I’ve been thinking about death.
A couple of weeks ago, a beloved relative of mine found his death. And you know, I’m sad and I’ve had tears. But also, there is something of the beautiful death about his story and I want to talk about that.
Rhett Ashley was my uncle on my mother’s side, from North Carolina Appalachian mountain folk. He was creative, philosophical, devilish, and surprising. He had a wicked streak and used to entertain me with crazy yarns and stories about his youth and the mountain culture he came from. You knew a certain cheerful, slightly evil grin he would get on him and it would slowly dawn on you that the tale he had been spinning out for the last 20 minutes was a complete fabrication, while he chuckled gleefuly at your outrage. There was a lot of art in his world: he painted, carved wood and stone, and last I heard, had been working on a novel. About freaky Pagans, as it turns out. I’m hoping I might still get to see that book some day.
One of the things Rhett loved best was fishing in rivers. I’m told he had fished in over a hundred American rivers. In his eulogy, my father wrote of many long summer evenings the two of them spent in the river together: “During the season we were out in the river at least a couple of times a week during those years, sometimes late afternoons, but most often in the evenings when we would fish until dark. The McKenzie mostly runs due West, so in many places the sun sets right down the river, turning the water and riffles to molten bronze.”
I’m spinning this out partly to memorialize him, but also because it sets the stage for his beautiful death. One evening in early July, Rhett came back in from the river and, in the words of my aunt, “sat down in the grass by the prettiest river there is, on the most beautiful summer day you could ask for, and died.” They found him in the morning looking just like he had fallen asleep there. Like that, peaceful, graceful, by his beloved river. I like to imagine him coming out of the river that evening and sitting himself on the bank there. Perhaps the river was turning to molten gold again and he didn’t want to miss it. I can’t help picturing his spirit slipping out into the radiant stream pouring down westward toward the setting sun. It is hard to imagine a death-moment more perfect for who Rhett was. That is what makes his death beautiful: not just that it was gentle, but that it was so perfectly his own.
The dignity of a beautiful death. A kindness we do not all get. The following week, my thoughts were also full of Sandra Bland, a young Black activist who died under horrific and suspicious circumstances in police custody, after being brutalized by police during an arbitrary arrest. I can’t help thinking that Sandra’s beautiful death was taken away from her. Had she not been killed in this way, what might her beautiful death have been, when it came in its own time?
I have long felt death as a kind of distant spirit that waits for me – something like a long-lost friend with whom an inevitable reunion is coming. Its features, its shape, reflective of our lives and contexts, but rarely visible to us in advance. The beautiful death is the right one, the one that is perfectly our own. It need not be gentle to be a beautiful death: members of warrior societies, driven by the logic of the heroic ethos, have often cherished the ideal of dying violently in honorable combat, beloved and bloodied weapon in hand.
We recognize a sense that there is a death which rightfully belongs to us, but which can be taken away from us, in the concept of “wrongful death”. I wonder, who can restore to Sandra Bland what was torn from her in her wrongful death? What does it do to the fabric of the world when someone’s beautiful death is taken and made a horror? Is there any prayer, any spiritual fulfillment, any restoration possible for this?
Beautiful or terrible, violent or gentle, death is ordained. This is something that we all know, but often prefer not to contemplate. I find that thinking of my death as a companion helps me to keep it in mind. I want to remember that my death is coming. I think that making friends with death helps us to live more fully.
A few weeks ago while we were at a Coru warband encampment, my friend Rynn Fox quipped, “Death is coming. Kick ass. Be free.” It was said in a moment of fun, but struck my truth nerve, and has stayed with me as something approaching my own philosophy about what makes a good life. A short while before his death, I’m told Rhett had been exhorting my father to get out into the rivers again and fish more. He said, perhaps prophetically, “Fish, fish! For the long night approaches.” His way of saying a similar thing.
These messages ring in my heart. Death is coming. Do what you love. Fight for what matters. Be free. Make your life count. For the long night approaches. For me, these are not messages of fear. They are a reminder of the heroic ethos. For me, the presence of death makes me want to love this world fiercely and live to the fullest. For me, death brings a message of courage and beauty.