It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.
In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.
The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.
So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.
What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.
Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught. If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.
He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirsty. Today you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.