One of my favorite things in Montreal is to walk up the Mt. Royal with a good friend, see the city skyline (the picture on the main page of the blog), then walk down on the other side, where the cemetery is. One day, passing by that place, I asked a friend of mine if she liked cemeteries. She said yes, because they’re beautiful, but she implied that she would still rather not have them — people shouldn’t have things holding them back from going on with life.
For her, monuments for the deceased held people back. She’s not the only one who thinks like that.
On my side, I like cemeteries. I’m not a goth (I like some industrial rock but that’s the closest I get), and I’m hopefully not what you would call a morbid kind of person, but I have a really deep appreciation for the thought and reality of death. Why? Facing death is usually where we can discover life. Death begs us the question: Are you living like the mortal you are, or do you ignore your mortality and pretend you’re immortal?
My favorite book in the bible is Ecclesiastes, where allegedly the wise Solomon writes down a meditation on the purpose of life. In light of death, he concludes that most things are purposeless, vain, because death makes them all null. The rich and the poor go to the grave together, the hard worker and the leech, the wise and the fool, they all return to dust. Solomon’s final council is that we should simply live the vain life God gave us. He repeats throughout the book that we should enjoy the time we have, work with something we like, eat and drink the fruit of our labor, and enjoy life with someone we love by our side. Acknowledge that God will judge your actions, and live. That’s really all there is to it. He says that even his wisdom is vain, because the wise often claim that they “got it” what life is about, but really they don’t, they never do. It’s sort of a liberating despair.
I am reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a Buddhist text describing what a person sees during the bardo experience, the intermediate space between their moment of death and their next life in this or another plane. The moment of decision where the person will come to terms with his vices and virtues, perhaps the closest thing to judgement in the Buddhist traditions. The lostness one feels after death. The tradition is that a monk will recite the book to someone who is dying, and will keep doing so for a few days after the person is dead, to guide them in the other side during the bardo. What I like about it is that they admit that the dead person may indeed be gone and communication with the dead not be possible, but the real purpose of the tradition is that while the monk recites the book to the corpse, he really is reciting it to himself. In facing death, the monk is learning about his own life, and about the countless bardo moments he goes through in life. With the dead, the monk learns to live.
Nowadays we’re too busy to ever stop, we’re too busy to mourn the dead. Not just dead people, or dead pets even, but dead relationships, dead hopes, dead dreams. Life must go on, right?
Not the same way.
Reading this short meditation by Solomon, I ask myself if I really am taking my time to live every moment of my life, or if I am rushing through life trying to get only the nice-feeling experiences:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
…Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. …As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”