A Eulogy for Death

This is a version of a talk given by Michael Meade at the opening of the series of Conversations on Death sponsored by the Zen Hospice Center of San Francisco.

This conversation about the end of life begins somewhere in the threshold between the end of one era and the beginning of the next. Similar to the beginnings of human life, it remains difficult to name the exact moment of death. People disagree about when life begins and when it ends.

Origins and finalities resist literalization. Endings and beginnings are mythic moments, the one always hidden in the other, each open to many interpretations. Endings, like beginnings are more inviting to imaginal expansion than rational reduction. Deaths as well as births are creative events.

The last moment of any life even gives doctors pause; they have to observe and wait before pronouncing the presence of Death. Similarly, the last Millennium is over or it is not. Many say that the next Millennium won’t begin until the first day of 2001. [That may explain the second greatest non-event in history: Y2K; the first was the second coming of Christ.] Yet, the next New Year may also fail to satisfy our fantasies of a new beginning and desires for a better life that typically accompany the new.

The problem goes beyond calendars to issues of separating what’s dead and what’s living. Mythically, philosophically, ritually there is always a problem of creating ways to separate the quick from the dead, just as burying the corpse leaves uncertainty in its wake. Rarely, can we “pay our last respects,” in fact respect means to look again.

Perhaps it is only in looking again that we can discern the living from what has died. The fantasy of “closure” may be a delusion that haunts the end of eras. The less we study Death, the less we speak of Death, the more trouble we have with ending anything. The vitality of the living depends on the thoroughness brought to that which is dying.

So, I wish to begin this conversation on death with a eulogy for Death; for dying as an art, for the symbolic sense of the corpse, for Death as an imaginal presence that shadows every act of beginning and attends every act of living.

In a twist of fate, which itself is an old word for death- as in “life is fatal,” but also an old word for the soul that may survive death of the body- I’m trying to breath life into Death.

This eulogy, this “speaking-well-of,” is for Death itself. I mean to begin this series of conversing with Death by speaking well of Death and inviting back to life the mythic, philosophical, spiritual meanings that Death alone can bring to life.

Whether it’s the new millennium, the new relationship, the new diet or the new technology our problems lie with what dies, with what is left behind, with how we face death, including our own, in the midst of life. We struggle, not simply with the absence caused by Death, but with the actual presence of something that dies, with the mysteries occasioned by the presence of Death.

The corpse, any corpse lies on a line that extends infinitely beyond itself and in either direction. One side is the infinity of life and the other the infinity of death. At one level, culture is an attempt to continue to imagine and elaborate both sides of the line; an attempt to match culture’s creations with the infinity of the visible and the invisible.

Death, said the Greek philosophers, is the beginning of all philosophy. And poets admit that they only write of love and death and often can’t tell the difference between the two. Death, is the beginning of all religions, the Hindus might add; and don’t forget that this is the Last Age, the dark one, the Kali Yuga.

Imagine Buddhism without death. Buddha might have stayed in the privilege and denial of his youth, had he not glimpsed death at the age of twenty-nine. Imagine Christianity without the death of Christ. The Last Supper is not very impressive if it is followed by another meal.

Death is an end that is the beginning of many things. Death begins the philosophical conversations, posing questions that require a response from the living. Death is the beginning of culture. Death inspires religion and ritual and the celebration of life. “Death,” as the Irish say, “Is the middle of a long life.” Death is in the middle; Death is central to life.

This evening is like a Wake where we try to be awake to the presence of death. As if we sit with the corpse of what death has become in the Western world. The corpse becomes Death itself; Death a corpse too long held out of mind, a deadening of knowledge, a loss of understanding that drains meaning from dying and increasingly drains vitality from the living.

DEATH IN THE MOMENT

Death, in the middle of a long life, in the middle of every moment, each moment passing away, a corpse from which the future is born. Festivals used to held all over the earth to mark and make the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the Dark. Now, we perform the minimalist modern ritual that acknowledges the dying of the light by trying to manage it. We try to “turn the clock back” and alter the darkness. We try to “save time” from its return to eternity. We attempt to turn away from the inevitable, the way we turn away from Death. It never works really; it only effects how count. Instead of turning the clock back an hour, our ancestors stopped time, stopped time for the living and gave time to the dead, The dark part of the year was given its due and death was brought to life. Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead in old Aztec-Mayan celebrations of the realm of the dead and Halloween are remnants of days devoted to conversations with the dead that led to the turn from darkness to light in the depths of Midwinter, which we now disguise as Christmas.

For our ancestors, these were momentous times, crossing points that opened the talk between the living and the dead; between the “living living” and the “living dead.” The light returns from the dark, all of life an exchange between light and dark, between vitality and loss. And, only a perspective that wide opens understandings of both life and death.

In America, North of the border, we are taught to expect constant expansion, permanent growth, higher markets, Manifest Destiny in all directions, especially in an election year. We dispute over promises of “social security” and comfort in old age.

As a poet said: “A false sense of security is the only kind there is.” Modern politics becomes a little ritual of turning the clock back so that some can live a little longer in a false sense of security, while others carry too much death and darkness.

“Days of the Dead” may be the underlying reason why the US tries to stop people south of the border from entering. What makes Mexicans alien to the official US may have more to do with attitudes towards Death; more to do with darkness than simply the economics of the living.

Mexicans, like the Irish, the Africans, the Jewish, bring their dead with them. They may remind America of many unburied dead; of the past, of ancestors. If there was enough Mexico in America, Death might return from its embalmed suppressed state.

As Octavio Paz, may he rest in peace, wrote: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.”

A culture that fosters “meaningless deaths” becomes one that fosters meaningless lives.

Darkness and light require each other. The seeds of death are mixed with the seeds of life. Death was woven into our lives at the beginning. We are all dying all the time. Life and Death are not exclusive opposites, birth and death are opposite and life includes both.

DEATH EXPECTANCY

A conversation with Death is overdue. Despite longer life expectancies, the population swell of “baby boomers” walks the inevitable road to the kingdom of death. Despite, organ transplants and facelifts, the “older boom” brings an increase of “death expectancy.”

As the African proverb advises: “On the road to death, your feet will go and your legs will carry you.”

A conversation with death can be seen as an attempt to re-orient life to death in a world that has lost essential ways of living and dying. Death has been misplaced; the pain of Death may now be that death has no place. The place of death, once so essential to cultural life, has been moved to the end and the end has become a hasty departure. By reorienting to death, we may refind lost meanings of life, just as the Days of the Dead make life more lively.

The idea is not simply to become more conversant with the facts of death, leave that to the actuarials. More the old sense of conversation: to turn about with, to turn to; to take turns with; even to dance with.

So, welcome to an evening of death-talk, a little intentional dying, a little mourning within the dance of life. A conversation in the dark of the year that includes all the kinds of people: the living, the dying and the dead.

For, we are each all of these in the real celebration of life, where as at dusk the borders between realms disappear and death is a presence to the living, and living is revealed to be a process of dying that commenced at birth, as the beginning of the day.

As Goethe put it: “Unless you have experienced this, to die and so to live, you are simply a guest on the dark earth.”


© Michael Meade

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