Jim Curry, a now-retired Episcopal bishop in Connecticut, told a story about attending a Good Friday service some years ago at a church in Mozambique. It was conducted as a burial service for Jesus, complete with a black-draped coffin that was brought down the center aisle. The lid was removed, and the priest urged the congregation to come forward to pay their respects to the Christ who had died and would soon be raised from the dead. Bishop Curry came forward with the rest. He looked into the coffin and was momentarily startled by what he saw. “I saw myself in there,” he said. “There was a mirror in the bottom of the coffin.”
Few of us have the opportunity to reflect so dramatically on our own mortality. Abraham Lincoln had a dream in which he saw himself lying in state in the White House shortly before his assassination. Although he tried to make light of his dream, the aide who later related the story indicated that Lincoln was deeply disturbed by it. “Our own death is indeed unimaginable,” Freud once said, “and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators.” Goethe expressed similar sentiments, but in marked contrast to Freud concluded that our very inability to imagine the cessation of life and thought was itself proof of our immortality.
Immortality is the stock-in-trade of most religious faiths. Their common tenet is that although people die, they don’t stay dead. The popular belief is that people die and go to heaven (or hell, as the case may be). For Christians, there is a physical resurrection of the dead and a final judgment. If you are a Hindu, you live and die many times. Buddhists also believe in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, with this twist: they do not believe in an eternal soul. Even some quantum physicists – a group not noted for religious fervor – have devised a thought experiment that enables one to achieve a kind of immortality in a parallel universe.
As far as immortality is concerned, I think we are getting ahead of ourselves. There is the small matter of our dying to attend to first – the part we want to skip because it is unimaginable. It is said that victorious Roman generals parading through that city were followed by a slave who whispered in their ear, “Memento mori,“ or “Remember you will die.” This was a reminder to savor the moment, because it wouldn’t last. In the Christian era, memento mori served as a warning not to get caught up in the fleeting pleasures of this world but to conduct oneself always with an eye toward eternity. In the words of the King James Bible, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
Whether you savor the moment or shun the fleeting pleasures of this world, you still wind up dead. Every religious tradition asks you to meditate deeply upon that fact. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness have little choice in the matter. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five emotional stages to the prospect of one’s own dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s not clear how many people ever work their way past denial to the final stage, but there are some benefits. If nothing else, once you’ve gotten your dying out of the way, you can really start to live.
Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865
Sigmund Freud, Our Attitude Towards Death
Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe