Sufi master Uwais was asked "How do you feel?" He replied, "Like one who has risen in the morning and does not know if he will be dead in the evening." His puzzled inquirer responded "But this is the situation of all men." Uwais replied "Yes, but how many of them feel it?"
It was a routine Sunday afternoon visit to my 98-year-old mum in her care home. She was wide awake when I arrived and recognised me immediately. That gave me a jolt. It is unusual these days, when her memory is itself a thing of the past. This was a rare lucid day. I explained that my sister would visit the next day. "Good" said my Mum. I then mentioned that her grandson and family would be visiting at the weekend. "I'll be gone by then" she said, in a matter-of-fact way. Another time, but for her lucidity, I may not have noticed. But now, the words affected me: was she foreseeing her death? What if this was to be our last meeting? I was reminded that the last meeting will come, without fail. I told her I loved her and that she'd been a great Mum: caring but always giving me freedom to be myself. I reflected aloud that she'd had a good, long and interesting life. I asked if she was afraid to die. "No". Though spoken with a trace of hesitation. (Fair enough!) We sat together as usual, reading poems and looking at pictures. The time for me to leave approached as a carer arrived to take her to supper. Should I stay longer this time? But hanging on did not feel right. We went through our usual parting ritual, in which we blow each other exaggerated kisses.
"I'll be gone by then." Were her words a prediction or a random comment? Either way, they stirred me. I recognise that she is near the end of her life. But the prospect of her actually departing felt quite different. It aroused me, as if doubly alive, knowing that every moment mattered - though not in a 'getting things done' way. By contrast, my usual consciousness seemed a kind of dull sleep-walking. Any reminder of mortality - especially of someone close, is also a reminder of one's own mortality. A nudge to the tacit assumption that “surely death won’t happen to me”. A vivid sense of the finite nature of life puts a revitalising spin on things. It seems that awareness of death brings us more fully alive.
But within a few days, that added aliveness had begun to fade. I visited her again and she was her usual self. I felt rather foolish to have taken her words so seriously. Yet I missed that vibrant sense of urgency! I did not want to lapse into my habitual state of taking life for granted. But it is hard to sustain that vividness, even when I can see how beneficial it is. How it helps me to take in the beauty around me and to savour the fleeting moments of which my life is made.
As an art student, I studied a particular kind of still life painting known as ‘memento mori’, 'remember we must die'. The intention was to spur viewers to remember their own mortality through the inclusion of a skull, hour-glass or soon-to-be withered flower. In the closely related tradition of 'vanitas' paintings, objects suggesting the transience of life sat alongside symbols of the emptiness of worldly pleasures and goods: a wineglass, vanity mirror or carnival mask.
Contemplation on death and dying has been recommended by spiritual traditions of both East and West. And it can be surprising how positive the effect can be. Contemporary research confirms this. When people think of their mortality, they become grateful for what they have in their lives. But if reflecting on death makes you anxious or depressed then do not continue the practice.
Here are some of the findings from a study looking at the practice of 'memento mori':
“In a world consumed with expanding the length of our lives, cultivating a more intimate familiarity with death can help us expand the metaphoric width and depth of our lives as well. We make our lives wider when we fill them with vitality and gusto – expanding the breadth of the pleasurable experiences that life has to offer while blasting us out of our autopilot tendencies. We make our lives deeper when we infuse them with meaning and purpose – elevating ourselves out of empty or mundane existences into lives that feel like they matter."
Wellman, Jodi 2020
Yet if you mention reflecting on death, others may chide you for being morbid. Death is taboo in our society. The first time I attended a funeral as a child I never saw the body of my uncle, as is usual in our culture. I wondered what was being hidden from me in that closed coffin. The first time I saw a dead body, in my twenties, the occasion felt significant. This was not someone I had known well. In the absence of any emotional attachment, I was surprised by how ordinary the experience was. Death in animals had been a familiar sight throughout my life, from insects and road kill to loved pets. Death is not unusual - it is the most natural thing in the world.
There are different ways to contemplate mortality. We can notice change in the world around us: how cycles of life and death are constantly played out in nature. We can look around and consider what will remain after our death. This building will house other people. That young tree will have grown to maturity. The world will (incredibly!) carry on without us.
Or you may like to try this short reflection on death - and life:
Imagine that you are at the end of your life, reflecting on what you have valued the most as you look back. There are people with you and you are moved the share with them your thoughts and, perhaps, advice. What might you say to them?* At the end of this blog I'll come back to the words of advice that came to me as I imagined this deathbed scene.
First, I’d like to draw out another rich source for contemplation on mortality: the power of poetry. John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, written two years before his death at 25, lays bare his struggles and moments of acceptance with poignancy and power. This celebrated poet who channeled ‘beauty and truth’ like no other was spurred by the certainty of his mortality.
Maybe you prefer something more contemporary. Mary Oliver’s inspirational ‘When Death Comes’ anticipates the moment of her passing, building to an aspiration for life:
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
And I’d like to share here a personal favourite. Written in the 8th Century CE, the words of Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai ring as true today as they no doubt did in his lifetime. In this excerpt of his ‘Letter to a Nobleman in Kyoto’ the poet reveals the beauty of impermanence in the flowing water of the of the spring - and progresses to the transitoriness of every human life:
Have you not seen, O have you not seen,
The water gushing up in the divine spring of the garden?
No sooner does it arise than it flows away forever:
Thousands of shining lines flow as they come forth,
Flowing, flowing, flowing into an unfathomable abyss;
Turning, whirling again, they flow on forever,
And no one knows where they will stop.
Have you not seen, O have you not seen,
That billions have lived in China, in Japan,
None have been immortal, from time immemorial:
Ancient sage kings or tyrants, good subjects or bad,
Fair ladies and homely – who could enjoy eternal youth?
Noble men and lowly alike, without exception, die away;
They all have died, reduced to dust and ashes;
The singing halls and dancing stages have become the abodes of foxes.
Transient as dreams, bubbles or lightning, all are perpetual travellers.
Have you not seen, O have you not seen,
This has been man’s fate, how can you alone live forever?
Keats, Oliver and Kukai all savour the beauty of this world. And its transience.
But let us return to my Mum's story. The family visit went ahead as planned and she is still with us. At least, for now. She enjoyed seeing her great granddaughter. It seems that there is a resonance between the very young and the very old.
And I am still here too! Reminding myself to live each day to the full. And, as best I can, to take my own imagined 'deathbed' advice:
"Be open to whatever comes your way. And to engage fully, with your whole heart."
*This reflection was inspired by Robert Marx, co-founder of the Sussex Mindfulness Centre.