When we say something is a matter of life or death, we are talking about something exceedingly urgent. Death, of course, is irrevocable while life, though something you supposedly get to experience just once, may be comprised of many stops and starts. I say life is “supposedly” a one-time thing, because there are very spiritual people who believe the soul lives on and on, experiencing many lives until its lessons are learned. Most mainstream religions believe in everlasting life, with the soul either eternally suffering for mortal sins or forever in an indescribable paradise.
I am not here to ponder the afterlife, or even life, for that matter. My topic of the week is death. It is going to happen to all of us. We can die from any number of causes, whether suddenly by accident of slowly from disease or the deterioration of aging.
We have been seeing a lot of news reports, almost on a daily basis, of people being attacked by sharks. Yet shark attacks, which number 19 a year, kill only one person every two years on average, according to the National Geographic Channel. More people die from hemorrhoids in a year — 14 to 17— than from aggressive sharks. That’s really not bad odds considering that millions of people have hemorrhoids at a given time, reports livescience.com, with about 2 million being treated for them.
So, you see, there are all kinds of way to die— some of which you’d rather not have mentioned in your obituary: “Angus Terwilliger passed away on Thursday, July 23, surrounded by his loving family after a long battle with hemorrhoids.”
I know what you’re thinking. Hemorrhoids aren’t funny, especially if they kill you. But death can take you by the most ignominious means, whether you are a renowned statesman, a war hero or an esteemed theologian. It’s how you live, not how you die, that constitutes your worth and character. How you die— say as a coward or in defense of values, home or country— may help define that legacy.
Since we can do little more than prolong the arrival of death, we may as well laugh at it. Contemplating mortality is also the source of much wisdom and wit. I agree with the old Scottish proverb that states: “Be happy while you are living, for you’re a long time dead.” Then there is an English saying that “death always comes too early or too late.” Have you ever known anyone who died at just the right time? There are those who sense their time has come and go gently into the night while others fight, kick and snarl to their last breath.
We all know that death may give us a fleeting importance that we never claimed in life. Go to some funerals and you may not recognize the deceased from the person described in the eulogy. And yet there are others where words can’t describe the importance of the dearly departed to surviving family and friends.
Probably the most popular quote about death comes from Woody Allen, who quipped: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Unfortunately, death is one appointment where attendance is mandatory.
Pessimists are apt to point out that we are dying a little bit every day that we live. If we are beyond the age of fifty, for example, there are others who like to remind us that the days we have lived are of a greater number than those we have remaining. I think of all the days, weeks and even months of my life I barely remember and wish I had paid more attention along the way.
Do you wonder why none of us remembers our birth? Why is it erased from our memories? The newborn child is apparently unable to comprehend what is happening to him or her. Otherwise you’d be thinking: Who are these people? Why does that guy have a camera? Why is the guy with the mask spanking me? I suppose it would all be too traumatic. Perhaps the same can be said for what we see, or don’t see, after death.
Jimmy Buffet may not be known as a great philosopher, but he hit it on the head in his song, “Growing Older but Not Up,” when he crooned, “I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.” In other words, though aging leads us closer to death, live what you have left as enthusiastically as you can.
The Lord’s Prayer says “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Death has been described as the last debt each of us has to pay. Forgiveness is part of the process of dying, I believe, and, more importantly, part of the process of living.