Death is inevitable
Around the world on Ash Wednesday, millions of Catholics took part in the continuation of an ancient Near Eastern tradition by having ashes put on their foreheads as a sign of penance before God. This rite is a memento mori, a warning that death is inevitable and will reduce each individual, along with his accomplishments in the secular world, to ashes, and begins the liturgical season of Lent in which each Catholic is called to enrich their spiritual life in preparation for the celebration of Easter. In a society that has been successful in removing death from the mainstream, the serious reminder that the placing of ashes provides ought to provoke thought and dread – even for those who have never been to a single Ash Wednesday Mass in their lives.
Without a doubt, the concept of death has been sterilized in the modern world to the point of being nigh incomprehensible: the process of death is carried out in hospital rooms, the corpses are immediately removed to an unseen morgue and buried as soon as possible.
After the Black Plague, European culture saw death everywhere and it was a primary cultural focus for the following generations. Our own social environment resulted in death being essentially removed from contemporary culture. Yes, grandma will die, but she will die a dignified death in her sleep after a serious, yet short, illness with pain being minimized through the proper dosage of narcotics. Nowhere does our culture mention the mental and physical decline that old-age brings, and that, while society’s material prosperity has brought greater dignity to all in life, death is simply a brute fact that only the fortunate will be able to experience in a dignified manner. Many will be reminded of the simple fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, and modern humanity has been blessed with the capability of taming her. In fact, most people today will not have to gaze into the Reaper’s eyes until their twenties when because they have been sheltered from the deaths of their grandparents during their youth.
Of course, we can all pretend that we are not disturbed by gazing into the eyes of death, that, as the Greek philosopher Epicurus said in his basic teachings, the Tetrapharmakos, that death provides no worries, but we only fool ourselves with such a doctrine. Yes, it may be easy to think of death in clean ideas like the thought of dying suddenly tomorrow, but it sidesteps the slow and vicious decline that is often antecedent to death per se. Furthermore, death does provide much to be fearful about for it is the black door beyond which we are all doomed to pass through and about which we can only have faith about what will await us.
Much of what we have worked for in our secular lives, the positions we have achieved and possessions we have accumulated, count for naught. To speak of death as if it provides nothing to be fearful about is sheer naiveté. We need not live out our lives in an unhealthy state of anxiety worried about our final moments because fear can serve good purposes. There are certainly some situations in which fear can provide a healthy motivation; for instance, the first time I had a loaded, semi-automatic assault rifle placed in my hands, I had a healthy fear that kept my attention on the issue of safety.
A proper healthy reaction to the just fear of death is to respond to the memento mori: “Remember, O man, that you are dust and into dust you will return” that will be able to liberate one from any anxiety that the fear might bring up. Many contemporary responses have been “Live each day to the fullest” and “Live for the moment” that have justly emphasized the fact that life is always in the present. In the Catholic tradition, the reply is Mark 1:15: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” and Lent provides us with the opportunity of deepening our own conversation in preparation for the fulfillment of the Gospel on Easter Sunday. Of course, while one might not believe that the good news is the true answer to the problem, it still does not mean that there is no response to mortality (to accept such a premise would merely be the mark of someone who has not bothered to ponder basic philosophical questions facing each individual). In fact, it is imperative to come to terms with the memento mori in order to live a virtuous life in which one can provide a response to our inevitable mortality.
Hence, let me end with a challenge to you, dear reader: take some time out of your day to meditate upon the fact that we are all dust and into dust we will all return once our days upon this earth are done. Time flies and before long if we have never given thought to such matters it will be too late to prepare ourselves and we will have to face this reality. I pray that you will take up this challenge and be prepared before you ever have to face the acerbities of not only our own mortality, but that of every person upon this green earth.
Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.