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Reclaiming Death as an Honoured Part of Life

Memento Mori: “Remember, Thou art Mortal”

Written by Nicola Finch and originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Green Gazette.

In many respects, our new reality feels like a return to an old way of being with a slower, gentler focus on family and community and on the world under our feet—the natural, physical world. We have seen a swift shift back to basics, working with our hands, growing and preparing our own food, mending our own clothes, offering what we have to those who need it, reaching out with our hearts, and pressing in on what really matters.

We are being encouraged to stay home. We are being asked to limit gatherings to no more than 50 well-spaced people and to keep our small get togethers to no more than six. We are expected to avoid crowds and encouraged to meet out of doors whenever possible. From what I’ve seen in our own community, we have all been doing everything we can to be caring, helpful, and compassionate.

And we have been brought face to face with death. I wager that every one of us has had a memento mori moment: “remember, thou art mortal”. It is a humbling thing to sit with death, real or imagined. We have watched whole cities succumb to our worst nightmares: loved ones dying alone in nursing homes and ICUs, bodies stacked in refrigerated trailers, funerals and memorials postponed or cancelled. Grieving alone.

Contemplating our own mortality and the deaths of those we love tends to shift our focus to what really matters. Will our collective and individual meditations on death allow us to live more generously? Can we do with less? Can we be kinder?

We now know it is essential to be there when someone we love is dying, holding their hands, touching their face. It is essential to be with our dying loved ones whenever possible, to have a community to hold us in our dying time and in our grief, and to care for our dead.

Community deathcaring is the old way. It is about deep and honest connections with the people we love. It is about our own loving circles, our own small communities caring for each other, and when there is distance and aloneness, creating new rituals and ceremonies that serve us in these times. It is about allowing the reality of death to bring our lives into focus.

There is another way of being. Slowing down and touching the ground. Planting our gardens and burying our dead gently in the earth. Naturally, simply, and with a deep sigh of gratitude. Gathering with our beloveds in forested burial grounds where we dig the grave and lay our loved ones on a bed of moss and branches and cover them. Where we can grieve together in the open air and walk among the trees. Where the earth is replenished by our bodies and we are in step with the natural world. Here, we send them home.

While we minimize physical contact and reach out to stay socially connected, most of us are virtually connected to the whole wide world. There are more online offerings than we have ever seen. There are children’s story hours, craft workshops, grief counselling, museum tours, courses, webinars, and Zoom gatherings on every imaginable subject. We literally have the world at our fingertips.

It is my hope going forward that our time at the keyboard is met with dirt under our fingernails, with a deeper connection to the world right in front of us. The fir and the spruce and the stands of aspen, the spiders who make their homes on our stairwells, the mosses, the mountain chickadees, and the sandhill cranes in our meadows. We have been ordered home. We have slowed down. Let us linger here. And while we are here, let us ‘reclaim death as an honoured part of life’. (Quote by Judith McGill).

Memento mori, my friends.

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