Death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life - yet many of us do everything we can to delay, disregard and deny it. However, getting more comfortable with the reality of death can both help us spend our time more wisely and better appreciate what’s truly important in life.
It’s said that to remind himself of the shortness of life, the Italian saint Charles Borromeo kept a human skull on a little table in his house. That might be a bit too much for us today, but the truth is many of us don’t want to think about the fact that one day we will die.
And yet, the reality is that death can happen to any one of us at any time. Fr Neil McNicholas, author of A Catholic Approach to Dying, says: “The thought that ‘each day you awaken could be the last you have’ could sound very depressing, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
“What it means is that the more comfortable we become with the reality of death, and the less we deny it, the better and more positively attuned we will be to the day-to-day things that remind us of our mortality.”
He gives an example: “What kind of send-off do we give our children and spouses when they, or we, leave home in the morning for school or work? Could we, or they, live with the memory of the last thing that was said or done in the tragic event that it actually was the last thing?”
The fact is, an awareness of our mortality can lead us to behave differently in the here and now. In the Middle Ages, the Black Death claimed the lives of about a third of the entire population of Europe. As a result, the catchphrase ‘memento mori’ (remember death) became very well-known and deeply shaped the way people lived their lives.
The popular medieval play Everyman, for example, reminded everyone that the only thing that will be of any value at the end of life are good deeds.
Sister Anne Donockley, an Augustinian nun from Cumbria, died of a heart condition in April 2016. Towards the end of her life, she reflected on the importance of living well:
“I once saw something where it mentioned that on a coffin there are two dates; the date of your birth, the date of your death and there is a little dash in between the two – the hyphen. The most important of those three things on the coffin is actually the hyphen, representing your life between birth and death.”
She went on: “I think there is a way of living that prepares you for death. It’s in the sense that you try to do good, to care about people and that you’re focused on others. Then I think you are preparing for death throughout life, really.”
Another of our major issues with accepting death is that for many of us, it’s no longer something that touches our lives, day-to-day.
Even just 100 years ago, death was everywhere. Around 1 in 10 people died in childhood. Life expectancy was just 46 for men and 50 for women. And people tended to die at home – with their families – rather than in hospital. Thanks to improvements in public health over the past century, however, we rarely stare death in the face any more.
There is something to be said, therefore, for getting re-acquainted with death and dying. One of the best ways to do this is to get closer to the process by becoming more involved in the work of a local hospice.
Hospices rely on volunteers to help with their valuable work in caring for the dying. Volunteers undertake a range of tasks, such as serving meals to patients, helping with support groups, driving people to appointments or collecting prescriptions.
If you would like to help, there will probably be a structured application and training process. If you are short on time, there are other ways you might get involved in supporting your local hospice.
Whatever your level of involvement, tuning in to the work of a local hospice is a great way to both do something good for the community and become more accustomed to dying at the same time.
There is, however, a more fundamental reason that we might have trouble coming to terms with death. Within the Christian tradition, death is not considered to be part of God’s original plan. “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity”, says the biblical book of Wisdom (2:23).
Rather, death is understood to be a result of sin. Seen from this perspective, it’s not surprising that we might have such issues with death. If we were designed for immortality, then it’s only natural for us to fear death – and to have a strong will to live on.
Pope Francis has spoken about this very instinct. He said: “If it is understood as the end of everything, death frightens us, it terrifies us, it becomes a threat that shatters every dream, every promise, it severs every relationship and interrupts every journey.”
Yet he added: “If we look at the most painful moments of our lives, when we have lost a loved one — our parents, a brother, a sister, a spouse, a child, a friend. We realize that even amid the tragedy of loss, even when torn by separation, the conviction arises in the heart that everything cannot be over, that the good given and received has not been pointless. There is a powerful instinct within us which tells us that our lives do not end with death.”
The 18th century saint, Alphonsus Liguori, wrote a whole book about preparing for death.
He said: “It is certain that we shall die; but the time of death is uncertain. God has already fixed the year, the month, the day, the hour, and the moment when you and I are to leave this earth and go into eternity; but the time is unknown to us. All know that they must die: but the misfortune is, that many view death at such a distance, that they lose sight of it.”