Death Be Not Proud is the title of a fabulous book I read a long time ago.
I picked it because of its title. It was written by a father who had lost his son to a brain tumour. The story revealed the long and personal struggle he faced up until his son’s death.
What I remember most about the story was the way he approached his son’s death as a courageous and life altering pattern. He did not see his son as a victim but as a hero and his death as a release toward his ultimate freedom.
In other words, death had not brought the worst out of his son or weakened his will. It had enabled him to defy it by being fearless and strong. There was nothing for death to be proud of.
In the West the topic of death is heavily burdened with our cultural understandings as well as shadowed by the way we grew up. No matter how evolved or intelligent we become it is the one thing we cannot bypass, or as Virginia Woolf said, “We return to the place we came from.”
We all have people in our lives who will leave us or who have passed on.
So despite how much we know or think we understand—it’s a part of life that is mysterious, doesn’t ask any questions, make excuses or look for permission.
In my family I grew up with the two polar opposites regarding death. On the one side death was a taboo, a curse and a bad joke while the other side approached it as a curious phenomena, a fact of life, a time to eat sweets and visit relatives.
My father´s father died when my father was 23 years old. As a Naval Officer who served in Normandy and saved a ship in Halifax he suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. Both my dad and his mother took care of him for seven years. I can only imagine those years must have been seven of the longest years to live. His only ability as far as I knew was to be able to blink once for “yes” and twice for “no.”
Death was not to be discussed or shared, and there was a tremendously heavy quality to the whole thing.
On the other side we were skipping around cemetery plots, talking about so and so passing and/or attending a funeral. Death was accepted, talked about and shown with open caskets as well as walks in the cemetery grounds.
When my grandmother of 98 passed away this April—ironically, the funeral was on my birthday—it highlighted how closely linked life and death are.
Her passing made me relive the way death was and is handled in my mother’s family. It was okay, a process, another chapter and not a shameful truth.
My grandmother had lived a full and contented life. She had eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Born in Prince Edward Island my grandmother was a real farm lady. She held the traditional role of cooking meals and cleaning the house, but was often in the barn. She mastered the art of milking a cow. And let me tell you if you have tried it—it ain´t easy at all. I used to marvel at my grandmother pulling on a cow’s teats and watching the milk squirt into the bucket. She was able to create a perfect, steady stream of milk. When I tired the cow’s teat turned to soft jelly in my hands.
I certainly could not mimic the elegance of my grandmother.
Amongst the usual activities of farm work, death was and is a common thing. Most of the relatives passed away in the family farmhouse. And every visit to the Island included a visit to the cemetery. I grew up roaming around cemeteries and looking forward to the excursions.
As a kid, it was not unusual to hear my mother and grandmother say, “Oh, I really want to see the tombstone of my Great Aunt May” or “You know, I have never even seen that grave.”
Stepping back it may sound a bit weird but when you grow up in it—it is normal. I have many memories as a little girl stumping around the cemetery grounds holding my grandmother’s hand. I used to pretend I was stepping over the people and politely bypassing them. I used to say “sorry” if I passed someone without noticing or stepped too closely onto their grave.
The cemetery was filled with my ancestors like great, great, great grandfathers, a distant cousin, my grandmother’s youngest sister who died at nine of tuberculosis. As a child I felt afraid and I wondered why my grandmother was not.
“Grammie,” I said on one visit, “What if all the people stood up and said, ‘Boo’?”
She replied, “Ooo, I would be scared. I wouldn´t know what to do.“
Death was not a stranger, a theft or a bandit. It was common and factual. My late great grandmother used to keep a ledger. And in the notebook were the daily accounts of life on the farm. She wrote about what they did, how the garden was growing, the weather and the local news. Reading the obituary was also a Sunday ritual.
The attitude was straight and to the point. My great grandmother wrote in the ledger the day her husband died,
“We went out to the grave and buried Nelson. We walked back.”
There was nothing else recorded on that day.
For me, when my grandmother passed away I was relieved because I understood she had had a full life. It did not take away my sadness, but why should she live in pain?
Death is always around us, as the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah taught.
When my grandfather passed away (my grandmother’s husband of 65 years) we had gathered in the parlour as it was known. (The parlour is the sitting room that no one is supposed to sit in unless The Queen shows up and especially forbidden for children. What a funny oxymoron to have a room called a sitting room, which is reserved for special guests and kept in perfect order. And by the way, it still is to this day.)
We watched old family photos on an archaic slide projector (remember those?). My cousins and I had a hoot while my grandmother sat there like a dead person a million miles away. If I had to describe her thoughts it was if she had concluded this chapter of her life was over. There was no going back or any room for remorse.
It was with the same factual instinct that my great grandmother had shown when her husband passed away.
In yoga, we are taught that life is a cycle, a pattern and that nothing lasts forever.
But when people are taken from us it’s hard to properly understand the passing of a life, which seemed so long and yet so brief.
I am grateful for my mother’s family and their open-ended understanding of death. It is not dark or bad. It is a fact like living and breathing. After the funeral services everyone gathers for tiny sandwiches, tea and hand-made sweets. It’s an Island tradition.
During the service for my grandmother I read the poem, All is Well. It inspired me to share the many times I called her either from India, Toronto or wherever I was. Every time she heard my voice she said, “Ooh, you sound so close – like you’re in the next room.”
If I could re-title the book Death Be Not Proud I would name it, Death: The Next Room.
For those who have passed away and whom you miss—or to those who are ill—read this poem.
All Is Well
Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name,
Speak to me in the easy way which you always used
Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was,
Let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was, there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.
All is well.
-Mary Elizabeth Frye
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger