V1I1: Why “The Benefits of Contemplating Death?”
When I was little I was very concerned about my dad dying. Long story short — my mom took me to go see The Lion King in theaters when I was two and a half (#typicaldisney). So I told my dad I didn’t want him to die. His response? He told me that when he died I could take him to a taxidermist and prop his stuffed body up in my bedroom so he would always be around. (I maintain that this story encapsulates who my dad is better than any other anecdote, haha.) Over the years he has come up with other out there schemes about what to do with his body post mortem. These include:
- mounting his head on the wall with a motion sensor so that he can scream obscenities at people as they walk by (think a combination of the house elf heads at Grimmauld Place and those talking fish you see at manly meat restaurants or outdoor stores)
- and rolling his body off the side of our beach path so that the carrion consuming creatures can eat him.
(This last one I’m actually totally on board with, presuming we can do it legally.)
Talking about death with my mom came later when, at the ripe age of 10, I realized I was going to die. I could avoid thinking about death during the day when my mind was consumed with routine activities, but at night I couldn’t ignore my mortality. I was completely terrified. I would sleep in my mom’s bed and I remember talking to her about it a little bit. At that point in her life she was thoroughly atheist, and told me that life would just end— it would be blackness, nothingness. Not a comforting response, but looking back I appreciate the bravery with which she told me her beliefs and refused to skirt around the subject.
Most people are afraid of death (fear of death ranks right after fear of public speaking, as we’ve all heard by now), and as an adult who is probably uncomfortable with the whole death thing I can’t imagine anything quite as unsettling as telling your child that they’re going to die. Ok, ok, maybe telling them about kidnapping, torture, rape and murder is up there too. Some horrors of living definitely seem scarier than death, at least to me. On a lighter note, the sex talk is probably up there on a lot of parents’ lists of most uncomfortable moments. Still, you get my point — the mortality convo = not the funnest. But my mom confronted it head on and I’m so grateful that she did.
To comfort me, she said that she thought that people get less scared of dying as they get older, and she reached out to one of our family friends who had been confronting similar existential realities. Basically, she asked our friend how long she’d been thinking about death. When the jury came back, the answer was something like, “forever,” or, “my whole life,” or, “I still think about it now.” Essentially, an answer that made me feel like I would never escape this scary relationship I had with my inevitable death. This TERRIFIED me. I was thinking “WTF, how am I going to deal with life if I’m stuck in this existential hell forever.” Ok, I was 10, so it probably wasn’t in those words, but you get the idea. I’m not sure what the turning point was, but I eventually stopped fixating on my death and found other things to worry about — boys, how to avoid being the most socially awkward person ever… you know, those sort of things.
The funny thing is that I’ve circled back 15 years later. I’m now choosing to think about death as much as I possibly can, and I am the happiest I’ve been in a while. Is death still scary? Sure, of course it is. I’m not sure I will ever be fearless toward dying. But does thinking about death make my life better? Abso-fucking-lutely.
So how did I go from death-terrified 10-year-old to death-obsessed 25-and-a-half-year-old? There was a turning point when I was 22 (I’ll get to that in a second), but there were indicators along the way. For instance, I’ve always been attracted to the darker aspects of life. Growing up I read about eating disorders, self mutilation, and depression. I don’t know why that was, but I found these typically disturbing topics fascinating. I gobbled up books like Reviving Ophelia, Pledged, and Prozac Nation. Even my fictional entertainment was affected. A couple of my favorite movies were The Nightmare Before Christmas and Thirteen, and I loved books like Coraline and Sabriel. I never thought much of these interests. I just wanted to watch and read what I enjoyed, and these were the movies and books I liked.
Then I turned 22 and had a breakdown when I returned to college after traveling for 3 months. For three years, I had been studying graphic design— the profession I had wanted to go into throughout high school. I was following the designated trajectory, doing everything I was supposed to… except I wasn’t fulfilled by my schoolwork. Not an uncommon experience, but I still felt very shaken. I stopped feeling motivated. I stopped wanting to do anything creative. It felt like a core part of my identity was gone, so I started looking for ways to feel better. Through that search I found a book called Nature and the Human Soul. In that book the author, Bill Plotkin, talks about a phase in human development where we have to confront mystery, the unknown, and darkness, in order to figure out what most fulfills us. How do we do this? One way he suggests is to confront death. Here’s a quote that sums up his thinking:
“The confrontation with death is an unrivaled perspective-enhancer. In the company of death, most desires of early adolescence fall away. What are the deepest longings that remain?” — Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul
This is exactly what I wanted— to figure out what my deepest longings were. Heck, I didn’t even need that much. I just wanted to know what I still liked. At that moment I had no idea. So I signed up for volunteer training with Hospice SLO, and although there were timing issues that prevented me from volunteering after the training, a spark of inspiration had finally been ignited in me. What do I want to do before I die? What is it like to die? What happens after I die? These questions hint at one of the biggest mysteries: How are we even here right now?!
Besides the first question, there’s no way for me to know the answers until I die. I may never have an answer to the last question. I think the unknown is the X factor that keeps me intrigued though. For example, I have no clue what happens after death; I personally believe that it’s a mystery that we will never solve until we die, no matter how far science advances. Maybe it’s closed-minded of me. Maybe humans will have some scientific or spiritual (or something else) breakthrough that will tell us exactly what happens after we die. Even now there are tons of accounts of past life regressions recounted during therapy, tales of near-death experiences that seem to describe similar events, seemingly divine transmissions that offer detailed accounts of the afterlife, and staunch afterlife beliefs from many religions. There’s also the scientific understanding that no matter or energy is created or destroyed— what does that mean for consciousness? There are beliefs of reincarnation, soul relocation, re integration, and abrupt endings— even stories of people living the same exact life repeatedly. Maybe someday one of these beliefs may be proven true. Until that point, though, I choose to believe that all of these possibilities are true. Or rather that any of them may be true. In other words, I choose to revel in the mystery.
And anyways how could I, one human in this huge universe (multiverse?), claim to know what happens after we die with absolute certainty? That seems so ridiculous to me. But of course, tons of other people claim to really know what the afterlife has in store for us. How can I begrudge them their belief, when in a sense I also believe what they believe. I just simultaneously believe what everyone else believes too. That’s the beauty and the scary part of the unknown, we can believe anything we want exists within it.
Even though I don’t want the answer, I am consumed by the mystery of death. I want to know what the staunch atheist and the devout believers think happens when we die. I want to know what the everyday person thinks about death. I want to know what bereavement counselors, hospice nurses, doctors, hunters, morticians, grave diggers, and others in death-related professions think of death. I just want to talk about death so I can enjoy the mystery instead of be filled with terror by the unknown.
Since I realized my interest in death, I have incorporated death contemplation into my life in many ways: going through hospice training, photographing wild animals that died on the beach, helping friends through the deaths of loved ones, and meditating on death. After doing this for awhile, I found that there were some side effects that came from thinking about death. Ok yes, more people became concerned for my mental health, and yes people constantly said, “isn’t that a little morbid?” But I found that there were a lot of people out there who wanted to be able to talk about death more openly. People have profound experiences around death, both beautiful and heart breaking. The type of experiences that make you feel thoroughly human and alive. I also found that I was the kindest, most authentic version of myself when I remembered I could die at any moment.
So there you have it, those side effects are (some of) the benefits of contemplating death.
Without further ado, I present: The Benefits of Contemplating Death. The BCD is an slightly-more-than-monthly online publication that will be coming out at every new moon (New York time). Fitting right? When the moon is hidden from us, and seemingly more dead than the floating hunk of rock normally is. This is the place I will combine my passion for photography, writing, and (durr) death. I will talk to a diverse range of people about death. I will talk to death professionals, spiritual leaders, the devout and the nonbelievers, and hunters and animal activists (animals die too!!). I will share death resources I come across — from logistical paper work aids to young adult novels. I will share my experiences becoming a hospice volunteer (without violating HIPPA of course). And for all of my Insta followers out there (love you 😘) I will continue to share my descent shoots and death themed photographs.
Thank you for reading this. You made it to the end, congrats! Stay tuned for more. Next issue out on July 4th (talk about a death-filled day). See you then!
Q: So this death thing is kind of morbid right?
A: Here’s the definition of morbid:
- characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.
I guess it comes down to whether my interest is unhealthy or not. I certainly don’t think so. Thinking about death has helped me live authentically, pursue my dreams, fear less, treat loved ones with more kindness, and be more empathetic in general. You however, might think my death contemplation is unhealthy, and thus morbid. That’s fine. Your opinion is your business.
Q: You’re not super depressed right?
A: Um, no. Actually the complete opposite. 3 years ago I was very depressed and thinking about death was a key player in making me feel vital again. When I confronted the impermanence of life, I realized how much beauty there was around me and how much I would miss when I was gone (that is, if I have the ability to miss things when I die). Thinking about death reminds me to cherish every moment, to love as much as I can, and to live life how I want to live it because this might be my only chance. The cheese factor is on point in this case.
Q: But you can’t live like you’re going to die tomorrow all the time, right? You have to make money and stuff.
A: I’m not proposing you live like you’re going to die tomorrow all the time. I’m proposing that you think about death more, talk about it more, and examine what you would do if you knew you were going to die in different time periods. This self reflection will hopefully let you see what’s most important to you, so you can focus more of your energy on what matters to you. None of this implies that you need to quit your job and travel the world or party constantly or anything else. Maybe you will realize that your job is unfulfilling and get a new job, but maybe you’ll recognize this discontent and decide to stay in your job anyways because it allows you to take care of your family, and that’s what is most important to you. Using your inevitable death as a guide for your actions does not necessitate irresponsibility.
(Are you over that line of questioning? I sure am. Let’s move on.)
Q: I want to reap the benefits of contemplating death. Are there ways for me to incorporate death contemplation into my everyday life?
A: Yes! So many ways. A big way is to become a volunteer at your local Hospice organization, or you can just go through training if you don’t feel ready to hang out with dying people (totally fair). Another way is to start having conversations with your loved ones about their end-of-life wishes. This may be hard but it’s great to clear this information up while everyone’s healthy so that if something does happen you don’t have the stress of guessing what they would want. Some more low key ways? Meditate on what you would do if you were going to die in 10 years, 5 years, 1 year, 1 month, 1 week, and a day. You might gain some interesting insights. You can also read death-themed books and blogs. One book I want to read, but haven’t yet, is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. While you’re at it check out her blog and videos by googling The Order of the Good Death. Another blog: Confessions of a Funeral Director. Want a young adult novel? Try Sabriel.
Q: Thanks, but I’m really into what you’re doing! How can I be involved?
Stop (don’t stop)! You’re making me blush!
One easy way is to take picture that shares your interpretation of the benefits of contemplating death and post it on Instagram. Make sure mention @thebcd and tag #thebenefitsofcontemplatingdeath so I can see your perspective on death, and so others can benefit from your thoughts on death too. Plus you might get featured on The BCD Instagram page.
Other ways to get involved will be available very soon! I’m going to open up descent shoots to the public, start an interactive project, lead death discussions, and more. I’ll be redoing my website soon so you’ll be able to find out more there, but make sure to follow @TheBCD on Instagram to be the first to know. 🌚