I’m trying to remember. I think it was my senior year in high school that we were required to memorize the last stanza of the poem Thanatopsis. It was written by William Cullen Bryant. Strangely, Thanatopsis is a poem about death.
Why a poem regarding death would be required reading in high school, much less memorizing, was a question that came to my mind at the time. Who knows? Perhaps it had some relationship to Vietnam and the plight that potentially awaited so many of America’s young people from all walks of life? War (declared or other wise) could have served as the catalyst for requiring familiarity with the information? How did the last stanza go? “Yes”, I remember:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Death? Death is not a concept we pay much attention to unless it is forced upon us by circumstance. Don’t we shun the thought and avoid even the possibility of pausing to consider that our lives or that of those we love will one day be subject to death? Yet, there are times that I find myself reciting Thanatopsis in the resources of my memory. I like the line: “Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Saturday morning I had the privilege of attending a funeral service for a mother who died unexpectedly. She had been the primary caretaker and support system for her 23-year-old son who has been intermittently very ill since he was in the fifth grade. Fortunately, he currently is physically doing very well. Both the mother and son have a strong and viable faith in God. Out of his love for both God and his mother, the son determined he wanted to personally officiate at his mother’s funeral service.
I had met both the son and his mother on a number of occasions, but did not know either of them extremely well. I am; however, a good friend of a family very close to the mother and to her son. When I learned that the son planned to preside at his mother’s service, my heart went out to him. What an arduous task he was choosing to undertake.
My primary reason for attending the service was simply to have an opportunity to affirm to the young man before the service began that he was in my prayers. At 23 years-of-age, I’d have been both terrified with the task before me, and doubly terrified with the thought of public speaking. It obviously was a God appointed task, because the young man glorified both God and his mother in the process. It was a beautifully done service.
Sunday morning I received the sad news that a cousin’s husband had died very unexpectedly that morning. The news weighed heavily on my heart. Actually, it still does. Several days before, he was the picture of perfect health. Almost overnight the bottom dropped out and he was moved from ICU to comfort care. He died a few hours later.
Later on Sunday, I drove to the chapel at the children’s home where I work to attend a memorial service. While I was driving it occurred to me that every single solitary person I come in contact with will die. Death is a hurdle that only few in history by-passed. Aren’t Enoch and Elijah the only two men in history who reportedly did not die? It is an ominous thought that everyone you encounter awaits the same fate as the man you see in the mirror. It is appointed to man, once to die.
The last time I entered the chapel at the children’s home was two or three week earlier. It was to attend the memorial service for the founder of the agency where I work. She died at the age of 94. Her home going was associated to an anticipated farewell.
Sunday afternoon as I drove, lost in thought, everything seemed very different. No one a week earlier would have even considered the young man’s death a possibility. After all, he was only 24-years-of-age and seemingly had his whole life in front of him. Sadly, his life ended way too abruptly.
This afternoon, I will drive to Fort Worth for the funeral service of my cousin’s husband on Wednesday morning. Last night as I was attempting to chronicle some of the thought I’d like to share at that service, I received an email reporting another unexpected death. A long-term friend who previously served as a child-care administrator in Oklahoma, died unexpectedly on Monday morning. News of his death also hurts my heart because of the impact of separation on his family.
For the past several days, I’ve lived with the reminder that life on this side of eternity is short. Life passes way too quickly. Today, of all days, I should know that. Today is my birthday.
I don’t think for the minute that death is the end of life. It is only a transition. Just as one day a caterpillar pauses and allows nature to form a cocoon, only to emerge weeks later as a butterfly. So it is with death. God heals the brokenness of our humanity in order that we might live forever.
In the interim, I like the way Henry David Thoreau expressed it? He wrote: “When it comes time to die, let us not discover that we never lived”.
All My Best!