“Short is the life we lead, and small our patch of earth.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
Being near to death is an important feature of my life. I don’t mean seeking death-defying adventure or engaging in risky behavior. Far from it. I am terrified on Ferris wheels. I’m not looking to hasten my own death. Rather, I deeply treasure the time I’ve been honored to spend around the dying and dead, and feel strongly that my life has been enhanced by that proximity. Given my line of work, I’ve always had colleagues who are comfortable talking about illness and death. And within recent years some personal friendships have also formed around this shared interest. My “death friends.”
Among us there are two social workers, a senior advisor, two English and writing professors, and several writers. A few actually work in or with the death care industry, but most of us just kind of dabble. One is a pioneer in bringing Death Cafes to San Diego County. One regularly assigns her college students the project of writing their own obituaries. One hosts grand parties with lots of good food and conversations about – and sometimes with – dead people. We read and talk about good books, like Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity. We go to see good death-positive movies like Coco. Last month we held a silent book club meeting at a nearby cemetery. Have you ever spent a sunny afternoon reading on the grass at your local cemetery? Five stars! Highly recommend.
I don’t get to see these friends often, but it means the world to me that, when I get excited seeing a trailer for a documentary about the obituary writers at The New York Times, I know just who to call. (That was Obit, and it was really good.) Sure, I find death sad and scary in many ways, like most humans do. But I also know that we’re happier and healthier when we respect and accept it, and hold the departed and the bereaved close to us, instead of hiding them away.
In recent years I’ve been reading some modern interpretations of ancient Stoic philosophy, the closest I’ve found yet to a worldview that aligns with my own. The Stoics advised the regular contemplation of death (among other things) as a means to achieve tranquility, happiness, and spiritual contentment. The second century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher, wrote an extensive set of mediations and spiritual exercises that I’ve found to be immensely valuable, and I’ll surely pepper future posts with more of his writing. But for now I leave you with one of my favorite reminders for living: “Within a very short time both you and everyone you know will be dead.”