Intimations of Mortality Part 1: Death Song

Caravaggio - John the BaptistMany things in my life have made me think about death recently.  For starters, I work with people who are in their 70s and 80s.  I myself recently turned 30.  I’m realizing how short a jump it is from here to 50.  Then it’s just a hop skip and a jump to old age.  What am I doing with my life?  What have I done?  What will it mean, or matter?

These people whose paisley couches I’m invited to sit on, who tell me about their lives, their careers as engineers at Boeing, or primatologists at the big, shining research hospital in the West Hills, or housewives, or indigent gutter dwellers and swillers of mouthwash whose children are far away and who have been reduced to hobbling in a little circuit, kitchen, bathroom, bed, television; what are they telling me?  What are their lives telling me about how little time we have, and what is really important?

Our culture fears death.  Fears it like no other thing.  But death comes for all men.  I gave a the eulogy for my grandfather last winter, and someday sooner than I think a person I love will give mine.  He is coming for us all, Death, with his blade and his fire and his terrible horse.  How will we meet him?

Stories come down to us of men and women throughout the ages who have not feared death.  Martyrs, saints, heroines of all stripes.  Those who have not seen death as something to be warded off at all costs.  Who have not seen the prospect of death as something that the gods are concerned with.  This is a Christian view.  The Scriptures reveal a God who is not concerned primarily with whether His children live or die, but rather with how they live and how they die.  “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Amongst the stories men tell, there are many of warriors in particular, who, in their final moments, or in reflecting on the imminence thereof, are said to have spoken of death.  There is the legend of Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux warrior who is said to have stood up in his saddle before battle and screamed “Hokahe!  Le anpetu ki mat’e kin waste ktelo!”, which translates roughly to “Let’s go!  Today is a good day to die!” 

Tekamthi, the Shawnee leader better known to English speakers as Tecumseh, spoke elqouently about death at the end of his famous oration on life.

Live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.  Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.

Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
  Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.  Show respect to all people and bow to none. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and
 for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. 

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts 
are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes
 they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again
 in a different way.  Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Then there is Ragnar Lodbrok, the Viking chieftain who was executed by being thrown into a pit of vipers, and is said to have sung such a death song in his final moments.

It gladdens me to know that Odin makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Valhalla does not lament his death. I shall not enter Odin’s hall with words of fear upon my lips. The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting.  Eager am I to depart. The Disir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me, the Valkyries from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die.

I hope that when the last door draws near, I can walk through like a hero, singing on his way home.


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