“Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.” – Dag Hammarskjöld
It’s autumn and Halloween season, the wonderful time of year when we are allowed to talk about death without being considered weird or creepy. I like talking about death all year, but my students claim that makes me morbid. I think it makes me happier. It puts everything into perspective. Halloween is when even normal folk put headstones in their front yard, so I think it’s a great time for kids to plan their own death. There’s nothing like death for honing in on what really matters in life. The Funeral Contemplation Activity was created for this very purpose. As the legend goes, it was after Siddhartha saw a sick person, an old person, and a dead person that he decided to go off and seek enlightenment. And we want our kids’ to make enlightened choices about their lives, don’t we? Death is a great tool for that, readily available but often avoided. Either way, it will happen. So what does that mean for our time here on earth? The Funeral Contemplation Activity simply asks young people to consider the five things they want people to say about them after they’re gone and the five things they want to have accomplished by that time. It produces some interesting results.
We tend to either glamorize or hide death. News and media are filled with violence. On any given night there are hundreds of TV murders, which plant in us the perception that we live in a violent world. I’m always startled when I ask my students how many murders they think happen in our city in any given year. In their heads, we live in a war zone. They talk about people dying on every street corner. In reality, my city has an average of about fifteen murders a year. They honestly don’t believe me when I tell them this.
On the other hand, we also hide death. Our elderly are safely tucked away, out of sight, out of mind. So it seems we like to think about death in an abstract and entertaining way, but we don’t like to think about it for real. But many mystics and philosophers believe that is exactly what we must do in order to find fulfillment. Imagining your own funeral is a great way to give your life some perspective. What are the five things you want people to think about you when you die? Not the things they’ll say about you, because at funerals, everything is sugar-coated. What will people actually think about you? (Disclaimer: I don’t recommend obsessing over what others thing about you; but in an abstract, “big picture” kind of way, it can be helpful.) And, second of all, what are the five things you’d like to accomplish by the time of your death?
My students are the best examples of the difference between the way people live their lives and what they want their life to mean. I’m always amazed when these hardened gang-members and drug dealers do this activity. These are kids who tell me flat-out that they want to be original gangster number one. But during this activity they talk about wanting to be remembered as a good dad, a funny guy, a caring person. When listing accomplishments, they talk about meeting a good partner and having a family. Usually they mention a million dollars and a mansion, too. But who wouldn’t? We are all the same in many ways. We live our lives pushing toward goals of success and wealth, but in our heart of hearts we want to be remembered as kindhearted, funny, good parents, good neighbors, happy people. We imagine living in mansions and driving fast cars, but what we really want is family and close relationships and meaningful work.
Thinking about death can help us sort through the difference between being happy versus being successful, the difference between accumulation and true relationships.
Though that doesn’t mean I’d turn down a mansion.
I always finish The Funeral Contemplation Activity by having my students draw and design their own tombstone. I encourage them to leave the ending date open, of course, or put it far into the future. One student put infinity as his end date, which led to a great discussion about the pros and cons of being a vampire. I talk about some famous epitaphs and get them to pick their own. Winston Churchill’s: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” And I encourage them to draw a symbol or picture that would represent their life, which is always very telling. When I asked my son what he would put on his tombstone, he said he wanted a TV. I guess I’ve got some work to do.
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