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What qualifies a person to speak about death? To think oneself qualified to speak about death because one has read Heidegger would be the very height of idiocy, and yet I find myself wishing that that was my only qualification. In a certain sense, I feel myself over qualified, more than qualified, certainly more qualified than I would wish to be, to speak about death.
It is, of course, Heidegger who in a roundabout way raises the question of who is qualified to speak about death. For Heidegger, people nearly always speak of death as a thing that happens to other people, and thereby disqualify themselves from speaking about death in the true sense. For Heidegger, I come near the true meaning and significance of death only when I consider death as my death, not as the deaths of others. "Death is mine," insists Heidegger, "insofar as it is at all." And if I can speak truly of death only as my death, how can I speak of that, of my own death? How can I speak of that which I cannot both have undergone and am able to speak about? But perhaps this is what Heidegger's thought on death leads us to: a certain experience of the end or the limit of the possible, of impossibility, of death as impossibility. Why for Heidegger does my death, death as mineness, have this strange and absolute priority? And if we refuted this priority, or even reversedit, if we thought death through the deaths of others, would we remain, as Heidegger insists, within the realm of the possible, with death as possibility, or would we come around but in a different way to death as the impossible?
Heidegger is very clear about the absolute priority of my death in interpreting death correctly. Heidegger constantly talks about the crowd, or the mass, or public opinion and how it constantly leads the individual into misunderstanding and misinterpretation. When it comes to death, others, the crowd continually persuade me to think of death only and exclusively as a thing that happens to other people. What Heidegger calls "being-with other people" has the affect of continuously inducing me to avoid thinking of death as something that will happen to me. Death gets interpreted as a thing, as something that has happened to someone else, and never as what will happen to me. By persuading me to think of death as a concrete thing, the crowd robs me of the chance to contemplate death as a possibility, as my possibility.
And what happens when I get away from the malignant influence of the crowd and begin to contemplate death as my own possibility? It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of doing this to Heidegger. For Heidegger, when I begin to contemplate death as my death, I am opening myself to a much more profound understanding of myself, of my place in the world, of human existence, and of time itself. When I understand that death is my possibility, that possibility of mine which is most my own, which no one can relieve me of, and which I cannot evade or outrun, I begin to understand myself much better as a being living toward certain possibilities with only a finite time period in which to actualize those possibilities. Only with a deep understanding of my own death do I undertake myself as a project, as a fluid being always already projected toward certain possibilities. Only with a deep understanding of my death do I seriously grapple with the question of whether the possibilities I'm already projected toward are truly my possibilities, rather than the crowd's possibilities passed on to me, are possibilities I want for myself. A true understanding of death as my death gives back to me my life as a project I can control and shape, and this sense of myself as a project I resolutely will to accomplish in the short amount of time I have opens for me, says Heidegger, the meaning of authentic human existence.
I'm sure we can all understand and relate to what Heidegger says about death. A Proverb in the Hebrew Bible expressed the same deep truth: "Remember to number your days so you can get a heart full of wisdom." It's a truth Augustine too tapped into when he said: "When the devil realizes he can't steal eternity from us, he tricks us into wasting time."
As illuminating as Heidegger's discussion of death is, I've always felt at odds with his priority of my death over the deaths of others and felt a lack in Heidegger's account. There is nothing in Heidegger about the meaning of the deaths of others, about what the deaths of others reveal about meaning, about the meaning of authentic human existence, and about time itself. This priority of my death over the death of the other is so strong in Heidegger that he even uses different German words to describe them. For my death he only uses the word sterben (to die), while to describe the deaths of others he uses the word verenden (to perish).
It is difficult when reading Heidegger not to think that the death of the other is secondary for Heidegger because it does not have the same kind or degree of philosophical significance, which means it is not as disclosive of reality, of time, of human existence as is my death.
Perhaps it's because I'm too young and I don't feel my 35 years as anything other than a number, don't feel any real signs of getting older, that I don't think the reality and the meaning of death, like Heidegger, through my own death. For me, what meaning and reality death has certainly comes through the deaths of others, something as I've said that Heidegger hardly pays any attention to at all. Experiencing the deaths of others has from the very first given me the overwhelming sense of death as a power. Death has a power to steal, to take away irretrievably that which is of highest value in life, other people. I've always distrusted any too easy religion or psychological state or philosophical orientation toward existence that renders death something less, something weaker than this awful power.
I remember the first time I saw death as a power was through a window when I was 5 or 6. There was an old neighbor lady and friend of the family who lived next door, and although she was close to all the kids in my family, I was her favorite, because we would read together every day. One day the ambulance came to her house and as I was looking out the window at her house my mother, noticing that the medics were in no hurry and knowing what that meant, explained to me that my reading partner was going away and that she wouldn't be coming back. This left a deep impression upon me that this is what death is: death is a power that takes things away from you and you can't do anything about it.
Now I understand well that death is a natural process. I come from a small town where people live close to the natural rhythms of life. I think that the fact that my family members and the people where I grew up understood death as simply something natural had a great deal to do with the fact that I did from the time I was 10 or 11 work in a cemetery mowing the lawn and burying people. Many people think this is very bizarre or macabre, but in my little town to have young people work in the cemetery was a way for them not only to come to terms with the natural rhythms of life but also to live in solidarity with the elderly. Working in the cemetery, caring for the graves and tombstones was a way of honoring and respecting the people who died and helping and honoring the relatives.
