The face of death is a threshold into the deep, mysterious realm of human nature. To contemplate the face of death is to embark on a journey into the midst of our own impermanence. Along the way, we will inevitably encounter a variety of emotional predators including fear, insecurity, anxiety, dread, and terror. However, death can also inspire appreciation, humility, and gratitude for the present moment. The development of a more intimate sensitivity to the face of death is a means to broaden and expand our appreciation of life.
To continually transfigure the faces of your own death ensures that, at the end of your life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life you have had; you will know its face intimately. Since you have overcome your fear, your death will be a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of your own nature.
– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
The Face of Death[/caption]The human face is remarkably varied; no two people have precisely the same appearance. Each human face is a unique expression of the extraordinary creative power of nature. Aging is constantly altering the geography of our appearance. We belong to a remarkable array of variations on the theme of life.
Like the human face, the face of death cannot be captured in a single image. Just as the human face is remarkably varied and capable of a remarkable range of expression, the face of our death is equally varied and expressive. One of the core disciplines of aging is to build a personal relationship with death as a means to revitalize our identity and transfigure our sense of purpose in life.
Death is the essence of human vulnerability. When we look directly into the face of death we encounter our deepest fears coupled with a profound sense of humility. To put a face to death is, therefore, a necessary journey into one of the greatest mysteries of the human condition. To begin a conversation with the faces of our own death and pursue a deeper understanding of our own impermanence is an act of spiritual resilience. Giving expression to the face of our own death is to cultivate equanimity with our own disappearance.
Death advises us that each one of us is eventually required to leave everyone and everything behind. And while we wait for death to come for us, we are required to experience the death of those around us. One of the most poignant experiences death requires of us is the loss of our parents and the loss of loved ones who predecease us. The death of our parents is a remarkably potent influence in life; it is an experience that can transfigure our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in life.
The face of death can be lined with brutality, tragedy, and horror when a life has been taken away from us too soon. The deep gnawing wound of a parent suffering from the tragic loss of their child reveals a malevolence to death. From this perspective, we perceive the face of death as being detestable, malignant, and hateful.
We have become more interested in giving a face to death. There is a greater sense of openness about the experience of death and dying in the media. For example, in a controversial article called Why I Hope to Die at 75 Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel shares the idea that age 75 is an ideal age to die. The purpose of the article is to provide, “An argument that society and families – and you – will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly.”
Dr. Emanuel does succeed in clarifying one possible face of death. Of course, no one wishes to experience a slow death that is infused with dependence, pain, and suffering. However, his use of chronological age is reckless. What he does portray is a collapse of creative insight and a refusal to participate and adapt to the circumstances of life. This is a face of death in which fear and anxiety are given the fragile illusion of credibility.
Another controversial portrayal of death was shared through social media. In attending the death of his mother, Scott Simon tweeted his experience from his mother’s deathbed. While Simon tended to his dying mother, he also shared painful and intimate moments through his Twitter account. Our tendency is to try and hide from death; Simon communicated the face of his own mother’s death to millions.
An important symbol of death is the barren human skull. A barren skull invokes the absence of a face and the disappearance of life. However, a barren skull also expresses an essential unity, that is to say, a universal sense of connection, relationship, and belonging that we all share.
One of the greatest challenges in knowing the face of death is the requirement to confront predatory emotions rather than becoming their prey. Holding a conversation about death can breed levels of discomfort that make it impossible to discuss. No one wants to put a face, especially their own, on death. However, the unavoidable reality never leaves us alone, and that is that every time you look into a mirror you stand witness to a face of death.
Death is a trusted advisor; it reminds us that we are all the apprentices of a humbling revelation, and that is that there is something rather than nothing at all. Each one of us must die, but every moment of life offers the possibility of beauty, grace, awe, reverence, and celebration. In this sense, death clarifies the potential of the present moment.
Death can appear as the face of sorrow, sadness, and frailty. We know that death waits patiently for each one of us behind the veil of the future. Our assumptions, expectations, accomplishments, and intentions can be laid to ruin when death causes the disappearance of our loved ones and friends. To face the immediacy and close proximity of death means that we must engage in a necessary conversation with grief.
Perhaps the profound sense of impermanence that death exposes us to is a threshold into a deeper appreciation of life. We know that we cannot avoid suffering in life, but we can choose to work creatively with our suffering in order to broaden and expand our experience of being alive.
Death is the face of absolute loss. When death takes a loved one from us our life can appear strange and unfamiliar. The terrain ahead suddenly transforms and we have lost our sense of direction. When we turn to look back and find familiar ground, we are shocked to find that the path already traveled has become completely alien. As we gaze into this face of death we realize that the present has become a threshold into an unimagined life
Bereavement is a child of death. Grieving is a process of adapting to our new circumstances and finding our way back into an unfamiliar world. Each time we experience the loss of a loved one our sense of the past, present and future are mysteriously altered. Death transfigures the felt-meaning of time and we must find a new sense of rhythm in life.
Death turns each one of us into a ghost. When someone dies, however, we can still feel their touch. There is a sense of felt-meaning that resonates out from their death. After death, the echo of the departed merges and flows into our spiritual consciousness. The legacy of those we have lost remains protected in the sanctuary of our heart.
Death is not the opposite of life; it is the source of belonging to and participating in life. We are constantly immersed in relentless patterns of birth and death. Each one of us belongs to this universal dynamic. Each human life is an element in a vast flow of energy too expansive for our minds to grasp. Death is a defining moment in the cycle of life. This is the primal scream of the human condition.
We cannot have a memory of our own death. As we venture deeper into the second half of life, we begin to realize that one day we will no longer be an observer of death. And when it is our turn to die, we become the true face of death.