When the race is run

Today I attended the funeral for a neighbor, a man I didn’t know very well but with whom I’ve had a cordial relationship since I moved here four years ago. He had been quite ill for the past couple of years so his passing was not a surprise. I have always believed that funerals are held to console the living, so I went to offer my condolences to his family. He was a Marine in his youth, and I found the military portion of the service–the solo bugler playing “Taps,” the folding and presentation of the flag to his widow–surprisingly moving.

This is only the fifth or sixth funeral I’ve ever attended. None was for someone I knew well (including my grandfather, who died when I was 10 after spending many years essentially unresponsive in a nursing home). A couple of former friends my own age died long after our friendships had ended, neither of my grandmothers elected to have funeral services, and all my immediate family members and the rest of my current and former friends (as far as I know) are still living. I’ve buried one cat that was killed by a car and had to euthanize one dog. I’ve gotten off really easy so far and I know it. I don’t know how it feels to stand at the side of a casket and mourn, truly mourn, for the person whose body lies inside.

With so little personal experience with the rituals of death as well as death itself, I realize my attitudes about it are a bit irregular. I see life as a brief candle that comes with no guarantees, except that we all will die. In practical but not morbid anticipation of that fact, we should focus our energies on giving all the love we can to the people in our lives and making the most of the time we are given so that when our candle does blow out, everybody who knows us will be sad to live without us but will not be sad for us.

I’ve spent very little time mourning anyone who has ever died. They lived through their arc, whether short or long, and evidently did what they came to do. When we cross the finish line of the race we’re put on this earth to run, we have to leave because there’s nothing more for us to do here (and of course, only god knows when our race is done). It’s an inevitable cycle that we cannot alter or defeat.

What I mourn for are all the losses we inflict on ourselves and others while we live: all the love we withhold, resist, or deliberately sacrifice because we are too afraid or too proud or too damaged to accept it or give it. These are the losses truly to be mourned because they are not inevitable and god does not mete them out according to his plan. These we can prevent. As long as we’re living, it’s not too late to love one another more, love one another better, love one another in spite of everything.

I don’t have any idea what the afterlife looks like, but I do know that both heaven and hell are available to us during this life on this earth right now depending on how we choose to love one another.

Don’t be afraid your life will end. Be afraid that it will never begin.
~ Grace Hansen

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