In a recent New York Times story exploring death in Japan, a local man shared his sentiments: “How we die is a mirror of how we live.” In other words, if we live in isolation, we die in isolation. We can see in the U.S. where the denial of death deeply informs our individualistic society. This ideology is deeply entrenched in our understandings of death as final. We promote a denial of death. A medicalization of death. We view death as a failure. Death as a loss. Death is the enemy. However, I come from the perspective that this is not the only lens through which to view death. In the U.S., death is dark. Jeepers. We wear black to funerals. Come on.
Another perspective constructs death as the beginning, rather than the end. Another view is that death is a continuation. To be continued as life. “Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come,” suggests Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. What would it take for the United States to fully embrace such a paradigm shift? For example, when a person is born at Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is played over the intercom and can be heard throughout the entire hospital. Want to take a guess at what song is played when someone dies? That’s right. Nothing. No song is played. Silence. Not everyone lives in silence and so if death is a mirror of life, then death should not be silent.
What if instead of nothing, a part of the ballad “You Light Up My Life” was played. Or ABBA’s “Hasta Mañana,” Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” or perhaps Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Please, anything other than nothing.
If we acknowledge death, how might this alter our perceptions of life? Yes, feelings about death are wrapped up in a cloak of fear and are rampant in our culture. “Even the wise fear death. Life clings to life,” remarked Buddha. Yes, I get that many people are afraid of a process of which we know so little about – death and dying. Yet, I think this is actually a reflection of our fear of life. There are far too many aspects about life we know so little about and so why live a life in the hinterlands.
We paralyze ourselves by standing in the center of a metaphoric Chinese Finger Trap. There we are – pushed by yesterday. Pulled by tomorrow. Never recognizing the beauty in the present. It has been written in 2 Corinthians 4:18 “Things that can be seen are temporary.” It is a guarantee that we will die. The how and when is another matter. How do we benefit today when we spend energy on worrying about the how and when aspects of tomorrow?
For some, a discussion of death, even bordering on obsession with death, perhaps serves to protect the living. It is yet another way to separate us from them. As is commonly understood in the line of hospice care: They are dying. I am not.
Compliment the person who is living or share with them how they impact you – maybe lessons you’ve learned or directions in life you have taken as a result of the person’s influences. Be present. Enjoy every moment of life. Death will arrive. And then, you can be present with death.
And by being present with death, you are also celebrating life. Turn the light off. Turn the light on. Times change. Needs change. Situations do not always require the lighting of a candle.