We're All Going to Die
My first experience of death was when I was six years old.
It all began on an ill-fated trip to Walmart. I'd seen the fish tanks, you see. As my mother efficiently perused the shelves for paper towels and peanut butter, I was mesmerized by those blue boxes of water, swarming with brightly coloured fish, shimmering as they darted after the shadow of every passing Walmart patron. I wanted one oh so much. Against her better judgement, my mom got me two— they were only 15 cents!
I was told I oughtn't touch them, but it was a great temptation. Their shiny bodies, wriggling with life, beckoned me; what did they feel like?
Only a day later they were growing white fur around their gills. I wondered if maybe they had fish asthma, like I had human asthma.
The next morning they were both floating at the top of the bowl, pallid and cartoonish.
"What happened to them, mama?" I asked.
"They died, honey."
For two days, I was inconsolable. My mom bought me a robin red-breast beanie baby and that helped, but what do you do when your six year old has peered, as all people will, into the great chasm of unknowing that is death?
I buried my goldfish in the red soil of the hill behind our house. I made a cross out of twigs. I don't know why I knew to do that.
Over the next few years, I tried not to think about death. I sobbed when Penny our three year old golden retriever died suddenly. I loved her dearly, but I wonder if my tears were more because of the horror and strangeness of it. What did it mean? Penny, that lithe and loving bullet of love was suddenly stiff, cold, and gone away. And then a child from church died. I didn't know her, but I remember the bleakness of the funeral, and the wild look in her mother's eyes. I tried very hard not to think about it.
I started to become particularly troubled by the idea of life expectancy. Someone, probably my brother Nathan, told me that most people in America lived to be around 80. I knew my mother had me at the surprising age of 41. I'd lie in bed at night and do the math; with good luck, I'd have her till I was 39. Maybe older; our family had a knack for longevity.
Besides that, life didn't give me too much reason to think about death in those years. So I flourished and smiled and was happy. When I thought death, I thought of other people dying. I feared being left.
It wasn't until my second year of college that I realised I too would died.
At some point in their life everyone feels like a French existentialist. The onset of my Camus phase came one January. I was back early for a debate tournament, but quickly came down with the flu, and was mercifully deposited back in my dorm room by my roommate and her boyfriend. No one except for the sports teams were back, so I lay alone for three days.
I was so, so sick. And as I lie there with a high fever and swampy lungs, the desperate thought passed through my mind: I could die. No one would know. That is until my roomate returned to my dead body.
Poor Shannon. That would scar you for life, probably.
This thought passed quickly and was replaced by another. I am going to die. Probably not before the Spring semester, but someday. Someday I'd close my eyes and never wake up. I wasn't afraid exactly. Just incredulous. What on earth did it mean to die? The obvious but suddenly urgent thought came to me: no one has come back from the dead to stick around. No one, really, has any idea what lies behind the veil. It all seemed very strange, absurd even.
We are born, we live these small but dense lives, and then we die.
I got better and the blessed distraction of school occupied my morbid pondering. I thought of death very little. The one exception being my grandmother's funeral. We stood around her open casket eating snacks at the funeral parlour. It was surreal, macabre, and somehow precious. In quiet Texans accents, people talked about her secret kindnesses. Somehow, it seemed like all was not lost in this death.
And life went on.
And life was hard.
The year after I graduated was hard. Really hard. There were some big losses, and I was sad a lot. In that time, I started to think of death differently than I ever had. Sometimes it seemed like dying didn't seem so bad. Sometimes it seemed like dying would be a relief from all the weariness and pain in which I swam, all the disgust and sadness that got in my mouth and wouldn't leave me. I didn't want to die, I just wasn't sure I had it in me to live. But even that thought frightened me. So I did my best not to think of it, to work and to love people and to fall asleep quickly each night.
Until one Ash Wednesday.
I was flying with my mom and brother Joel. There were several people at the airport that morning with faint ashen crosses on their foreheads; they must have gone to an awfully early morning service. I felt faintly gloomy and irritable, but airports will do that to you. When we arrived in California Joel expressed his desire to go to an Ash Wednesday service. He'd found a church with a evening service. I dragged my feet, made excuses, and finally consented to going, but only after making us quite late.
