What Death Teaches Us About Life

The authors of the original mindfulness manual made three irrefutable observations about death. Death is certain. The time of death is uncertain. The only thing that can help us at the time of death is how we’ve trained our mind.

What Death Teaches Us About Life

A mindfulness exercise that we can no longer perform due to advances in sanitation is the “Nine Cemetery Contemplations.” It sounds like a Halloween fraternity hazing. The instructions are to go to an open-air graveyard, stare at rotting corpses, and associate their decay with your own body.

Though the exercise was questionable from a public health perspective, its benefits for mental health are hard to overstate.

The closest I could come to approximating this mindfulness practice was watching a National Geographic documentary on the Body Farm. Crime scene investigators go there to learn how to estimate the time of death by the state of a human body’s decomposition under various conditions. The best I can do right now is invite you to watch The fascinating process of human decomposition.

I regret that I missed out on the smell by watching the bodies on video, but if you’ve ever smelled meat that’s “gone off,” you have a rough idea. In any event, viewing the rotting corpses and associating them with my current body’s deomposition has brought about many unexpected benefits.

Death is Certain

My earliest real-life dead body was the one formerly occupied by my 88-year-old great-grandmother Nell. The reception following her funeral was a celebration of a life: an extended family gathering with lots of good food and laughter.

Nell was born in Sweden, moved to Chicago where her husband worked for a railroad company. They retired with a respectable pension. One of her sons, my grandfather, lived upstairs in a duplex. One of Nell’s granddaughters, my mom, lived five blocks away. The consensus was that Nell’s had been a good life and a good death. She had outlived her husband by five years, had been in decent health until the end, and passed away in her sleep.

In Nell’s case, everyone had time to mentally prepare for her death.

The Time of Death is Uncertain

My 6-year-old friend Chris’s funeral was a different story. Whenever I hear the word grief, I can picture the contorted forehead of Chris’s brother Leonard sobbing openly and loudly, tears streaming down his face. This startled me. I had lost a playmate. He had lost a brother. His father wept quietly, his arm around his wife, whose body convulsed, her face hid behind a dark veil.

Chris’s death didn’t surprise me. It was the end to a long battle with leukemia. He’d lost one of his eyes before his family moved to our neighborhood. We sometimes pestered him to look at his empty socket, which he usually kept beneath bandages and a patch: cool and gross at the same time. He was frequently missing in action from our after school high jinks because of doctor visits and hospitalizations.

I was as mentally prepared as an 8-year-old could be, but I learned how difficult it was for others to accept my neighbor’s failing body.

Training the Mind

I’ve had two experiences of my own death so far in this life. Both of them involved general anesthesia. I have no memory of either of them. It was like a light switch flicking off and on. It was completely irrelevant to me whether the light had been out for two minutes, two days, or eternity.

So, my mind views death much as the Greek philosopher Epicurus did.

Why should I fear death?

If I am, then death is not.

If Death is, then I am not.

Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?

On the plus side, this view assuages one’s fear of death. If a body is in the throes of an irreversible illness and the quality of one’s interactions with others is shrouded in suffering, there’s no need to cling to life because we fear death. This is an increasingly important consideration in a culture where medical interventions have the potential to keep a body alive for no other purpose than to delay the inevitable.

On the minus side, this view could potentially lead one to the conclusion that taking one’s life is a viable treatment option for depression or anxiety. Since the sole purpose of the mindfulness literature is the permanent eradication of mental suffering and promotion of well-being, this is a misguided interpretation. The sufferer never gets to experience relief, and the act produces mental suffering for others.

Though it took me decades to reconcile how various cultures envision the afterlife, I have to begrudgingly admit that the teachings are helpful in inducing us to stick around and instructing us how to cultivate a sense of well-being in this life.

Grief or Gratitude

I forget which mindfulness author to credit with this idea, but for me it’s one of death’s most useful teachings.

Grief is clinging to a future we thought we’d have.

Whether it relates to a person we thought should live longer (like my neighbor Chris), a relationship, a job, or a vacation, our response to impermanence can have a profound influence on our sense of well-being.

In 2017, musician Tom Petty passed away after completing a farewell tour with his band The Heartbreakers. His death came as a shock to many people. In 1950, the year Petty was born, life expectancy for an American male was 65.5 years. Petty lived to be 66. Along the way, he produced several songs that I really enjoyed. When I learned of his death, remembering his music, and how it touched my life filled me with gratitude.

Learning to view every temporary situation with gratitude instead of grief can make the difference between living a life of appreciation instead of deprivation.

Temporary Hardship

The saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff,” sounds really corny, unless we think of it in terms of life and death.

If a life situation or person pisses us off, reflecting on death offers two immediate advantages.

First, if today is our last day (and it could be because the time of death is uncertain), how much of it do we want to spend in anger or bitterness?

Second, if today is the last day for the person who “wronged” us (who knows?), they already face a death sentence with no appeal.

Temporary Good Fortune

How much attention would you pay to the good things and people in your life if this were your last chance to be with them?

Thinking of death taught me genuine appreciation for the flowering trees and plants I experienced on my neighborhood walks. I recognized their beauty as impermanent and learned to appreciate it while it lasted.

I found that I got more out of the time I spent with friends, enjoyed simple meals more, mundane chores bothered me less.

Incentive to Change

I found it surprising how much reflecting on death could improve my quality of life, but there’s one more benefit.

If we never stop to consider that this life will one day end, it can take us an eternity to put our priorities in order and make necessary course corrections.

It shouldn’t matter whether we’re “putting our affairs in order” because of a doctor’s prognosis or voluntarily considering our own mortality.

If there are things we would do differently had we only a short time to live, we can take death’s cue to start making those changes now.

Ten Minute Exercise

1. Before you go to bed tonight, take a moment to imagine that today was your last day in this body.

2. Set a timer for ten minutes.

3. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel right now.

4. Contemplate one or more of the following questions.

  • What are you most grateful for today?
  • Is there a personal or circumstantial grievance are you ready to let go?
  • What aspect of your life would you most like to change?

5. When the timer goes off, take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel before going to bed.

These exercises prove effective in reducing mental suffering and promoting resilient well-being over time, but if you need to buy yourself some time for them to kick in, here’s a number you can call.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.