Lately I’ve been presiding at a number of funerals. I found myself telling the gathered family and friends yesterday that the reason so few go to funerals these days has to do with a fear of confronting our own mortality. I thought about that more today and it gets more clear to me as I think about other matters; like how we see so few people of a certain age on TV, how we invest in beauty techniques to keep us looking young, how we get offended when people think we are older than we are. Apart from wanting to live and not to die what is it about our mortality that upsets us the most?
Most of us want to live and not to die, me too! I want to live to see my daughter become an adult, I want to preach more sermons, I want to meet more interesting people, I want to spend more time in coffee shops with Kim, I want to walk down Agricola Street more often, I want to see and feel the energy of more trees, I want to participate in more events where I bring seemingly odd strands of life and people together. But if I do this looking old or being old or feeling old, that is OK. I know I am going to die, and while I fear pain and dread an early death, I am relatively OK with my mortality. I have always thought the one thing that would hasten my death was driving, so the less time I spend in cars the less anxious I am about dying.
I remember meeting a professor who taught a course on coming to terms with death. She had the students in her class build their own casket. Apart from the oddness of this request I thought it was a fascinating technique to get at coming to terms with our death. Other things I have since considered doing in groups are; making a list of the things I would want my loved ones to know as they planned my funeral, making a list of the things I have learned in life to pass on to Lucy, making decisions today as if life was not going to go on forever. Some might say this is morbid but I would argue it breaks the illusion that we are going to live for eternity. I firmly believe that one of the reasons we hold on to so many things is the selfish notion that someone else will look after it or that we are going to keep on living with our treasure of stuff.
The professor showed me photos of her using the casket she has made for herself as a sled, coasting down a snowy hillside with her adult daughter. I don’t care for art that includes skulls and skeletons but that has less to do with a fear of my mortality and more to do with finding morose anything but dull. It seems to me that the healthy way to deal with one’s death is to embrace life and thus to frame the narrative of death in the surrounding colours of life and possibility.
The people I know who value things the most have the least, the people I know who value life the most are the most aware of their own death. For me limits is the beginning of setting priorities, being frugal the beginning of knowing what I want to spend money on, looking at the calendar with a sense of an ending the beginning of the spirit of “what’s next?”
In a strange existential way I feel my life completes itself when it connects to its larger and smaller purposes. Only when my life seems to be veering toward a false narrative, like living forever, do I feel I am wasting my time. That makes me mad. The oddness people see in me is the effort I make to reclaim my life and work as connecting to a larger and a smaller vision. “Killing time” has the effect of killing me. And that is a death I would fear.