Updated: Apr 1, 2020
On Memorial Day in the Unites States, we light our grills, fill our drinks with cold cocktails and Coronas and we reflect on the memory of those who came before us and sacrificed their liberties and lives for our ability to enjoy this government recognized holiday. Deeper than this though, Memorial Day, for me, has always represented the promise of Summer, my favorite time of year. When you survive in the North, you don’t enjoy the summer, you worship it! That's how I grew up. So in light of the promises of hot weather, cold beverages, and the remembrance of those who sacrificed, I want to talk about a topic we all avoid, yet ultimately come to embrace, the meaning of death.
There is much more to consider on this topic than I could entertain you with in a five minute read, but lets begin with the facts. Everyone who has ever lived, has died. Some have attempted to escape this finality, some try to forestall its inevitability, but since the days when ancient Greeks rubbed olive oil on their skin and wrestled naked, the difference between man and god has been the ability to escape death. J.K. Rowling demonstrates this in the crescendo of her Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows, as the reader weighs the unfortunate death of Harry’s parents (the good guys) against the prolonged life and attempted immortality of Lord Voldemort (the bad guy). Only I can live forever. What I’m getting at here is that we all come to a time in life where it all just ends. That is a fact. In light of this fact, it is my view that we must do what we can in our short existence to leave a mark, live without regret, and ensure that our legacy can survive when our body cannot. I'll let J.K. Rowling and the amazing cast of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince drive this point home for me here:
I have made the comparison before between our presence in the universe and the gears of a clock. All of us tiny little gears work around and around on our own pursuits, not realizing our relationship to the other gears around us. While spinning about our merry ways, we set the course of our neighbor gears to spin about theirs and the effect continues until the entire complex network of gears spin around at various speeds doing their part in moving the hands of time forward into another moment of time.
Your presence in someone else’s life has profound influence, even if neither party realizes it at the time or ever at all. You do. There are, however, the occasional life events that cause us to stop and realize something about ourselves that we can pick up from someone else's circumstances.
Earlier this year, I received a phone call at seven o’clock in the morning. One of my closest and most adored friends had taken his own life. An event that brought my steam engine of ambition and can-do attitude to a screeching halt. If you have had such an event happen in your life, you can understand the immediate impact that it has on your thoughts, your emotions, and your assumptions. Did he mean to do it? Was I there enough? Did he need my help? Why would he do this? It is a tough pill to swallow as you search for meaning and try to imagine the future with his absence. I don't particularly suggest taking it with bourbon.
Different from my friend's ending was that of my biggest mentor and dearest family member, my grandmother. By the time she found her final day in 2014, she had come to embrace it, accept it, and could look back on her life without any regrets and see no stone had been left unturned. Gazing at her casket and speaking with friends and family at her funeral was more like a celebration of a woman who we all had adored, respected and learned from than a sad goodbye. We were happy for her. I learned something in those days about regret that I have held close to my heart since that time. I would have none. This passing was dramatically different than the death I had just recently dealt with when my friend passed away and there were other lessons to be learned.
In searching for Death’s meaning again, I found a lot of inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s portrayals of the topic, a central theme in the Harry Potter series. For those who merely thought is was children’s story about fictional witches and wizards, I can tell you that it is more about the struggle between good and evil and life and death. For the "Christians" who wouldn't let their kids watch the movies, well, I'm sorry to say that you missed out. The ultimate battle between good and evil, light and dark, and life and death is a story that spans the entire course of human existence and can be explained so eloquently by nearly every religion, myth, and epic tale ever told.
The short conclusion that I can draw from the topic is this; to everything there must be a beginning and an end. An Alpha and Omega. In our all too modern world with 24 hour stores that don’t close on Christmas (or any other holiday for that matter) and shopping deals that begin on Thanksgiving Day, we thankfully still have yet to break the universal law that everyone must follow. One day, it will all end. For those who might attempt to keep someone alive or bring them back to the land of the living, they would do well to remember that it is a feat unachievable by the common man. It is this way for a reason. Let them rest, they have been through enough.
Our ancient ancestors knew this. Simply examine our modern rituals surrounding death that began long ago.
Step 1. View the body and grieve. This gives us time to process and understand the fact that the person is actually not coming back.
Step 2. Burn them or bury them. They’re not coming back and that’s the end of it. It’s done.
J.K. Rowling and Albus Dumbledore understood this. Even in a world of magic like Harry Potter’s, there is a universal rule immortalized by the words of Dumbledore, “There is no spell that can reawaken the dead Harry. I trust you know that.” Dumbledore takes steps to remove Harry from the mirror of Erised after he explains to the boy that staring into the mirror, viewing a life where his parents are present, is one that can never be. “Men have wasted away in front of it. Even gone mad. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” Finally, in the end, even the Deathly Hallows are not enough for any man to cheat the unforgiving finality that all men pay.
Out of this unforgiving truth, what are we mortals to do? Well, as Tolkien would say, "Sometimes the questions are hard, and the answers are simple." Move on. It sounds overtly simple and I understand that it can be easier said than done. It can also be easier done than fought.
In short, Memorial Day is a great day to reflect on those who have come before us, who have given their lives, and had them taken all too soon. Think about what you learned from them and what their life meant to you. It’s also a great day to enjoy the day off, light the grill, drink a cold one and enjoy the fact that we are still here and have a great Summer ahead of us. Both my friend and my grandmother would want that for us because I know that’s exactly what they would be doing if they were still here with us. Let’s be thankful for the lives of those who left before us but let’s not lose ourselves in the process. From me to you, enjoy the day and enjoy your friends and family. Here’s to many more magical moments before our clock stops ticking.