Debra and I enjoy going to concerts. We have to pace ourselves, given constraints on time and money. There are many artists we want to see while they’re still able to sing and we’re still able to hear.
Over the last few years, we’ve attended live performances of some of our favorites like James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Debra’s had to rein me in some during my fifty-seventh year.
It’s as if I’m determined to mark everything I can off the bucket list.
I also find myself wanting to write everything I’ve ever thought about writing.
I guess that somewhere down deep, I’m still afraid of not living my life before I die. So I have to be careful not to let myself get in too big a hurry.
Speaking of being in a hurry—when I die, I’ll be cremated, because I figure if we really do return to ashes, there’s no point lying around in a box waiting for it to happen.
I’m told that the cremation of a human body usually produces somewhere between three and nine pounds of ash. If you’re buried rather than cremated, it’ll take a good bit longer for you to get back to basics. Either way, though, our ashes will eventually join their cousins, the ashes of the earth, and our dust will float away in the breeze.
God said to the first man in the biblical narrative, and by extension to all participants in the human story, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Admittedly, those words have a certain spirit about them; “You work hard all your life and then you die.” They leave us saying, “Surely there’s more to it all than that!”
Indeed there is.
Almost six decades of reflection on my mortality—and, by extension, on our mortality—has led me to the startling conclusion that we are mortal.
We shouldn’t forget it. We should remember that we are created and that we are temporary. We should maintain a sense of humility, and even a sense of humor, about ourselves. We should remember that as surely as we were born, we will die.
It’s helpful to remember that, being made of stuff, we are prone to do stuff, and some of the stuff we do is not worth doing, or is stuff we shouldn’t have done to begin with. We call some of this stuff “silly” and some of it “sin.” Some of it we do because we’re willful, some of it because we’re prideful, and some of it because we’re weak, frail, and frightened.
But, regardless of why we do it, we do it. In our honest moments, we know we do it and we’re willing to confess that we do it.
I think about mortality every day, but I especially think about it on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is an annual opportunity to contemplate our dustiness. It gives us a chance to confront our humanity, our frailty, and our impermanence, to acknowledge and repent of our sins, and to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
But we should also take advantage of the opportunity it gives us to live more in light of the fact that we are sentient dust. We are thinking, self-aware dust. We are responsible for what we do in and with our dustiness.
So Ash Wednesday reminds us of the need to face up to our humanity—“we are dust”—and to our mortality—“to dust we shall return.” But it can also remind us to face up to our possibilities: as long as we are conscious, self-aware, spirit-fueled dust, we can become more and more capable of loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others.
Guided by the thoughts of the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), we can think of it this way: as sentient ashes, we can move from loving God for our own sake, to loving God for God’s sake, to loving self for God’s sake, and finally to loving others for God’s sake. As we grow in these earthy bodies to love God more and more only for the sake of loving God because God is, because God is love, and because God incites love, we will grow more and more to love ourselves out of God’s love and to love others out of God’s love.
And if we can truly grow in our ability to reach out in love to each other, it will give us another and most helpful way to think about the meaning of “ashes to ashes.” One day, all of our ashes will be joined.
We might as well let them mingle now.
(Excerpted from my book Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life)