7 Things I’ve Learned About Life from Death Care

“And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver


Of one thing I’m certain, death informs us about living life. Here are seven tenets on living well I’ve gleaned from my work in death care:

 1.   Memento Mori

Memento mori means remember that you, too, shall die. Let’s love well. Let’s let our beloved know of our love constantly. As a habit—a fierce and regular habit. Nothing is more urgent. No more holding back. Death drives urgency. Let death cause you to thrill at and be fully in your life with people to whom you feel generous and loving. Don’t let death catch you by surprise.

2.   When it comes time, ensure the only thing to do is die

 If we want to die well, it means a practical re-ordering of our relationship to things, to the material world. Dignity means order in chaos. Order your soul and relationships, too. Forgiveness and reconciliation play a huge role.

3.   The 11th commandment is tenderness

We may compete in fierce and principled battle. But the test of love is tenderness. A 75-year-old conservative Christian man left behind an only son from whom he became estranged 20 years ago, after the son came out as gay. The son delivered a moving remembrance of a man he had known only in his younger years. This son chose tenderness over bitterness.

4.   Take full inventory of your blessings

Stephen Jenkinson wrote, “Every day, take a moment to sit at your deathbed and see what your dying self has to say about your life.” I add, “and about your blessings.” Count and share your graces. Cultivate what elates you. Leapy’s son said, “My father taught every neighborhood kid to ride a bike or drive a car. He mowed two neighbors’ lawns.” His daughter said, “He took delight in delighting our mother.”

5.   The sacred formula:  grief = praise

To grieve is to love and honor who we miss, a homesickness that never goes away. One day, I drove alone to remove the body of a 40-something woman. The husband met me at the door with three sisters. Her family had folded her hands atop the bedspread. Her mouth was peacefully closed. The family helped shroud and lay her on the gurney. Grief and love in action.

6.   A realistic view is the foundation for compassion

So says the Dalai Lama. Assess situations reasonably and be clear-eyed about one’s responsibility. A woman in her late 60s started her relationship with her husband 30 years ago. But she said, “It’s complicated. He left me for eight years for a younger woman. But he got colorectal cancer and the young woman left, so I invited him back and cared for him his last 18 months.”

7.   “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy”

Set aside time to slow down, be with each other, and concentrate your astonishment at the mysteries.

Paul Boardman is a writer and interfaith funeral chaplain and celebrant living in Seattle. He grew up in Tokyo and is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. His work has been featured in The Good Men Project, Gravel, P.S. I Love You,and the ICCFA funeral trade magazine, and in the anthologies Just a Little More Time, We Came to Say, and We Came Back to Say. He is seeking a publisher for his memoir.

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