By Joe Rector
One of my classes read poems by Emily Dickinson. Some were light-hearted while others were much more serious. Students decided that Dickinson was obsessed with death; I didn’t disagree with them. However, her obsession caused these young folks to think about death and the things about it. I could see them considering the topic as their eyes held far away stares that took them back to times when death directly affected them.
I, too, gave pause to muse over the ending of life here on earth. Over the years, I’ve had too many personal interactions with death. I was there when my mother and brother passed. I was with Amy just after her mother died. High school friends died in their teens; other friends have died in later years. The one thing in common with all these passings is that they were difficult. In fact, I’m sure that death has always been much easier for the dying than for the living.
Age brings on more thoughts about death. We who have fewer days left than we’ve already lived think about the end of things. That doesn’t mean we fret about it, but we do have it on our minds more often than when we were teens. In fact, back then we considered ourselves invincible. Our antics proved dangerous and moronic. Yet, we survived foolish stunts, even though some of them were severe and the worst we ended up with were a few stitches or a broken bone.
In those early years, death visited only rarely. Some of us lost parents, and others ached with the passings of grandparents. The jarring quake of death hit hardest when one of our own died. Car wrecks took good friends on their ways to pick up dates for the prom; drownings in nearby lakes shook us to our cores. The worst of all were the deaths of young people after wars with cancer. Leukemia claimed the lives of two friends before we’d reached fourth grade. The viewing of a dead child haunted us for years. When a lifelong friend who was a gifted athlete died not long after graduation from high school, young teens struggled to find a reason for such a loss.
These days, my generation spends too much time making trips to funeral homes or cemeteries. We are at that age when friends and family pass much too frequently. Visitations look much like a class reunion. All of us shake our heads in disbelief that another friend is gone. After a few minutes, the awkwardness of expressing condolences and shock eases as we share stories with others about the person who has died. Before long, we’re laughing and chatting maybe a bit too loudly. Some folks think such acts are disrespectful. My belief is that nothing shows more respect than a large crowd’s sharing the joys and memories that the person has left behind.
Thinking about death and all the things that it brings and takes away can sometimes lead to nothing more than depression. That’s when a belief in something stronger than ourselves is in control. A belief in a life after this one comforts us, especially when thoughts or reuniting with loved ones who’ve gone before us are included.
William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” gives us the best advice about the end that each of us shall reach:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Though go to not, like the quarry slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”