Wednesday, 8 June 2016


“Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.” - Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

The death of our family friend last week is still uppermost in my mind, but now, after the funeral, even his family is beginning to adjust to the idea that his life has ended. I was thinking as the priest was reading the last rites at the graveside that we all live as though we were immortal, thinking little of our own death. How different our life would be if we realised how temporary our existence is, how precarious, how fragile.

“Memento mori”, the ancients said, “remember that you have to die” and they scattered around their home and workplace reminders of their mortality: Skulls, butterflies, flowers, hourglasses, and other images and symbols of the ephemeral nature of life. We have become estranged from this omnipresent reminder of death, our culture being one of youth and wellness, ignoring death at our peril. We incarcerate our elderly in nursing homes (out of sight and out of mind), we pursue eternal youth in the form of creams, botox, hair dye, exercise regimes and plastic surgery, and we idolise the young and modern.

Death has become a dirty word in our days. Think of the euphemisms we turn to instead of simply saying “he died”: “Passed away”, “slept the sleep of the righteous”, “gone away”, “expired”, “demised”, “gone to meet his Maker”, “shuffled off the mortal coil”, “gave up the ghost”, “resting in peace”, etc, etc… Death is part of life, not just the end of it. We should be familiar with it and not afraid of it – whoever is afraid of death is afraid of life too. Thinking of death (especially our own) makes us respect life more. And when the time comes for us to die, we are ready to do so, peacefully and with resignation.

Long, Long Night

This Winter evening comes too soon,
And the sun weak, pallid, frosty
Hurries behind the dun clouds
To sink below the far horizon’s line.

As violet twilight rapidly darkens
Into an obsidian night,
A lonely candle burns by my bedside
Sputtering with an unsure flame.

The air is frigid but my breath seems colder
Coming in shortening gasps,
My broken lungs submerged
In icy oceans of choking phlegm.

My skin is sallow, like the yellow wall
Where candle flame illumines
Cracking plaster, mirroring
My wrinkled face, my lined hands.

The wind whistles, the timbers creak,
And sounds of dry bones
Rubbing against the flagstones
Tell me the dark rider is nearing.

The night is long, black, cold;
An endless night with a dawn so distant
That it may as well never arrive,
My candle flickers, hisses, goes out.

My heart falters, misses beats,
Trembles weakly, palpitates;
The machine is worn out, faulty,
Damaged by years of constant use.

The door is open now and as the wind howls,
The sombre bony rider enters.
As I draw in my last and laboured breath,
I hope against hope that this darkest moment
Of the cold, black, long, long night
Comes just before a bright new dawn…

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