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Lessons of the Angel of Death

Lesson 2 - No Space in our Lives for Our Dead

About that same time lesson number two came along. Lesson number two came when one of my closest friends experienced his visit from the Angel of Death. I've titled it: "No Space in Our Lives for Our Dead." For several years, I had been part of a small men's group. We met at least monthly, went out into a prairie preserve, usually cooked breakfast for each other and sat around talking about the fact that we had no spiritual lives. The purpose was to explore spirituality and we did it on Sunday morning, but usually all we did was lament our lack of a spiritual life. Well, obviously, once I got diagnosed my situation became very much topic number one of this little men's group and whenever we got together that tended to be what we talked about.

And in talking about my death we realized that we were actually talking about something intensely spiritual for the first time. Well, we were meeting regularly when in late December I got a call, and the call was from Bill's wife, who informed me that Bill had died suddenly and unexpectedly at home. He had a long-standing cardiac arrhythmia problem and the presumption was that he has suffered a fatal arrhythmia that morning.

Needless to say, having somebody ripped out of your life when you're dealing with the situation that we were dealing with is not easy. I found it to be very frightening. Bill had repeatedly assured me that he would be with me in my dying. At Bill's memorial service, death taught me a lesson. We had gathered out in a prairie out just east of Lawrence, Aiken Prairie, to scatter Bill's ashes. It was a group of about thirty people. The group stood in a big circle, sang songs, said some wonderful things about Bill, and then Bill's widow opened up a deer skin in which his ashes were being carried and started spreading the ashes out into the prairie, but she did something that none of us had anticipated her doing. She invited all of us to come and participate in the scattering of the ashes.

I don't know how many of you have done that. I had never done it but everybody else was doing it so I lined up to do it as well. I got my handful of ashes, went off by myself and sprinkled them in the prairie while I was crying about Bill. So much for the good. However, I noticed that my hands were covered with this very fine powder, human ash, Bill's cremains. Although I briefly considered whipping them off on my jacket, I realized my jacket would be covered with this fine powder. Suddenly the solution came to me. The solution was go off by yourself, kneel down, and while you're kneeling, just sort of surreptitiously wipe your hands on the grass. So I went off by myself, knelt down, leaned down just about to wipe the ashes off my hands and a voice inside me said, "Don't do it. Don't do it." What am I supposed to do? I asked. "Take him with you, was the response. How in the hell am I supposed to take him with me? I have to drive home. I've got this powder all over my hands. How can I take him with me?

Solution: lick your hands. I licked the ashes off my hands. As I was doing that, I said to myself, "Damn, you're taking Bill into your body. His atoms will become part of your body, part of the calcium of your bones, You will have his atoms mixed yours until the day you die. You may have him with you in a way that you never imagined possible."

As I've shared that story with people I've become aware of how little presence there is in our lives of the people who have died. And I've come to believe that one of the things that makes it really hard to die in America is that you know when you're dying that once you're dead you're out of here. You're forgotten; you're gone. It seems that few members of this society have any room in their lives for dead people. We don't have places in our homes that honor our dead. We don't talk to our dead. We may once a year visit their marker out in the cemetery, but they're not present in our every day lives. They have no power to influence us in any way, because we don't keep them alive in our minds and in our hearts. I think that's tragic and I think it speaks volumes about our society and about how difficult our society makes it for people who are dying.

The only way that I believe that I will survive my death is if you people keep me alive in your minds and in your hearts. Otherwise, I will be no more. It's up to each and every one of you to decide whether I will be present in your life. You can have as much of me as you want. I have dead friends who are more a part of my life now than they were when they were alive. I have a little shrine to Elizabeth Layton in a corner of my office and I talk to her every day. Well, before she was dead, she lived in Wellesville and I talked to her twice a month.