“Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.”Irvin Yalom, Psychiatrist
I’ve started a new book, “From Here to Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty. She’s the author of two other books, the first of which I screamed through – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” To say I’m excited about this new treasure is mild. Mildly understating the facts. I am wildly tickled with her: her writing, and her thoughts about death. Dying. The dead. Our dead culture about the dead. I loved the first book and I am dying, pun intended, to delve into the second.
Those who have followed the last three years have figured out that I have struggled with the act of dying and death for a while. I’m open about the process, coupled with that later-in-life hormonal shift, that has made me at times wake up in the middle of the night, my heart racing, trying to figure out what the heck this is all about. It’s been strange, silly, and I feel like maybe all too common, this dread we all face in the darkness when death taps close to our personal abode. If you tell me that, as an American, you are not worried to fearful about death, you’re not telling me the whole story.
When I was about 15, I was terrified of dying. This was not a passing phase. This was real stuff of childhood nightmares. My grandmother had died the year before, leaving my family fragmented in their grief. My mother was beside herself, my father felt helpless, and I had no real idea of what this was about. Teenagers. We live forever, right? No one talked about death, or dying, or what they wanted. My parents appeared to talk to each other, about what they wanted, but they never talked with us children. It was as if talking about it made it real. For us, 15, 14, and 8, it wasn’t real – it could never happen to us in their minds, so why even discuss? There was no culture around dying or death at home.
At that age, all I wanted to do was just enjoy life. I remember climbing up on the roof with my friends, trying to glimpse the stars over a suburbian night. I’d stay out late in the summer and get into trouble for doing god-knows-what in my parent’s minds. Yet, this tinge of not-forever made me think. I distinctly remember sitting in the front yard, next to a flower bed, looking at the living and dying co-mingling. I thought, “there will be a day that I don’t breathe.” I took a deep breath and held it. I wanted to feel what that would feel like. I held my breath until I became lightheaded, and then swallowed air to avoid passing out. Oh no, this would not do. I realized I had no concept of death.
That same year, I was taking an English Skills for College class and we had to write a term paper. For what? Anything, our teacher told us. We have to be passionate about it, learn how to research and document. I chose Life After Death. I knew nothing but I wanted to know everything. What did the world believe happened? What felt right, and what didn’t? I had only a filmy thin Methodist upbringing, and barely understood the concepts of heaven and hell, as told to me by white, puritanical family members. Hell – bad people go there. Heaven – good people go there. Check. But…..what constituted either of those things? And what did science say? I wanted to find out what it meant to me to die and be dead. Of COURSE this was an existential crisis! My priestly little heart would have it no other way.
I read the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Going Forth By Day) Tibetan Book of the Dead (really, the “Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing”), everything by Elizabeth Kubler Ross (On Death and Dying), and Raymond Moody (Life after Life). I even delved into esoteric fiction, reading “What Dreams May Come” when it came out in 1978. I sat for hours on the floor of our local library, tucked away in the children’s section, reading books on Norse and Greek Mythology. I created note cards of quotes and references, and started to form an opinion, a budding opinion of what happens when we die.
I felt like I could breathe again.
The Adult’s Journey
As the years progressed, I tucked away my secret fears, knowing that I had an idea, a plan in my own head of what could or would happen when I died. I hadn’t really expressed it to many people. In fact, probably no one at all outside of that term paper in 1978. (My teacher, Mr. Curran, asked to keep the paper. I said yes. All these years later, I wish I would have said no, so I could see how my ideas have evolved.) Then came my father’s parents and his turn at taking care of them. I was living far enough away that I infrequently came to visit my grandparents when they moved in with my father. The last time I saw my grandmother, she cried when I hugged her and she said she wanted to die. I shooshed her and told her, no, she didn’t. I was 29. Of course I would say that. I couldn’t conceive of anything different.
I continued on the quest of the exploration of the existential. From Satanism and Nihilism, to Plato and Steiner, I journeyed to find the end. Our end. Over the course of living in Germany and seeking soaring Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque churches. I found St. Ursula’s Ossuary in Dusseldorf, stacks and rows of bones embedded into walls and ceilings. I went to the tombs all over Europe and listened to speakers talk of all kinds of death and afterlife. When I came back to America, tired, worn out, and on the brink of divorce, I found Freemasonry.
I’d say that most Freemasons do not shy away from death. They encourage one another to figure out their own meaning to the universe, life, death, and all the work in between. Philosophers and scientists, leaders and servers, Freemasons explore the entire embracing idea of what it means to be human. It’s not a journey for the faint-hearted nor for those who wiggle away from truth and Truth. We all get spoken to, if we have the ears to listen. Death is the reason we live; it is the impetus behind our creative aspects. We desire to leave the world better than we found it and if we had no death, we would have no impetus to create. We serve. We work. We cherish the life we have to give to others because it will be gone before we know it. At least, that is what I come to conclude from my Freemasonic journey.
So, now I’m back to gobbling up books and reading as much as I can. On a recent Freakonomics episode, they were doing the February Book of the Month: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. They interviewed this author on her book, her life, and what death and dying mean in the 21st Century. I found I had left things behind that I didn’t want to leave. I eagerly ordered her book, actually all three of them, and started gorging on her ideas surrounding death. It rekindled that desire to know, to see, to form deeper opinions on living and dying. I joined her Order of the Good Death and am eager to support such a good cause. If I could help anyone else escape the childhood of cultureless dying, I was and am all for it. It’s made me want to get my own affairs in better order. Most of all, it’s given me permission again to construct what I want for myself, my family, my friends, and my eternity. Time to build my own Ars Moriendi.
While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.Leonardo Da Vinci