The church was a architectural contradiction of cathedral and California, with its high ceilings and frosted windows letting in the coastal sun.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions... For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
A gentle voice proclaimed from the podium. The congregation moved through the motions of the service, even the little children seeming to know its contours and customs. A choir sang a sombre tune, we stood and sat, and stood and sat. And then a marvellous thing happened. Everyone began to file down the pews. Greeted at the end of the aisles, the priests in their anachronistic robes, dipped their thumbs into a small bowl of thick, black ash, marking the sign of the cross on every forehead.
"From dust you came, and to dust you will return."
They said a hundred times. More than a hundred times. They said it to each person, and with their smutted thumbs marked the proof on their foreheads. Tanned, shrivelled, sun stained, tender, young, freckled, brown, white, scarred, new, flushed. With that cross they told every person the truth: you will die.
It was such a relief. To have someone say it out loud. To say it out loud with a hundred other people. Death, the unalterable fact of life, was acknowledged in the company of others; modern life's best kept secrete was looked in the face. And as we all went forward, I no longer felt alone in this mystery. I was accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses before me. And most of all, I suddenly knew I was accompanied by Jesus. The strange claim of my faith is that God made himself vulnerable to death.
"He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," says the Apostle Paul.
Something in me shifted that day. I stopped trying to understand death, and started trying to prepare for it. That night did not explain death to me, it didn't solve it, or sort it out. And that is because death is not a problem, it is a mystery. And there is no tidy solution to the mystery of death, no peek behind the veil. Even after the resurrection, Jesus says very little about his days in the grave; our curiosity is not satisfied. And sometimes, I still feel that fresh incredulity at the strangeness and fleetingness of this old life.
In Lent, we are told once and for all that we are not alone in this journey to death. Through the weeks of fasting and up through Holy Week we accompany the Lord to His death, in the hope that he will accompany us in ours.
And with that companionship comes hope, for death could not hold the author of life.
And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Episode eleven: remember you must die
1. Visual: Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) by Matthias Grünewald
This tummy turning, gruesome depiction of the crucifixion was meant to comfort and hearten the dying in a plague ridden era. Painted during one of the many recurrences of the plague in medieval Europe, this triptych was commissioned for the monastery of St. Anthony. This monastery was famous for its care of victims of the plague that ravaged up to 60% of Europe's population at the apex of its destructiveness. The monks also specialised in caring for victims of skin diseases.
The stark reality of the monastery was this: many people who went there went there to die. Because so many people were dying from the plague, the church had created a resource called Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying), to try to guide people toward a good, virtuous, and peaceful death. In his painting, I think Grünewald attempted to just this in his painting. The artist strove to create a piece that would remind the sick and dying that Christ had shared in their human frailty, and that he understood their pain. He did this by painting a Christ whose body is riddled with pain. Going the extra mile to show Jesus' identification with their pain, Grünewald makes Jesus' skin bear the pock marks typical of the plauge.
As the viewer meditated on the altar piece, before receiving the sacrament, they were meant to be moved by Christ's compassion and suffering, and to be reminded of the hope in Christ's work upon the cross.
The work is still deeply moving to many today.
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
CARDINAL, WRITER, AND FATHER OF THE OXFORD MOVEMENT
Written by John Henry Newman, who was a sort of godfather of the Oxford Movement, or the resurgence of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England. The poem (1865) describes a sort of Christian fantasy of a protagonist, Gerontius, facing his own death. Edward Elgar composed a setting of the poem as an unstaged opera, for orchestra, choir, and solo voices (1900). The Dream of Gerontius is a triumph of synthesis, interspersing the virtuous power of the medieval journey of the Christ-like everyman with the articulation of romanticism’s emotional idealism, and inso doing, transfigures mere passion into piety.
3. Literary: "Death Be Not Proud" (1633) by John Donne
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, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.
For a fuller analysis of the poem check out this link.
DO NOT LISTEN TO THE LAST PORTION OF THE PODCAST IF YOU HAVEN'T READ HARRY POTTER. DON'T. DO. NOT.
Attend your local Ash Wednesday service. It will do you good.