Reflections on Death–and a Poem

I have been thinking about death this January.  Winter is the season for it, I suppose–the still barrenness of the ice and the shroud of the snow; but there also have been some significant deaths this past month in the larger communities of which John and I are a part, and there are those who are dying, too–all of us, really–slowly or quickly, but inexorable all the same, as death comes for us all, sooner or later.

I guess what presents itself to me as most signficant in all this, though, is not the loss and the grief, but the gratitude I feel for the Christian faith and hope I have that death is not the end; that there is a loving God that carries us through from life to life, who walks with all of us down the dark corridor, making sure that not only are we not alone when the time comes, but those whom we leave behind are not alone either:  that in Christ we all are still connected over time; and that in eternity, we all will be together again.

For me, one of the best things about this belief is not just the comfort it provides at the end of life, but how it can transform our living right now.  The Christian belief in the resurrection means that we can live without compulsion, without having to worry about securing a legacy–our own immortality; and we can live without anxiety, without having to wonder if, in the end, we will have done enough, or been enough.  Faith in the resurrection means we can live boldly, freely, confidently; embracing the world passionately, loving each other radically.  It means, as Mary Oliver’s poem suggests, that we can live in joy and wonder moment to moment, hopeful to the end about what is coming next.

Poem: “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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