Here’s what may be the biggest paradox ever: Life’s primary partner and biggest ally is Death. In a death-crazy yet death-averse culture like ours, that statement may be beyond comprehension. How can death—the final separation of the body from its animating spirit, what French philosopher Henri Bergson (d. 1941) referred to as the élan vitale, be anything but anti-life and therefore bad? This conclusion makes special sense in secularizing societies like ours with no strong belief in an Afterlife or in multiple lives formed according to one’s karma. This is it! One strike and you’re out—forever!..
But that’s the point, isn’t it? If this really is the one life we in this time and place have, even if we do come back as someone or something else or live on in the spirit in another dimension or environment or form, even as green-funeral-based compost helping to push up the daisies, then we need to make the best of the present life we have. This paradoxical idea has been with us from the beginning of time. In Ecclesiastes in the Bible we are told there is a time to live and a time to die. In 1648 the English Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (d. 1674) wrote what became his most famous work, “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.” The first of four verses says it all: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,/Old Time is still a-flying;/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying….” Similar lines are addressed by Herrick’s contemporary fellow countryman and poet Andrew Marvell (d. 1678). In this case the speaker of the lines is trying to persuade his recalcitrant female friend to give in to his lustful desires. Among other things he says, “…At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;/And yonder all before us lye/Desarts of vast Eternity.” And further: “The Grave’s a fine and private place,/But none I think do there embrace.” And he ends his pitch, “…Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
Perhaps the most famous trope on this subject of death as the inciter of life comes in Act V, Scene 1 of Hamlet. The hero and his friend Horatio enter a cemetery where two clowns are digging up and throwing around skulls. Pointing to a particular skull, one clown remarks that it had belonged to Yorick, once the well-known and popular court jester. Picking it up, Hamlet makes one of the most famous speeches in English. It begins like this: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow/of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath/borne me on his back a thousand times; and now/how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at/it….” Hamlet further instructs Horatio to go tell his witty girl friend that she too will one day look like Yorick does now despite all the make-up she applies today. Let her joke about that! So, taken together, these literary references, like the skulls on medieval scholars’ desks, remind us to live the best, most meaningful lives we can. For one of these tomorrows, each of us will assuredly die. The skull is thus a memento mori, a helpful reminder of death.