In honour of the Day of the Dead (2 November) – a moving excerpt about death:
“In [the Mexican] tradition… people die three deaths. The first is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground… [T]he third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.”
That is Victor Landa, quoted by Oliver Burkeman in Burkeman’s terrific book The Antidote.
I think, as a culture, we would benefit from healthy rituals for celebrating the dead. It would be nice if, in New Zealand and Australia and elsewhere, we had cause to communally “toast those who have died – and death itself”.
Rather than be afraid of death, it would perhaps be better to be “familiar with death, [joke] about it, [caress] it, [sleep] with it, [celebrate] it”.
Unless you believe in an afterlife, Burkeman points out that “fearing being dead yourself makes no sense. Death spells the end of the experiencing subject, and thus the end of any capacity for experiencing the state we fear”.
Perhaps many of us don’t fear death per se – we instead “live with the dim fear that on our deathbeds we’ll come to regret how we spent our lives”.
Referring to the work of psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, Burkeman points out that “When you really face mortality, the ultimate and unavoidable worst-case scenario, everything changes. ‘All external expectations, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important’”.
On the Day of the Dead, I encourage you to think of the people you’ve known who have passed. Keep them alive in your memory. Celebrate their time on this earth.
In doing so, appreciate that you will one day join them. Embrace this, and resolve to live while you’re alive – and make a positive difference to the world you’ll leave behind.