How to Die

Categories: Features

I’ve been thinking about death a lot, lately. The pandemic, societal violence, and civil unrest have given ample occasion. Last year, I came to possess a replica of a skull, which now sits on my desk. From time to time I look at it while I study. Before bed, I take it in my hands and think of my own death—so inescapable, the remembrance of which has so frequently escaped me. I’ve found this makes my days richer, more productive, and ultimately more peaceful, as I end each of them entrusting myself to God and asking of him the gift of final perseverance. Rarely did I think about death growing up; little in our culture encourages us to confront death reflectively, beyond platitudinous injunctions to not let life “pass us by” (usually meaning, “Have various and enriching experiences!”) or to “do something” with our lives (usually meaning, “Leave a lasting legacy” or “Help people”). These themselves are good and have a place, but none of them teach us about death. Often, they become subtler ways of avoiding such thoughts—filling up our time with travel, personal projects, and service, which are surely better than idleness, but still don’t face the problem—the mystery—of death.

Philosophy has been said to be preparation for death, a way of learning how to die well. Even with the insights of philosophy, a further problem remains: knowing how to do something is a practical matter, even knowing how to die. To learn how, we need to do it, or learn from someone who has, but death remains that “undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns,” as Hamlet puts it. Who will teach us about death? As the poet Franz Wright says in his poem “On Earth”:

How does one go
about dying?
Who on earth
is going to teach me—

The world
is filled with people
who have never died.

No one on earth, it would seem, can teach us how to die.

In truth, we have such a teacher. Wright begins his poem: “Resurrection of the little apple tree outside / my window”—Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, teaches us how to die. Not to live a “full life” before it comes, but to empty ourselves out of love for others (even enemies!) and obedience to the Father, even embracing that from which our nature recoils or forgiving those who do not “deserve” our forgiveness. The meaning of Christ’s death is love, and this must be the meaning of our deaths, as well: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). This is no platitude simply telling us to put others before ourselves. It is the Spirit commanding us to consciously imitate the Lord’s kenotic love in leaving nothing of ourselves ungiven. Our death is merely the last and greatest gift we have to give—one we have to relinquish in any case. Because our time here is limited we should spend it loving as he loved, laying down our lives for others, and learning how to die.

Br. Columban Mary Hall, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE