that there is no pain greater than death, that our lives and the state of things around us are impermanent. Circumstances could turn for the better or worse at any moment. Yes, we could throw caution to the wind and say to hell with it all. But then what? While we await our final conclusion, we still have to live amidst the turmoil, with one another, on this planet, in time and space. For all we know, it could be a while. So, we best do something with our precious time here. Like the saints with their saintly lives, perhaps we can align ourselves to a greater good, a higher power, a presence of mind and body. Perhaps there is some small legacy we can leave behind after our passing. Moment by moment, the world can turn and turn again. All we have is now.
Here’s a happy thought to go with that from esteemed jazz singer and songwriter Kurt Elling: