Thinking about death

There is a lot of sudden transition in my life right now: my partner is making fundamental changes in her life, I have had to abandon my PhD, and, in under a week's time, I will be conducting the funeral service for a member of my family, whose death was not unexpected, but came long before anyone might have wished it.

As part of facing these various upheavals, and the grief that is inevitably arising, I have been researching myths, legends, and traditional tales about how death came into the world.

Moon and banana

In a tale from Madagascar, the first humans are faced with a choice between dying and renewing like the moon -- shrinking and growing on a monthly cycle, until the end of time -- or dying and renewing like the banana tree, which has many, many offspring, but then shrivels and becomes bowed, and eventually dies.

They liked the idea that they would live forever, but they thought that it might become terribly lonely, and so they chose to die and renew like the banana tree, and have the pleasure of children and grandchildren*.

A choice between life and sex

Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat
Death and the Maiden 2 by CapCat

In southern America, one indigenous tale I read once** tells of how originally all peoples were immortal, in both body and spirit. But because people enjoyed sex, and had many children, the land became overfull with humans. There was not enough space or food or water for all the peoples -- human and otherwise -- to live comfortably together.

The grandmothers and grandfathers held a council to decide what to do. Some were willing to give up sex and having children, in order to make life liveable for all. Most, however, wanted to keep sex, children and to have a comfortable life.

Clearly, this was untenable. The wisest of the council, realising that convincing everyone to give up sex and children was never going to happen, went deep into the forest, questing for an answer. After many days, they came to a great river, which they knew they must cross to find what they were seeking.

The river was wide, and deep, and wild, and some of the grandmothers and grandfathers were not strong enough swimmers to cross it. They were dashed against rocks, or drowned as they were overcome by the waters.

When those who survived finally reached the other side of the river, they were met by the Spirit of the land: of the forest, and the river, and all of the plants and animals with whom the humans shared space and life. They put their difficulty before the Spirit, and It told them, "You already have the answer you seek."

The wise grandmothers and grandfathers looked at one another in confusion. "Spirit," they asked, "what do you mean?"

"In the waters of the river," the Spirit replied, "some of your number have met with the solution you have sought. Its name is death. Through it, you may continue to enjoy your bodies, and bear children, yet not become too many in number for this land to hold."

And the Spirit touched each one of them upon the head and heart and belly, and gave them the gift of death.The Spirit carried them safely across the river, and they carried death back with them to their settlement.

As people began to die, one by one, a great sorrow came over the people. The wise grandmothers and grandfathers felt just as sad, but they were also relieved, for they knew that now, they could enjoy their bodies, and each other, and the company of their children, and their grandchildren, without fear for the future of life.

Death learns love

The final tale of death I want to share with you isn't a tale in words, but a short, wordless animation, about how death feels about its work in the world. I think it is rather beautiful. It is also very sad -- get your hankies ready:

The Life of Death from Marsha Onderstijn on Vimeo.

There are also versions of this tale from the islands of the Pacific and among many groups of Australian Aborigines.

** I cannot remember where I read this story, so it may not in fact be from southern America. I will also, inevitably, have changed the detail of it through my recollection and retelling.


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