Preparing for death does not require an understanding of the after life or even a belief in it, although this certainly adds more purpose to the way we approach living and dying. Just the fact that death is the only universal guarantee we all share is reason enough to consider planning for it. Birth, school, work, marriage, family and retirement are all planned for but why not death?
On a daily basis we relegate our relationship with death to the furthest margins of life in our ignorance of the value, beauty and purpose of this eternal partner to life.
Imagine if the demonising of death was relinquished leaving us free to see how every part of daily life reminds us that endings, of which death is but one, are part of life.
Life constantly reminds us that everything ends and that every ending bumps up against the beginning of something. Ultimately we close our eyes and open them over and over until the time comes when we don’t. We walk out our front doors and return home at the end of the day until the day we don’t. From the moment the day begins, regardless of our wishes for it to last longer, its end approaches as night begins.
As soon as something comes, we know it is going to, at some stage, eventually, go, travelling over the horizon point and out of sight. It can take seconds or decades, moments or millennia, but life forever revolves from beginnings around to endings, ever round to beginnings again. We surface into physical life and at some stage we surface out of it.
Yet the going can be every bit as joyful as the arrival – like sunrise and sunset, both events of equal beauty that show us about the cycle and rhythm of death everyday.
First the light changes, the temperature drops and the sounds of birds and crickets accompany the transition between light and dark around dawn and dusk. These details show us that beginnings and endings have a rhythm, an order and a flow, but as we all know sometimes death comes without apparent warning and such unexpected deaths leave us shocked and even traumatised as we struggle to accept what we feel unprepared for.
Whether death is preceded by illness or disease, accident or misfortune, injury or disaster, at a young, middle or old age, with signs preceding it or not, every death is the completion of a cycle of life.
The cycle starts with pregnancy and birth and ends with death. When that cycle is a minute: an hour, a week, ten or thirty years, we struggle to appreciate that it is still the completion of something. When the circumference of that cycle is the smallest of circles instead of the broad circle that a long life of eighty, ninety or a hundred years presents, we often feel cheated by the size of the cycle, overlooking its completion and this can lead to years and lifetimes weighed down by grief, regret, guilt and resentment.
When we understand that the purpose of life isn’t its length but the quality we bring to it every day and ultimately leave behind, it offers a very different perspective to what we regard as a full life.
In this perspective, life is spherical not linear and it becomes a matter not of the length of a life, (having a good innings as they say in reference to dying at a ripe old age), but the quality we bring to life that is to be valued and celebrated.
As any parent knows a baby can bring a quality of joy to our lives even when it dies before being born or lives a day, a week or a year. The presence of joy is not diluted by time or death and as we come to strip away the layers that demonise death, we begin to know again the sense of graduating to whatever is next that death offers at whatever age that graduation comes to us.
Death is not the end. Death is what is next.
Preparing for the end, is very different to preparing for what is next.
This preparation is beyond the pragmatics of putting our worldly affairs in order, it extends to our soul and to the quality in which we choose to live and die – from given up and checked out to joyful, purposeful and present. How we choose to live today rolls out the kind of carpet we then walk upon into tomorrow and what’s next on every level.
When we are aware of and connected to our purpose in life – the fact that we are constantly choosing the quality we bring and leave behind – responsibility and joy naturally follow. When we are responsible and joyful, we are inspired, not pushed or bullied, into making preparations for living and dying in a quality that is comprehensively vital, loving and respectful of the cycle we and every body is under.
The greatest preparation for death is our connection to who we truly are and the larger flow and timeless cycle of life we are a part of. Developing and deepening this connection each and every day returns us to understanding and appreciating that what comes next in life, including death, is something worth preparing for.
Adrienne H., Funeral Director, Australia