From this experience of working in the cemetery I have a profound sense of the rhythms of nature, of the cyclic nature of existence, of the need to accept the existence of other people as temporary, of the need to let go. I think I understand as well as the next person the meaning of the lines from the German poet Holderlin, "We live our lives forever taking leave," words that have comforted me many times since I grew up in a town populated by people of my grandparents' generation, and I have now taken leave of all of them, one by one.
And yet, from that very first leave taking through the window until this very day, there is a part of me in complete agreement with the poem by Aiken. I know that death is natural, that it has always been, that it must be accepted, but must it be accepted with complete resignation, with absolutely no defiance? In my deepest self I still say with Aiken: "I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground." I would still say that yes, death is natural, but it is also still a power, a power that takes people away and puts loss and pain in their place, and it bestows a sadness to life. Death forces one to participate in "the difficulty of life."
"The difficulty of life". . .a Heideggerian phrase, actually. How could Heidegger not see our experience of the deaths of others as an essential aspect of the difficulty of life? I don't know about Heidegger, but I've known so many people compelled to participate in the difficulty of life through the deaths of other people. From these experiences I have a profound sense not only of the difficulty of life, but I have a deep respect for the strength and the dignity of people. People absorb the pain caused by this natural phenomenon, death, and somehow move on in quiet dignity. One of the sons of my great aunt died after a long illness. The day after the funeral my mother went to my great aunt's house to see how she was doing and found her now alone in her house in the basement, doing the laundry. Life is like that. It's toughest battles don't attract headlines and aren't fought in wars, but in laundry rooms, and empty houses, and inside people's hearts as they struggle with despair,pain and hopelessness brought to them without their choice by death's power to take away. The amazing thing to me is that people somehow meet the pain, the difficulty of life with their own inner strength and dignity.
But I sense myself again becoming too complacent, too resigned, more so than I really am, so let me give vent one more time to the defiance that lives in me. I know that death for all of us is inevitable. I know that it is a natural as anything is that we grow older, that we accept the weakening of our faculties one by one, that we take our leave of this world and that in our lives we take leave of those who have gone through this natural process before us. But I confess I have an inner rage at death understood as this natural process, because death is much more powerful than that.
Back to those years working in the cemetery. I almost always buried older people, people at the end of their lives, almost always but not always. Maybe it was an untreatable disease, maybe it was an accident like a car wreck, but there were a few times when the person who died was young, even as young as I was then. At those times, death seemed anything but natural, the leave taking anything but inevitable, time seemed anything but flowing, continuous and cyclic, and human existence showed itself as something that did not always run according to its natural rhythms. Because of those experiences, where the profound suffering of the families was impossible not to see and to feel in some way but also impossible to truly know, I've never been able to whip up much sympathy or support for the view that understands death as a natural process, as the natural unfolding of human existence and of time which must be accepted, to which one must in wisdom resign oneself.
And yet, it was this view of death as a natural process for which I always prepared myself. When I stood at that window looking at my neighbor's house, I saw myself for the first time as a young person surrounded by much older people, by my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles and my parents and my aunt. I knew I would have to take leave of them all and I prepared myself for death as this naturally unfolding process. I knew I would have to first lose my grandparents and relatives of that generation, and then begin to face losing my parents and that generation. All this of course was natural and had to be accepted. But my internal preparation for death as this natural process was interrupted by a phone call in the middle of the night 13 years ago informing the family that we now had taken leave forever of my 29 year old sister, who died under extremely tragic circumstances.
With that phone call, the lives of my family members were split in two: our lives before the phone call and our lives after it and the two lives had a radically different character. Time itself was no longer something continuous, flowing, and natural. Time now had an interruptive quality and was the scene of rupture. Time was ruptured by an indescribable sense of pain and loss, impossible to express, to enable another person to feel. My own experience of the relation between death and the impossible: impossible somehow to translate, to do justice to death's power to take away, to rupture time forever, to end forever one's resigned acceptance, one contented situatedness in the natural rhythms of life, impossible to explain the depths of "the difficulty of life" death has the power to make one confront entirely against one's will or wishes.
So I myself grow impatient with wise talk of the naturalness of death, of death as a natural process that must be accepted. I know there are people who live in time as a continuous and flowing and natural thing, but I'm not one of them, and there are many of us, and we shouldn't be forgotten. And a too easy Christianity which always plays the resurrection as its final trump card, as Ken Homan said last week, and thereby minimizes the power of death has no comfort for me. Yet I can say that after about two years in which I really feel sadness and pain were the substance of my subjectivity, after two years where I felt very little joy in anything in life and wasn't even able to read and think, gradually life brought more things to me than pain. Gradually, another power in life and in time brought back enjoyment, a power which one would not be wrong to call love, because it did take the form of love, love from other people, love for other people, and love for all the things in life that do make this temporary human life a thing to be enjoyed and loved: friends, reading, thinking, writing, beauty, fun, an elegant dinner, an engaging conversation, children, especially my nieces, animals. So although to me death is such an overwhelming and invasive power that I never can view it as that natural friend that comes at the close of the day, yet I can understand and even affirm the view in the Song of Song that although death is a terrible power that steals the beloved away, yet "love is as strong as death."
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.