“Over my dead body…”
“I’m here for a good time, not a long time…”
“Would you jump into my grave as quickly?”
You may have heard someone say those words in response to certain scenarios. It’s an acknowledgement of our own mortality.
It’s a reminder that we aren’t getting any younger. And, as the Southern Hemisphere descends into winter, southern hemisphere pagans recently celebrated Samhain (April 30 in the southern hemisphere; 31 October in the northern hemisphere. It’s the original Halloween). As the leaves on the trees wither and fall to the ground, the days get shorter, the nights longer and colder, nature gives us a stark reminder that nothing lasts forever, that certain things need to come to an end before we begin something new. It reminds us of the reality of death.
Samhain was/is the Celtic Festival of the Dead, a time during which deceased loved ones and ancestors are honoured and remembered. It is not so much a mourning of their passing, but a celebration of their lives.Think about it – you are alive because of your ancestors. Mexico has a similar festival, the Dia de Muertos.
Which brings us to the topic of this blog post. Yep, today’s pep talk is about this guy:
We dodge him, cheat him (and then sometimes follow through with a kick in the balls), we dread that one day (if we even acknowledge it), he will come beckoning at our door. And yet, we have become so divorced from Death that we look upon it as though death is something to be conquered, that we are invincible (News flash – we’re not invincible). And yet, when a loved one, be they human, canine, feline or otherwise, passes on, we are left with heartache, loss and grief in their wake. We are given the cold, harsh reminder of the permanency of death.
Which brings us to the old adage: “There are only two guarantees in life. Taxes, and Death.”
So, let’s explore humankind’s love-hate relationship with death.
The English language probably has almost as many slang terms for death as it does for sexual intercourse. Here is a clip from the movie Patch Adams, where Patch Adams (portrayed by Robin Williams) gives comfort to a patient who is dying of pancreatic cancer:
Rather than holding the view that the world became poorer on Williams’ passing, the world became richer because he lived. Williams left quite a legacy – and he will be fondly remembered as Mork from Mork and Mindy, not to mention the countless films in which he starred. Arguably, his most memorable moment would have to be his performance in Good Morning Vietnam. The manner of his passing also highlights the need for us to do more for mental health services – it was that dreaded black dog that robbed the world of a beautiful soul. To learn more, I recommend a visit to the website of the Black Dog Institute, which is a non-profit organisation that specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder.
The reminder of your own mortality still hasn’t sunk in yet…
Just be thankful those days are over.
Because this is such a complex topic, it will need to be explored in a series of blog posts, rather than a single one. So, here’s one more to drive home your own mortality:
Now that we’ve driven the point home, it’s time to think about what to do with the time that we’ve got, i.e. while we’re still alive. We also need to get our shit sorted out so that our worldly possessions are divvied out in accordance with our wishes. So, Chapter One of Memento Mori will be all about all the things to do before we die. Here is a list of inspirational quotes to get you going. When you’re done, let’s continue.
Get your affairs in order. Write a will. You’re probably thinking, “But I don’t own a house. I don’t need a will.” Do you have superannuation? Do you have a car? Are you a performing/literary/visual artist whose works are still earning you royalties? Do you have any specific instructions, e.g. cremation or burial, exclusion of specific people from making a claim on your estate, or you have your wishes as to how and where you wish to have your funeral service and wake? Do you have other valuable possessions, such as jewellery or musical instruments, that you wish to be passed down to any specific person? You need to put that in a will. There are DIY will kits available if you know what you want and understand the advice given in these kits. But, if there are any questions you have that aren’t answered in the DIY will kit, or you have complex arrangements (such as a testamentary trust for grandchildren), or if you have debts (such as a mortgage), you need to see a lawyer. A lawyer will be able to draft the will and make sure that it accords with your wishes, advise you on the consequences of making the will, explain the role of the executor appointed under the will, and to make sure that the will revokes any previous wills or codicils that you have made. The lawyer will also ensure that the will is properly executed and witnessed in accordance with the applicable laws to ensure its validity.
But, have you already made a will? If there are changes in your circumstances, such as marriage or divorce, then you need to update your will. Victorian law firm Slater & Gordon has a comprehensive overview of wills, probate and estates, which you can read here.
Is there anything you really, really want to do while you’re still alive? Write a bucket list. This list is limited only by your imagination. Remember, you’re never too old to try anything. Don’t think you’re good at something? Do it anyway, the time will pass regardless. This list below is not necessarily my bucket list, but an example of what a bucket list can look like:
- Drive the Great Ocean Road
- Learn a second language
- Travel and explore foreign lands
- Learn a new skill, e.g. photography, sewing
- master a musical instrument
- Be part of a TV studio audience
- Learn how to scuba dive/bungee jump etc
- Make a pilgrimage (e.g. Wacken Open Air if you are a heavy metal fan, Summernats or NASCAR if you are fond of cars or car racing)
Spend quality time with family and friends. Among the most common regrets of the dying, is that they wished they didn’t work so hard, and wished they had spent more time with family and friends. Remember the lyrics to the songs Puff the Magic Dragon and Cats in the Cradle? The former is about a little boy who lost the magick of childhood after he became a man and bearing the burdens of adulthood (not about drug use – go and read those lyrics again some time), and the latter is about a father who regrets not spending more time with his son, to quote the final verse: I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away, I called him up just the other day. I said “I’d like to see you, if you don’t mind”, he said “I’d love to Dad, if I can find the time. You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu, but it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad, it’s been sure nice talking to you.” When I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he grew up just like me, my boy was just like me…
Go and scrutinise the above picture of the Grim Reaper again. Apart from the scythe, which is his most notable attribute, his other attribute is the hourglass. See if you can find it in the picture. The hourglass serves as a reminder that time waits for no one, and that our time is finite.
Let go of the past. You are not your past. Are some people beyond salvation or redemption? Perhaps they are. Or maybe not. One of my good friends, who passed away in late 2014, was an ex-con, but he was a man who stood by his convictions, whatever the cost. Writing music became his outlet, his vehicle of expression. Which brings us to…
Be more creative. Creativity heals, creativity inspires, it keeps us out of trouble (we hope). Our modern society devalues creativity, dismissing it as folly. People who make a living in any creative arts (especially photographers and seamstresses, for example) have to fight tooth and nail to justify their rates for their craft. Memes such as this have become necessary to express the bugbears of the creative:
“But I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” I call bullshit. Everyone has the capacity to create. Some will take longer than others, and that’s okay. Hell, there was a time where I couldn’t even do so much as sew on a button. Still not convinced? Here’s a bit of inspiration. You’ve heard of a guitarist Steve Vai, right? Steve Vai has stated on the record that he was not a natural when he first began to learn the guitar, and practiced 11 hours a day to get better.
And here’s a select clip of Steve Vai in action:
You don’t have to create for the benefit of other people. You create for the benefit of YOU. Even if drawing stick figures on a restaurant napkin serves as a creative outlet, if it gives you satisfaction, that’s all that matters.
The next instalment of Memento Mori will explore death’s place in folklore through the ages, including folkoric tales of the afterlife and the undead (yes, that includes vampires).
To end this blog post, here is a shortlist of movies that deal with the topic of death and dying, in the context of this blog post: