Some four hundred years ago, the famous English poet John Donne, wrote a well-known sonnet that started with:
Death, be not proud,
though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful,
for thou art not so;
I was reminded of these lines this past week as I attended two funerals, one for my next-door neighbour, and another for an elderly lady friend and distinguished member of Oshawa’s Ukrainian community. John Donne also penned these well-known words in another poem:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am
involved in mankind.
And therefore, never send
to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne in these poems encapsulated two essential truths about death. The first is that, as much as some people may think so, death does not extinguish the essence of an individual. Every individual leaves a legacy of words, deeds, memories and for some, progeny, that live on after their physical presence is no more. That is why at the end of Ukrainian funeral services, the parting words are “Vichnaya Pamyat!” or “Eternal Memory” in common English. Of course, as Christians we also believe that the spirit of the deceased person lives on in that other dimension of existence that people call the afterlife or heaven. Even non-believers, have in recent centuries come to realize that it is a fundamental truth of science that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed into another form. Life, it would seem obvious, is a special form of energy, and when life leaves a person’s body it merely moves on in another form to another reality.
The second fundamental truth about death, is that it creates a void in those left behind. As social creatures, our lives are built on a complex network of relationships with family, friends, society at large, as well as the physical environment within which we live. When we die, we alter the universe in which we live. To quote a famous phrase from the Star Wars movies, death creates “a disturbance in the force”, the force being the shared consciousness of all living beings on this earth and the universe beyond, or as Donne aptly put it, “Any man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.”
For most of our lives, we either don’t think about death, or purposely avoid it since it is the one aspect of our existence that necessarily forces us to assess what we have made of our proverbial fourscore and seven years of life on this earth. We go into that transition from life to death either in peace or with various degrees of regret and self-recrimination. Which of these winds up being our ultimate fate, depends on what we have done with our lives.
As with other similar significant philosophical conundrums, I inevitably turn to my spiritual and moral mentor, my cousin Hryts from Pidkamin, that rural hotbed of practical wisdom in Western Ukraine. I am reminded of one particular discourse that I had with Hryts on this very topic while sitting under the large walnut tree that graces his verdant back yard.
“The real measure of your life“ Hryts opined, “is whether you leave this world a better place than when you entered. It does not particularly matter whether you do great deeds or just small ones; whether you improve the whole earth, or just your little corner of it; whether you positively influence whole societies or just one or two individuals. Over the course of thousands and millions of years, everything adds up, and every little bit counts. At the end of your life, as you ponder the great beyond, you should ask yourself, whether your life has made a positive impact on moving civilization forward. Has your life been a net benefit to this earth and any or all of its inhabitants? If you can say yes, then you can depart this life in peace knowing that you have not just occupied space, but have improved it by at least a quantum amount.”
There followed a few minutes of quiet meditation assisted by some of his exquisite homemade raspberry wine, as I pondered my own contribution to this universe’s reality. In the end, I concluded that fortunately I still had some time to augment my own contribution to life’s balance sheet.