“We got you something for your birthday to remind you of your mortality,” Sam said.
Daniel and Max followed him into my office and the three of them proceeded to present me with a box that contained the skull pictured above.
“Thanks,” I told them. “Very thoughtful!”
Some years ago, a religious sister with the epic name Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, received a ceramic skull during a retreat. This began her daily meditations on death, about which she tweeted, chronicling her new insights that came from keeping a skull on her desk. Working on Parliament Hill, I particularly appreciated Day 6.
In my Jewish course on death, Journey of the Soul: A Fresh Look at Life, Death, and the Rest—in Peace, we learned the tale depicted in the video below about a Jewish billionaire whose request to be buried with his favourite socks was denied.
Take a look:
As the rabbi teaching my class said, “When we die, we don’t take our bank accounts with us, but only our charitable receipts.”
One site I love to visit in Israel is David and Paula Ben Gurion’s tombs in the Negev.
Sitting with a group along some stone steps as we looked toward the tombs, our guide said, “The inscription on David Ben-Gurion’s tombstone has three dates on it – the date he was born, the date he died, and the date he made aliyah [immigrated to Israel]. Why does it have the date he made aliyah?”
Our guide was serious about prompting our reflection and gave many members of our group the chance to surmise. After everyone had had the opportunity to offer their interpretations, our guide offered his own:
“Aliyah was the first step. It was the decisive turning point in the drama of his life. It was the decision he made that significantly impacted and made possible all the others. What will your first step be?” he asked, as we sat for a few moments of quiet reflection in that desert shade.
And so, I’ll now ask you: What might the extra date be on your tombstone?
This evening over dinner, my friend and housemate shared a news story from a month ago about a university student in Montreal who was surprised to discover that his current art history professor had, in fact, already been deceased for two years.
Aaron Ansuini had been following an online course through Concordia University when he Googled the professor to find his email address but instead found his obituary.
The university says the prerecorded material was in no way meant to be deceptive. Nevertheless, the student’s Twitter thread recounting his surprise amassed hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets.
Yes, even on my birthday I keep my death before me. It makes life sweeter by increasing my sense of its preciousness.
A friend of mine gave me a birthday card with this quotation by Josemaria Escriva: “Time is our treasure, the ‘money’ with which to buy eternity.”
On my birthday, I am filled with gratitude and responsibility – gratitude for God’s generosity in giving me these years and responsibility to live and love well with vision, depth, and hope.
I am thankful to my friends and family who have helped me to treasure time in this season – to sincerely savour and cherish it rather than wasting time or wishing it were some other time.
There is no better time, and “my times are in [His] hands.” (Ps. 31:15)
For several years, David Brooks has been drawing the distinction between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.
“The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” Brooks says.
Recently, a friend of mine remarked on how, perhaps, this distinction is being blurred. More and more obituaries and eulogies are sounding like résumés.
She told me that she had read the obituary of a well-loved man named Dr. Paul Vincent Coldrey Adams who died in 2019 at age 99. While aspects of his obituary certainly testify to his character, much of the obituary reads more like a résumé insofar as it chronicles his education, profession, community service, committee participation, volunteer commitments, and hobbies. In this case, his faith and family also feature prominently.
But what is particularly interesting with this obituary is a comment left beneath it by Dr. Adams’ son, Michael.
About his father, Michael wrote:
“If what Christians say about Good Friday is true,” said Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything. I have written this for people who are convinced of that truth, for people who are open to thinking about whether it may be true, and for people who are just curious about why so much of the world thinks Good Friday is the key to understanding what Dante called ‘the love that moves the sun and all the other stars.'”
Fr. Neuhaus devoted an entire book to meditating on Good Friday and, accordingly, came to a deep sense that “Good Friday is not just one day of the year.” Rather, Good Friday is the central event around which history pivots; it is also the basis for the words “crucial” and “crux.”
My aunt Danielle Hall (on the right) is a dual citizen who was born in Calgary and now lives and works as a hospice nurse in Chicago.
She traces her interest in working with the dying to when she was just five years old.
“I think how it started, when I reflect back, is that since my mother would often get headaches, she taught me how to rub her head to relieve them,” Danielle reminisced. “My mom would lay on the couch and I would stand behind her, rubbing her head with my fingers in circles around her forehead, and that’s when I first realized that I had a healing touch.”
On this Ash Wednesday, I am recalling those words spoken by Fr. Alfred Delp to a chaplain shortly before the Nazis executed the priest by hanging.
Throughout history, there are certain persons who display such a remarkably supernatural outlook toward death.
Here are a handful of examples excerpted from St. Alphonsus Maria De Liguori’s Preparation for Death:
On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.
“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”
Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick: