You and I Are Going to Die — So Let’s Spend Lent Talking About It

Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Erik Werenskiold, “Peasant Burial”, 1885
Erik Werenskiold, “Peasant Burial”, 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that takes its name from the ashes imposed on Catholics’ foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. Why ashes? Because, as the traditional formula of imposition puts it, “Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

When will we return to dust? When we die. So, during the next seven Wednesdays of Lent, let’s reflect on the fact and meaning of death.

It is, after all, what we are supposed to remember today. The fact is, however, that memento mori — remembering death — is ever more put out of contemporary peoples’ minds.

That’s paradoxical because, as St. John Paul II noted in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae, we live in an era marked by a profound conflict between a “culture of life” and a “culture of death.” Death stalks us. We are emerging from a pandemic that claimed many lives. As I write these reflections, we are in the first day of a modern war on the European continent in which people are already dying from Russian aggression.

But it’s not just that we are beset by death. In many ways, our world even welcomes death. It calls it a “solution” to human problems, before birth and approaching death. Don’t want that baby? Abortion is the answer. Some even pretend it is a “right.” Don’t want to live any longer? Get yourself a suicide kit. That’s also a “right” in some places. Frustrated with life? Consider the jump in suicide rates, shockingly among the young. Consider, too, the paradox: when does self-killing cross from being a “bad” suicide to a good “exercise of autonomy” that no one dare interfere with?

As the King of Siam might have put it, “It’s a puzzlement.”

The dirty little secret, however, is that while death is all around us and some even characterize it as a “solution” to human problems, we don’t like to talk about it. To see it. To think about it.

In the almost 50 years since Roe v. Wade, there have been more than 60 million abortions. Where are the bodies? (Hint — don’t check on Planned Parenthood’s business sidelines.) When some states tried to provide a modicum of human dignity to aborted babies by demanding burial or cremation, the usual suspects ran to federal court to overturn such “hurtful” practices. 

Cremation has turned our funeral practices upside down. Death no longer interrupts life; rather, laying the dead (or what’s left of them) is scheduled to accommodate the convenience of the living. The “wake” is becoming more the stuff of Irish fiction than of experienced reality. Some parents still wonder whether they will somehow “traumatize” their children by bringing them to the vanishing funeral. “Dust in the wind” has obliterated the presence of the dead among us; the disappearance of cemeteries makes death increasingly invisible. 

Death is universal. Death is even recommended as a “solution.” But talking about it in the open is more taboo than sex ever was to the most puritanical Victorian.

So let’s spend Lent talking about it. I invite you to this seven week “retreat” on the topic. 

After all, you’re going to have to experience death. Even Benjamin Franklin assured us of its certainty, alongside taxes. The difference is: responsibility for the latter can be kicked to heirs, but your funeral has a non-transferrable ticket.

Despite the ads I see on bus stalls that promote scheduling apps that offer “work without limits,” one day your schedule will end. The one day assuredly penciled into your calendar is the day of your death. The only problem for our “control freak” times is: it’s unknown and, on top of that, it makes the result of your scheduling app obsolete.

So, given that I have to reckon with death, what can we say about it? As I said, part of our cultural problem is that we don’t say very much. In fact, another paradox of our times is the lack of shared vision of death and afterward. There’s a difference between a culture that has certain expectations of death and any post-mortem existence — be it as indistinct as the pagan world’s or ancient Israel’s or as clear as Christianity’s — and a wholly relativistic worldview that tries to build a culture feigning agnosticism, pretending that, as least as a society, we have no common thoughts about what happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil. 

Yet the paradox is that we can never really imagine death. Because, no matter how hard we try, there is always a living person that is trying in life to imagine what death is. What does that tell me about life and death?

Human beings have always had a thirst for immortality. Even if they could not rationally prove it, the desire to be rather than not to be is so pervasive (at least before our times) that perhaps it, too, says something about who man is and what his life is for.

Yet we have to grapple with the phenomenon of death — a phenomenon increasingly unfamiliar to people when death has been clinicalized, removed from the context of family and friends. What does that mean in terms of what a Catholic hopes for, especially in terms of the “last rites?”

Finally, considering death during Lent begins with a reflection on my mortality and ends with one on His mortality. Lent leads us to a death … and to more. So how should that fit into my Lent?