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Musings on Death to Keep Us Well

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to go to a conference about death. Let’s be honest; it’s not every day you WANT to go to a conference about death. But when the opportunity to learn from three professional women with decades of experience and knowledge about aging and dying presents itself, you take it, even if it means sitting in a mortuary for a day and a half.

On June 7th and 8th I attended The Alchemy of Aging Project: Turning Old into Gold at the Greenwood & Myers Mortuary in Boulder. The speakers were Dr. Victoria Howard, Kim Mooney, and Megan Carnarius, RN and presentations ranged from “How I Learned about Old Age,” “Giving Death Voice,” “Five Birthdays, Five Death Days, and 100 Grief Candles.” There were multiple opportunities for reflection and meditative silence, and I can assure you that meditation about death takes on an entirely new twist when seated inside a mortuary.  

Jokes aside, I was surprised at how much we talked about life…not death. In fact, life is so much sweeter when you do think about death on a regular basis. I was so inspired to bring death into my everyday life that I downloaded an app called “We Croak.”  We Croak sends me five random reminders each day that I’m going to die. The push notifications literally say, “Remember! You’re going to die!” and then gives you some quip or quote about life and/or death. The theory is taken from part of the Buddhist tradition in Bhutan that you’re happier if you think about death at least five times a day. Side note, Bhutan is considered the happiest country on Earth. Coincidence? I think not.

One of the many mindfulness exercises that we were led through during the conference was thinking about our own death. Not just death in general, that ethereal, untouchable, often unsettling notion of what death is or might be, but actually sitting with the fact that one day I will be no more. My body will disintegrate and I will cease to breathe, my heart will stop, my life force will depart from my body. That’s a very different thought process than the general idea of death. We were, very bluntly, told “Imagine this is the last five minutes of your life. This is it. What do you think about?” And then we were left to stew in our own thoughts for the next five minutes. Some thought about all their loved ones. One woman said she just stared at her hands for the entire time, thinking that they would slowly turn from a healthy pink into a gray, lifeless color. I, being less imaginative, just stared straight ahead and promptly settled on a jar of honey across the room. My first thought: “Gosh. I just love honey so much.” Then my eyes drifted to the coffee on the table in front of me. “Coffee is the best thing ever. I LOVE coffee!” Then drifting over to the window where I saw the Flatirons guarding over Boulder. “I LOVE mountains! I LOVE Colorado! I LOVE EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE and I can’t believe I’m just walking around with honey and coffee and mountains every day and not appreciating every sip and every hike and every single day that I get the privilege to breathe and love and just be human with a living body, because one day…maybe in five minutes or five decades…that privilege ends.” (I said I wasn’t imaginative, not dramatic).

That night, I had the privilege of seeing one of my favorite bands play a free concert at the Gerald R. Ford auditorium in Vail and I promptly burst into tears within the first 30 seconds of their set because it was just. so. beautiful. I couldn’t believe how I got to be so lucky to be there, outside on that incredible summer mountain evening, listening to music that filled my heart, with a person I care about, in a body that allows me to experience life to the fullest. That entire weekend I would cry at the drop of a hat, not because I was sad or dwelling on the tragic aspects of death, but because I was filled so completely with gratitude for every single little thing surrounding me that I take for granted 99% of the time. Everything glistened and glowed and was beautiful in a way that I hadn’t seen before because I saw them with a new perspective that clued me in that I won’t always get to experience life, so I better not take it for granted anymore.

If we can learn to enjoy our fleeting and brief lives just as they are, perhaps we will be more focused on the deep values of life like love and joy, so let’s emulate the Bhutanese people and get comfortable with thoughts of death. I’ll leave you (hopefully not permanently…yet) with one of my favorite quotes so far from my We Croak app: “If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.” -Muriel Spark

Musings by Erin Fisher

Director
Alpine Area Agency on Aging
Northwest Colorado Council of Governments

Photo by Brendan Durrum Photography

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