Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/08/2011

“. . . or that death could come this very afternoon. . .”

"E'en death's dark wave"

"E'en death's dark wave"

A very curious thing, death. Everyone jokes about death—even those who are not inclined to making jokes. Everyone has pictures of loved ones who have died. Everyone knows the first time she was conscious of someone dying. My grandfather died when I was three—I remember my mother’s grief. Growing up in a parsonage, my siblings and I were aware of funerals (I didn’t attend a funeral until I was a church organist and was paid to attend funerals).

One of the first poems I remember memorizing (Miss Swanson’s fourth-grade class) is

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea. . . 

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar,” 1889. Why Miss Swanson had us memorize it, I came to wonder much later. We knew it was about dying, but it was only a poem. I remember my private excitement to discover it in our church hymnal (Christian Worship, number 574), the tune composed by another Victorian, Joseph Barnby. We never sang the hymn although I was playing it for my own amusement very soon after fourth grade.

Later in Mrs. Luckenbach’s sixth grade class we memorized part of William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” 1821. Teaching elementary school in Scottsbluff required a fascination with death.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go 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. 

William Cullen Bryant is almost completely forgotten, but not always. My mother could quote the same lines of “Thanatopsis” she had memorized in high school.

My ideas about mortality were not shaped completely by 19th-century poetry. There were the Gospel songs, too.  Words pop into my head when I least expect it.

And when my task on earth is done,
when by thy grace the victory’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
since God through Jordan leadeth me

The idea that death is a “cold wave” used to transfix me. I could not (having seen the ocean only once—on a family trip to California in about 1952) imagine how a cold wave could be death.

Crossing the Bar

Crossing the Bar

I could go on—hundreds of songs, hymns, and poems about death. (As I’ve said here before) I have been absorbed with thoughts of death most of my life, partly the result of growing up in an atmosphere steeped in talk of death and partly the result of my own (it seems almost congenital) predilection.

We say indeed that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we imagine that hour as situated in a vague and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any relation to the day already begun or that death could come this very afternoon, which is anything but uncertain—this afternoon every hour of which is filled in advance (1).

Somewhere is a happy medium between absorption with death and imagining “that hour as situated in a vague and distant future.”

Relying on [iPhone apps], we maintain the belief that we know much of what our immediate future will hold. By scheduling our activities. . . we manage to construct a world in which life seems highly. . . predictable. In this carefully constructed world, we tend to not worry about death or other unexpected intrusions in our lives—after all, we have not allocated time for them to happen (2).

And then, once again, the immediacy of death impinges on us. My father seems likely to die soon. That I say “die” instead of “pass on” or “pass over” or “pass away” or “go to his eternal reward” (especially in reference to my own father—I should at the very least not send it irretrievably into cyberspace) is nearly unthinkable to those who have not “allocated time for [death] to happen” or to those who believe death is the beginning of “eternal life.”

My observation is that people who have faced death squarely—either by experiencing deeply the loss of a loved one, or by coming close to death and surviving—face life more squarely than those who have not. Except for myself, the people I know who understand the reality of human existence–because they know and accept the fact of their own death and the deaths of those they love—are the people most likely to live with freedom and grace.  Facing death “. . . seems to heighten our awareness of the degree to which our lives are not always predictable, ongoing, or subject to our control (3).” Freedom.

I have colleagues and friends with whom I could not keep up. A colleague told me writing her latest book consumes about sixty extra hours a week. A friend just took his second job, twenty-four hours a week on top of his regular job. People I love dearly work ten-to-twelve hour days and seem to think it’s either necessary or rewarding. Friends are often out for the evening six times in one week. If I didn’t know and love all of these folks, I would assume they are desperate to construct “a world in which life seems highly. . . predictable.”

My life is unpredictable, not because I am absorbed in thoughts of death but because I seem incapable of making it predictable (or am unwilling to). I’m not offering myself as an example (either negative or positive). But as I contemplate the certain knowledge of the death of the person who, until medical science made it possible for his body to outlast his life, was the constant of my life, I cannot help but contemplate the reality of my death and yours.

The British poet Rupert Brooke, who lived only twenty-eight years (1887-1915) wrote more maturely than his years, apparently on the end of his relationship with one of his (female or male) lovers.

Now that we’ve done our best and worst, and parted,
I would fill my mind with thoughts that will not rend.
(O heart, I do not dare go empty-hearted)
I’ll think of Love in books, Love without end;
Women with child, content; and old men sleeping;
And wet strong ploughlands, scarred for certain grain;
And babes that weep, and so forget their weeping;
And the young heavens, forgetful after rain;
And evening hush, broken by homing wings;
And Song’s nobility, and Wisdom holy,
That live, we dead. I would think of a thousand things,
Lovely and durable, and taste them slowly,
One after one, like tasting a sweet food.
I have need to busy my heart with quietude.  

Being absorbed with death is no longer a problem for me. I have come—I don’t know how—to some peace about it. And I find myself more and more needing “to busy my heart with quietude.” That is bringing me, perhaps, the first real freedom I’ve ever enjoyed.
(1) Proust, Marcel. (From Guermantes Way). The maxims of Marcel Proust. J . O’Brien, Ed. and Trans. New York : Columbia University Press. 1948. (Original work published 1921.) Quoted in Vickio.
(2) Vickio, Craig J . “Developing Beliefs that Are Compatible with Death: Revising Our Assumptions About Predictability, Control, and Continuity.” Death Studies 24 (2000): 739–758. (3) Ibid.


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