It may sound quite foreign to us, but medieval philosophers would often place a human skull on their desk as a reminder of the nearness of death. Their perspective was that this reminder of the brevity of human life served as a reality check and helped them to focus on what is most important. I haven’t tried it personally, but I suspect that if I kept a skull on my desk that many would get concerned by what would seem to be a dark and morbid preoccupation with death (or perhaps it would just get buried by the other stuff on my desk – but that is an article for another day…).
Most today prefer to live in denial about the reality that this could be their last on this planet. We hide death away from the kids and we treat it as a taboo topic in polite company even though it is coming to us all. Although serious reflection on the topic of our own mortality is uncomfortable, could it be that we are missing out on something that has the potential to be very healthy and life-giving to us?
The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to think so. There in the Old Testament we read:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
What would happen if we did “take this to heart”? Perhaps we might adjust our schedule and our perspective as we find that so many of the things that stress us out and fill us with anxiety really aren’t that important in the long run. For some of us, perhaps we might turn our attention to important things we have been putting off or neglecting while we live as if we will never die. For others of us, this awareness of our own mortality will cause us to seek after the answers to questions that surface – questions about things like the meaning of life and what really happens after we die. Let me encourage you to take the reality of your own impending death to heart – you just may find that it leads to real life!
This was originally published in the "Salt & Light" column of the Intertown Record.