Death is a fearful thing to many. Our recent posts on the shooting in Aurora, Colorado reflect that fact. What makes death so terrifying is its suddenness, its arrival without warning. When people say, “He was too young,” they really mean that death has laid asunder another’s plans for the coming years. I think that, in these moments, we’re attempting to provide ourselves some comfort instead of simply bearing witness to the pain. We personify death as a malicious figure to dismiss it, to pretend it is some aberration of nature that is robbing us of precious time or of the people we love and admire.
But death need not be thought of this way. Death has also been characterized as a more understanding figure. In the book Death Be Not Proud, a memoir written by the father of a 17 year old boy who died of a brain tumor, there is much rumination on death. But I think the most important part comes at the end, in an afterward by the boy’s mother. She, in thinking back to the last summer with her son, shares what she would write in her journal: “Look Death in the face. To look Death in the face, and not be afraid. To be friendly to Death as to Life. Death as a part of Life, like Birth. Not the final part. I have no sense of finality about Death. Only the final scene in a single act of a play that goes on forever. Look Death in the face: it’s a friendly face, a kindly face, sad, reluctant, knowing it is not welcome but having to play its part when its cue is called, perhaps trying to say, ‘Come, it won’t be too bad, don’t be afraid, I understand how you feel, but come - there may be other miracles!’”
All things must pass and so must we. Death is a part of the cycle of life, but is also hard to accept. I think that it would be an easier transition with some sort of ceremony or observance; this is why Catholics have the sacraments of Last Rites. Of course, this is assuming that death comes slowly and not in a sudden event. For the sake of this post, let’s think of death as coming in this way.
I think of the song “In A Little While” by U2, a song about another silly guy dealing with the after-effects of a late night out. But once I heard a quote from Bono regarding this song, it changed how I hear it. When Joey Ramone was in the hospital, his brother played him the song. It was the final song that he heard before he died. Bono later said, “Joey turned this song about a hangover into a gospel song.” Hearing the song now, I think of how peaceful it would be to hear that kind of song before I died, to have such a sonic guide into the next great adventure.
This comment gets me thinking - what are the songs that I’d like to hear before I die? Here’s the context that I created for this exercise: I know I’m going to die at a certain time. My final hour will be devoted to whatever I’d like: conversations, activities or meditation. The hour before that, my penultimate hour, would be time for me to listen to an hour-long playlist of the final songs that I’d like to hear. (I know that there could be a lot of qualifications for this, but please accept it as is.) Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing my hour long playlist with some sort of commentary, and I’m inviting both my fellow contributors and readers of The Compass to share theirs. (You can submit them using the “Submit!” button above or by e-mailing email@example.com.)
Until then, stay safe.
P.S. I acknowledge that some of the statements made in this post may strike you hard, that they may be too dismissive of how you react to death. I hope that this is not the case but if it is, I am sorry. I’d appreciate you sharing any reactions you have in a comment.
(Edited 8/6/12 8:01 AM): I changed the title of this post to “The Gospel Songs of Dying”. The original title seemed much too stark, even with the context of the actual post.