Ash Wednesday: a time to think on death and legacy

You Are Going to Die | How to Be Present, Part 1

Daniel Montgomery Reality, self awareness

Death Makes You Fully Human

DANIEL MONTGOMERY 
Founder & CEO, 
Leadership Reality

Lent: The Season of Death

Many of my readers know about Ash Wednesday, and the familiar words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return”. If you’re not a churchgoer, you may have seen people sporting smudges of dirt on their heads in the vague shape of a cross. Maybe you asked why—or maybe you assumed that person needed a shower and kept your distance. 

Church-goers and church skeptics alike live in the legacy of the Liturgical year. Even if you have no idea what that is, you still likely gather with the family on Easter. You bluster through the malls when Christmas comes around. And you probably know that the season of Lent starts a week from today. 

The Liturgical Calendar is as old as Christianity itself. It has less to do with worship, and more to do with timefulness. This way, the pious and the not-so-pious could measure their common days and mark their seasons. Together, they kept them in touch with the stories that defined their lives. The season of Lent marks the time leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Because we share a common humanity with Jesus, meditating on his death becomes an opportunity to meditate on our death. 

I want to be clear: You’re going to die

Telling Your Death Story

No one—Christian or not—escapes the reality of their own death. Different traditions and cultures have different ways of reckoning with death. Christians believe in bodily resurrection and eternal life. Many Hindus believe death is as temporary as life, and the two form an endless cycle. Buddhism and Taoism focus on the unknown nature of death, and to prepare by living satisfying, ethical lives on earth. Humanists likewise tell us to enjoy life, because this life is all we get. 

We’re surrounded by different death stories. The problem is, today, most of us don’t tell ourselves any of these stories. We ignore the reality of our death for as long as we can. It’s a common complaint that younger generations “think they’re invincible,” but the rest of us are the same way! We grind to make money, or resting on our laurels, trying to earn the luxury of ignoring our own finitude. 

But we know we never will. 

In my new book, How To Be Present in an Absent World, I argue that finitude and temporality are essential parts of being human. Each of us goes through death to get to the next thing. It’s certainly not healthy to dwell on it day in and day out. But to ignore it completely—as we so often do—is a form of absence to ourselves and our reality. It means being less than fully human. 

Practice the Presence of Death

This Ash Wednesday, I encourage you to break the habit of ignoring your own death. Become more present, to yourself and to others, by appreciating that you have abundant but limited time on this earth. Spend life with that in mind: in the ways you want, with the people you want. Even though our decisions and relationships are eternal, we feel their finitude and temporality in this life. Don’t sacrifice to ambition any time you might have spent more presently in your own life. Because you won’t buy that time back.

Death is the common lot of humanity in this fallen world. Present leaders resolve to live each of their numbered days for the glory of God and the good of others. In this Lenten season, practice healthy ways of being present to the reality of death: 

  • Put thirty minutes on your calendar to reflect on your own inevitable end. Who do you want by your side in your final moments? Who will be there when they lay you in the ground? What will they put on your tombstone? How will others remember you?
  • Consider writing your own eulogy and sharing it with one other person. To “eulogize” someone means to bless them. Isn’t it a shame that we only bless people in this way after they die? Before that time comes, consider the blessings you hope for when you die. What life can you live right now that will make that eulogy a reality? How can you eulogize the people you love while they’re still near to you?

The writer Ivan Illich called prayer a “rehearsal for death”. Today, remember that your life is a prayer, and that you must “pray ceaselessly” (1 Thess 5:17).

Making it Real: One the greatest examples of self-eulogizing comes from John Tavener (1944-2013), an English composer who wrote his own funeral hymn. His beautiful music testifies to the fact that confronting our own deaths can make us more present to ourselves, resulting in incredible accomplishment and creativity. 

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