The poet, Wendell Berry, once wrote:
“I almost understand,
I almost recognize as a friend
the great impertinence of beauty
that comes even to the dying,
even to the fallen, without reason
sweetening the air.”
In his last works, just before he died, Henri Nouwen began to speak of how the final task in life is to give one’s death to others. We are meant, he says, to give our lives for others, but we are also meant to give our deaths for them. Just as elders are meant to teach the young how to live they are also meant to teach them how to die. That’s the final lesson we are meant to give the young, to die in such a way that our deaths are our final blessing to them.
Nouwen’s words: “Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope. This is a crucial choice and we have to `work’ on that choice every day of our lives. Death does not have to be our final failure, our final defeat in the struggle of life, our unavoidable fate. If our deepest human desire is, indeed, to give ourselves to others, than we can make our death our final gift.”
What does this really mean? At every funeral we have some sense of it. We feel what we don’t understand. When someone we know dies, we are left with a feeling, a tone, a colour, something in the air, of either guilt or blessing. The feeling isn’t based so much upon whether the person died accidently or naturally, was young or old, or whether or not we were present to him or her at the time of death. It takes root rather in how that person lived and how he or she related to life in general, more so than how he or she related specifically to us. That’s part of the mystery of death. It releases a spirit.
Before he died, Jesus told his disciples that it was only after he was gone that they would be able to grasp what he really meant for them. That is true for everyone. Only after we have died will our spirits fully reveal themselves. And this works in two ways: If our spirits have been loving, death will reveal our real beauty (which, in this life, is always limited by wounds and shortcomings). Conversely, if our spirits, at the core, have been petty and bitter, our deaths will also reveal that. The death of a generous, gracious soul releases blessing and makes others feel free, just as the death of a bitter, clinging soul pours out accusation and makes others feel guilty.
How can I make my death a gift for others? By the way I live. If I live in bitterness and non-forgiveness, always full of accusation, then my death will pour those things out among my family and loved ones. That’s what people will feel at my funeral because that’s the air and colour that emanates from my soul, now made transparent. Conversely, if I live in graciousness, in admiration, in forgiveness, and am willing when it’s time to decrease so that others can increase then what will be poured out at my death is blessing. My death will mean new freedom and courage for those who knew me. They will be able to go on with their lives with less fear, less guilt, knowing that it is best for them that I go away and that, like Jesus, I am helping to prepare a place for them.
But this isn’t automatic, nor easy. It’s something we have to `work’ at, painfully, every day of our lives. And what do we have to work at? At blessing others, especially the young, at admiring their energy, beauty, and achievement without envy, bitterness, or cynicism. This involves, especially as we grow older, saying what John the Baptist said when Jesus appeared: “He must increase and I must decrease!” As we age, the real task of life and love is to continually hand over, without bitterness, regret, or envy, all the things that were once so much our own (power, attention, popularity, usefulness, turf of every sort). Part of this, the hardest part of all, is forgiveness. To exit gracefully, we have to first forgive others, God, and ourselves for the fact that our lives didn’t turn out the way they might have. That’s easier said than done.
Our deaths, like our lives, are either a source of blessing or frustration to those around us. Ultimately the choice is ours. The final task of life is to live in such a way that, when we die, our deaths, like our lives, sweeten rather than embitter the air.