November is the month traditionally dedicated to the memory of the dead. 1st November, All Saints’ Day happens to be my birthday. It always fell during the Diwali Holidays in Mumbai. So I do not remember ever going to school on that day. I used to be a bit annoyed when at 12 noon on that day my mother would gather us all together and make us recite all the 15 decades of the Rosary for the Dead. The indulgences were said to be applicable to the Holy Souls from 12 noon on the 1 Nov. and the whole of 2nd Nov. One precious hour of my birthday wasted – or so I mused, when I was a child.
It is interesting to hear how we usually speak of death. When I was around 4 years old, I found my mother crying one day. To see our parents (grown-ups) cry was a rarest of the rare phenomenon. The lady next door sat by her. She told me that my mother had ‘lost’ her brother. When the lady moved away, I whispered to my Mum: Don’t cry Mummy, they will ‘find’ him.
Worse still when someone says: ‘He is no more!’ Gosh! So, what happened to him? Just dissolved into thin air? Another way of putting it is: “He has passed away!” Where exactly is that ‘away’?
I like better what we sometimes hear: ‘He has passed on!’ Or, He has moved on! Somewhat like a graduation. One phase of life is over so that another may begin. I heard this in Africa where there are so many young people dying of AIDS. Death comes as a relief after a long and painful illness. In one of the schools we have for girls, they do not have an ex-students’ Association, because there is hardly anyone left, five years after they leave us!
Most people have a great fear of death. Perhaps it is a consequence of our instinctual sense of self-preservation, our survival instinct, our clinging to life. Death seems to be a ‘losing’ of life and all that is familiar to us. It is a fear of the unknown. No one has returned to tell us what they have found on the other side … if there is an ‘other’ side! The fear of the unknown again!
Then there is the fear of the possible suffering entailed, the dread of being alone and helpless, the fear of separation from loved ones … someone even worded it poetically as the terror of being left alone in the grave when everyone will leave, after the funeral!
It is good for us to think of death sometimes. Oh, yes, we do! But it is usually about someone else dying. We seldom think of our own ‘moving on’ as a certainty. We may consider “If I die…”, as if we have a choice! But we hardly ever think of it as a certainty; “when I die…”
I think that God is really a doting Father, in that He keeps the time and circumstances of our death a “top secret”, so that we may live in full throttle till the very last moment. If we knew for certain the day and place of our death in advance, we would probably live in such dread, that all the time still left to us would be robbed of its vitality and joy. We would live like a Lazarus, all dressed up for his funeral, not coming out of his tomb, but frozen and dreading the moment when he would be asked to march on.
I look at death this way: I believe that God is our loving and doting father. As an earthly father waits to take a photograph of his child when the child is at its charming best… so God takes us when we are at our best. He is not a policeman, just waiting to catch us when we are wrong. He gives us time to right that wrong! He is not here to ‘condemn’ us, but has taken all the trouble to ‘save’ us.
Death is our second ‘birth’. A child in the womb is happy and care-free, swimming to its heart’s content. But then, as it grows, the space within becomes stifling, confining. The child becomes uncomfortable, too big for that restricted area. The natural birth process begins, and the babe comes out to a wider world, full of new possibilities. Our earthly existence, satisfying though it might seem, is not without its worries and pain. When we reach the threshold of pain, when we can take it no longer or are just too enfeebled by the weight of years, God comes in as the charming liberator, luring us to a fuller, eternal existence. To be home with Him, never to be ever separated again! What glory! What freedom! What unsurpassable joy!
The pages of the New Testament are filled with this hope, this light, this glowing warmth. Some say that religion – all religions – are a promise of a ‘pie in the sky’. And they ask: What if, after striving to fulfill every dictate of religion, after years of ‘faithful’ adherence, at death we find that it was all a hoax, just a yawning void, and that there really isn’t anything beyond? Would life not have been just a pitiable waste of an opportunity to enjoy oneself, to have a good time … to hell with the rest? … Well, in that case there would not be a hell either! Nor a heaven!
Even if … yes even if … there was nothing beyond … I think it would still be a reward in itself to live by one’s conscience, to strive for the pure, the good, the beautiful! The aura of goodness is an exhilarating experience … a divine bliss. It raises us over the mundane and makes us sensitive to the ethereal, to the magical world of a creation saturated with the presence of its Maker.
So Jesus says: Be prepared, like the wise virgins, for you do not know the day, nor the hour.
St Magdalene of Canossa used to exhort her Sisters: “Give things the weight you would give them one hour after your death.” A great tool to regain our equilibrium, when we tend to drown in a cup-full of trouble. On another occasion she said: “If you live detached from everything and everybody, natural death will cost you nothing.”
So, we could sing out with St Paul: O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?
I end with a poem I once came across.
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone, from the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth … and spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all was the ‘dash’ between those years.
For that dash represents all the time that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own, the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our ‘dash.’
So, think about this long and hard. Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left, that can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand the way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger, and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special ‘dash’ might only last a little while.
So, when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say, about how you spent YOUR ‘dash’?
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