O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
–1 Corinthians 15:55
We have been socialized in our Western culture to fear death, to shrink from confrontation with it, and yet we also experience a fascination sometimes with stories about death and loss, morbid curiosity, as it were, although many would deny it.
Today, as every day, in the news, we can see the hand of death everywhere:
- The Malaysian Air flight missing in the South Indian Ocean with over 200 souls on board
- The landslide in Washington State that has swept away neighborhoods and taken many lives
- A man killed on the train platform in New Jersey as he falls before the coming train, amid a crowd of horrified fellow travelers
- Four healthy lions euthanized in a Danish zoo to make way for a new lion coming into the zoo
Our life experiences eventually bring home to us the fact that all life forms are temporary, and that all living beings will die. As children we may first learn about this truth when a pet dies. Next it might be a grandparent. In our middle years or later, typically, we lose our parents to death. Although it seems that it should never happen, we may lose children to death long before there is any sense it might be “time.” But of course, for most of us, it never feels like the right time for death, except perhaps when we or a loved one are ravaged by illness. Then there is suicide, a potent reminder of how sudden and seemingly permanent death can be and how painful for those who remain behind, trying to figure out why and how and what might we have done to prevent it. And similar, but different from suicide, is the self-immolation of monks making a stark statement about injustice. This is usually accompanied by deep meditative concentration and thoughts of words of the Buddha such as the Heart Sutra.
And for all those dear friends and loved ones who touch our lives for good before their time on earth is done, we find ourselves remembering and missing them intensely until time, a great healer, takes much of the pain of loss away. And so it is.
As we study the wisdom of those who have lived and died before us, we may find peace in believing we all will pass through the gate from life to death and into life again. And all will be well, whether or not we truly understand it now.
O death, how we wish away your reality and only meet you on your terms when at last we are ready to understand your truths. I leave you with the immortal music of Ralph Stanley singing “O, Death”:
And today, this is my practice.