On Death and Dying

Otis elementary school 2One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February 6, 1959 – July 14, 2013.

10 responses

  1. Here in Thailand people commonly accept a series of rebirths.

    That was a ground belief, I think, well before the buddha came along. Just one more belief he subsumed.

    I’ve been reading The Varieties of Religious Experience since your quote from James in your last post. He classifies buddhism as an atheistic religion.

    Seems right enough to me. But I’ve grown to like the idea of Chat Na … the next life. It takes all sorts of apprehension out of this life. And I might get to be a … whale, or a draongfly. Some people seem to think that being a man is the pinnacle, but I’m so over that !

    The main idea is the community of all living creatures, and the fact that we couldn’t leave that community if we wanted to. Not even Barack Obama or Jamie Dimon, nihilists that they are, can leave the community just by pulling the bag over their eyes and ears and claiming not to be able to see anyone else anymore.

    The buddha seems never to have minded the literal-minded, the ‘fundamentalists’. He never seems to have minded anything he couldn’t do anything about. He just accepted what is. He was just a poor human and, enlightened, he knew it.

    I think the idea of multiple incarnations is really just a means of reminding that life never stops just because yours or any one creature’s has come to an end. And, literal-minded as we are, rebirth is lovely metaphor, and one we can really understand.

    Covering the same territory from our personal-god, western angle, Francis of Asissi says, in the same reassuringly literal vein :

    Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
    from whose embrace no living person can escape.

    I ‘know’ that when I die that’s ‘it’. Lights out. No more me. But, as a friend said just the other day, I won’t miss me when I’m gone.

    And all of you will still be here, and you to come. So I’m happy. Great time. So glad I made it!

  2. I like that “I won’t miss me when I’m gone” line. It reminds me of the Stoic/Epicurean argument for why one should not fear death: “When death is, I am not, and when I am, death is not.”

  3. Thank you! It is the Epicureans, I now remember, who offer the above argument for why one should not fear death. I am always confusing the Stoics and the Epicureans.

    • In contemporary parlance, would it be accurate to say that the Stoics saw life as a “vale of tears” while the Epicureans felt we are “here for a good time, not a long time”? I know where I cast my vote!

      • Well yes, sort of. That maybe isn’t entirely fair to either group, but it’s not too far off.

        M.G. Piety Department of English and Philosophy Drexel University 3250-60 Chestnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19104 Phone: 215-895-2879

        Website: mgpiety.org Blog: http://pietyonkierkegaard.com

  4. Whether I believe in life after death, the awe of knowing Otis allows me to believe his spirit will always be with me. Thank you from the family of Otis Anderson.

    • You are very welcome. Otis was rare and beautiful human being. I was not close to him, but I knew him well enough to understand what a lovely person he was and how wise and kind he could be. He actually helped me during a difficult time in my life. It is a source of great sadness to me that he is gone. But like you, I believe his spirit will remain with me. Thank you so much again.

  5. Reblogged this on greywhytekat and commented:
    Thinking about death this week … one more friend left earth … and his family is very sad. If the group of well-wishers and sympathizers could have left with him he would have had a following.
    kgw

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