Learn how to die, learn how to live

I heard a preacher once share that he much preferred conducting funerals than weddings. It sounded kind of crazy at the time, but I think I’m beginning to understand.

I went to a funeral recently. My great uncle Ben, after a long, full life, passed away. The funeral itself was a rich celebration of a life well-lived, with many laughs, tears, and stories shared by those closest to him.

Uncle Ben lived no extraordinary life by our culture’s standards. No letters behind his name, no great riches or fame.

But you had only to look around the small crowd that gathered to remember his life to realize that this humble man must have done something right. Loved by those close to him, remembered for his generosity and kindness.

I remember him for his warm welcome every time we visited, the twinkle in his eye, the secret joke that gave itself away by the hint of a smile toying at the edge of his lips.

The beauty of funerals is how they force our focus on the end awaiting us all. They’re uncomfortable, awkward, painful, but good in the deepest sense of the word.

“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

Tuesdays with Morrie is the “final thesis” of a college professor approaching the end of his life in a losing battle with ALS. Through the recorded weekly meetings with a dear former student, Morrie Schwartz generously shares his reflections on a life well-lived.

Something about nearing death brings all of life into incredible focus. Even as his faculties slowly fail him, Morrie is able to show the utmost love and compassion towards those around him, proving his summation of the goal of life, “to learn how to give out love, and let it come in.”

I’ve never had a near-death experience.

You hear of people who have near-death experiences, who feel like they’ve been given a second lease on life. Some make drastic changes to their lifestyles as their priorities suddenly become crystal clear.

Maybe I’m lucky, maybe you are too. But what if we could skip that and live now with that kind of perspective on life?

What kind of old person do you want to be? Who do you want showing up to your funeral? What do you want them to say about you? Does it take a brush with death to learn to appreciate this one life we’ve been given?

Death makes a mockery of all the things we chase after most days, collecting trinkets, storing up bitterness, falling asleep to the glow of our shiny devices. Death helps us see, helps us appreciate each day and each person as the gift they are.

Mary Oliver’s poem, gives a beautiful perspective for these moments, and leaves us hanging with the question that can shape how we live today:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?