Death is the ultimate yard stick. If there is anything that can measure the value of our brief personal existence, it is when we fold back into the totality. Death is the supreme perspective and although its lessons are unwelcome and painful we all have to learn them sooner or later.
I've been getting a lot of lessons from death recently, although I'm not sure I'm actually any wiser. The most recent was at the funeral of Jan Abel – my good friend's mother, herself a friend I should say. I listened to the service, to the memorials and recollections and they made a vivid impression on my mind. She was a strong, courageous and spirited woman, an adventurer who, in her youth, had ridden a white horse across the Sahara. Yet I imagined that even in her final moments those days had felt to her like yesterday, just as my own misspent youth feels to me today.
The generations, it struck me, come in waves both rapid and relentless. The rolling rhythms of life that see us change from babes, to children, to young adults full of life and trouble, to pillars of our families, then to wise old heads and death go so quickly that we barely have time to figure out the game before its over. Those waves began long before we got here and will continue long after we have passed away and it is those waves, not the water itself, that defines the human experience. We may drive cars instead of walk and we may play playstation instead of cards but the things that matter the most remain unchanged, making a mockery of our egos and our status.
Does anything remain of us after we die? We can speculate on whether the soul lives on or simply dissolves back into the energy of the universe but to argue about it is pointless. We will all know soon enough. We can build religions around our hopes and desires in an attempt to find a solution to death, but there is no solution, there is only acceptance.
We do know that we live on in a sense, in the memories of the living and in the coiled strands of DNA carried by our descendants. When I listened to the eulogies for Jan and the memories that people cherished it was clear that they were about who she was, not what she had. They spoke of the love she showed to others – not just her family and friends but through her work with the Child Poverty Action Group. Her love lives on in those touched by it, a much preferable form of immortality to cryonics
I don't imagine that Jan had many regrets about her life. She made mistakes, as we all do, and had done what she could to repair the damage. She was blessed to see her granddaughter born, to see the new wave begin its rise and rush towards the shore. I imagine that as she looked back upon her life, with death at her shoulder, she was pretty content.
Not all people are, of course. Perhaps the famous mid life crisis comes from suddenly being confronted with the lessons of death, as we begin to bury our parents and friends. In the East this time of life is traditionally associated with taking up a spiritual practise. In the west, where aging and death is often seen as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a part of life to be accepted, it more often takes the form of an attempt to flee death's approach. Men in particular are reknowned for trying to rejuvenate the plum tree by cutting off all the branches, but death cannot be outrun. Death is not a competitor, but a counsellor.
(from my Waikato Times column 9/7/10)