Is thinking about your own death good for you?
I love graveyards, especially the beautiful and historic ones I’ve been in this week. I spent the past week in Boston with a group of teenagers on a spiritual pilgrimage. Every day, we visit historic and religious sites, and almost every day, we find ourselves in a graveyard. At the end of the day, as we circle up and reflect on what we’ve experienced, I have been surprised at how often their favorite place of the day was a graveyard. They talk about the beauty of the place, the connection they feel to those buried there, and how being in the presence of their graves humanizes figures who can seem larger than life.
This week, as I do almost once every year, I stood at the grave of one of my heroes, Henry David Thoreau. His headstone is small and humble. It reads simply, “Henry.” The students and I talked about this famous man’s impact on our understanding of nature, simplicity, spiritual reflection, and civil disobedience. But in the presence of his grave, we also talked about what he loved and lost. His brother John was his best friend. He wrote at length about one of the best trips of his life, when he and John canoed up the Concord and Merrimack rivers. The tent sheet they slept under was the same they used to sail the river in their boat. After his brother contracted tetanus, he died in Thoreau’s arms. The impact of the loss was deep and severe. This loss is part of what led to his famous 2-year experiment at Walden Pond.
When Thoreau himself came to the end of his life at age 44 from tuberculosis, his friends and family said they had never seen someone so comfortable with approaching their own death. He was calm in the face of his mortality and wrote that he wanted to be able to give his own life back to the earth as gently and gracefully as the trees give their leaves in the fall. The last sentence he spoke was, “Now comes good sailing.” Perhaps he was off to join his brother again on another adventure down the river.
I want to be as prepared as Henry was when the end of my life arrives, and I think being in graveyards helps. It isn’t being in the physical graveyard that matters, but rather the requirement to confront mortality that makes the difference. This is something that can happen anywhere and any day of our lives.
When I see the headstones with names of parents and children on them, people will full and real lives whose bodies are given back to the earth, I remember that mine will be to. Mine, and everyone I know and love. Mine, and all peoples. I feel grateful, small in the best way, and more able to recognize that the life I have is precious.
As far as the science is concerned, the jury is still out on whether reflecting on our own deaths is “good” for us or not.
There is a lot of social science that studies what is called “mortality salience.” This is the scientific term for reflection on the reality that you will die. Many of the studies suggest that people who reflect on their own death cling more strongly to their current beliefs and desire to be with people more like them. Some research shows that thinking about your own death can even lead you to support your own moral code by punishing more strongly those who act outside of it. In one famous study, judges who were asked to think about their own death ended up setting hypothetical bail for prostitutes at nine times the amount of judges who didn’t reflect on death.
There is also plenty of research, though, that shows the upside of knowing you will die. Near death experiences, illness and fragility, and just reflecting on the finitude of our lives can also have the effect of making us more grateful for the life we have in meaningful ways.
I know what the graveyard does for me. The physical and symbolic one.
It makes me remember that this will not last forever, far from it. When I remember that my life is temporary, it moves me to experience all that I can while I am still alive. It urges me to move beyond fear and limitations, to summon courage and experience joy and depth right now.
The presence of death softens the edges of life for me. It reminds me that all people will die, not just me. The people I’m angry at, the ones I despise, the people I dearly love. Everyone, and everything, is temporary and precious. Every wrong that has been done to me, every wrong I have committed towards others, will fall back into the earth, smoothed with time. It gives me grace and asks that I give it back.
And finally, in the best of moments, the reminder of death whispers back to me clearly, “This is okay. This is good.” Death is not something I want, but it isn’t something we have to fear, either. In the presence of those who have already gone, I feel myself part of something bigger, something that holds me, you, and all creation. It says that we are at home on this earth, even if just for a while.
What does the reminder of mortality do for you?
I hope to live, and to prepare so that I can approach the end of my life as gently as Henry did. I hope to enjoy this life and know so much joy. I hope to give love and goodness, experience grace, and rest my own body back into the earth like the leaves falling from the trees. When it is over, I also hope to say, “Now comes good sailing.”