Preparing for Death: Philosophy, Meet Theology

Heather C. Ohaneson
Heather C. Ohaneson is a writer and professor. She holds degrees in philosophy and religion from Barnard College and Columbia University, where she also learned how to be a New Yorker. She is at work on a spiritual memoir rooted in church music, With My Face to the Rising Sun.

“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first, that way in case I die before I finish I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.” Do you remember those lines from When Harry Met Sally? The main characters are starting out on their long road trip and, with it, their complicated friendship; as the conversation turns to death, Harry and Sally banter. (Harry, of course, is portrayed by a now insanely young Billy Crystal; Sally, by Meg Ryan, whom film preserves as a bright ingenue.) Crystal’s character is cavalier in announcing the importance of his preoccupation with Thanatos; Ryan’s is resolutely cheery, bearing a life-affirming disposition, which corresponds to Eros, or at least matches her fluffy golden curls.

Harry:  “Do you ever think about death?”

Sally:   “Yes.”

Harry:  “Sure you do, a fleeting thought that goes in and out of the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days.”

Sally:   “And you think this makes you a better person?”

Harry:  “Look. When the s*** comes down, I’m going to be prepared and you’re not. That’s all I’m saying.”

Sally:   “In the meantime, you’re going to ruin your whole life waiting for it.”

Is Harry’s claim true? Are meditations on death necessary for dying well? Does thinking about death—regularly, relentlessly—equip a person for the end? How many people meet death unprepared and suffer for it? Or, as Sally suggests, is giving one’s mind so thoroughly over to death a way to ruin the precious time one has to live?

Although the overall human mortality rate has not changed (every human being will still, at some point, die), the quandary—train your mind for death or keep your focus on life—has taken on a stinging relevance in 2020. The frightening death tolls in the early months of the pandemic caught many people unawares, forcing some to say early goodbyes to loved ones, beckoning others to (re)write their wills, bringing still others to take stock of their pantries, if not their own lives. Stories of ordinarily healthy people who faced life-threatening complications from the COVID-19 virus came through news broadcasts as if as screams. Even seemingly minor conditions like asthma took on the weight of “comorbidities.” Reports revealed how nurses, doctors, and EMTs occupied a particular point of frontline horror in the national tragedy. Our medical heroes watched patients succumb to respiratory failure or stroke day after day without being able to pause long enough to process the losses themselves. Death—not reflection on it—came in relentless waves.

If the COVID-19 crisis has not put death and its allies front of mind for you, perhaps other catastrophes of 2020 have: round after round of racialized police brutality (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Walter Wallace Jr.); record-defying natural disasters, including wildfires in Australia and hurricanes so numerous they have exceeded English-alphabet naming conventions; the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut that killed thousands but thrust hundreds of thousands more into prolonged precarity; ongoing, overlooked famine in Yemen; calamitous warfare in Nagorno Karabakh, replete with festering corpses on the battlefield. Things are grim. Directly or in narrowing degrees of separation, you may have had an unusually close brush with mortality this past year.

As the severities of illness and death bombard us—and here I am making inferences from my life and the lives of family, friends, and acquaintances—we mostly face away. That is, we refuse to allow our attention to be held by fatality or its possibility for us. Even in “lockdown,” plenty of escape hatches are available: another Zoom meeting to attend, another child’s class to oversee, another chore to do, another mouth to feed, another cooking project to try, another batch of supplies to buy, another book to read, another podcast to listen to, another show to watch, another glass of wine to drink. Busy, we keep our minds occupied with fleeting things. We remain distant from ourselves, our inner silence, our natures.

As the severities of illness and death bombard us, we mostly face away. That is, we refuse to allow our attention to be held by fatality or its possibility for us.

So thorough is our denial of death that we may not even be aware of the lengths we go to avoid contemplating it. While certain events in my young adulthood punctured my own oblivion to “the end,” I mostly lived through an ever-extending sequence of this-worldly preoccupations, like a Netflix suggested-programs page that elongates and then elongates again. “Life,” as John Lennon said, “is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” My mind was trained on little things, not the long-term picture. This was the case even though I was a Christian who believed in “the resurrection of the dead” and “the life everlasting.” If anything, those creedal phrases, which are essential to orthodox Christianity, served to emphasize what follows death rather than death itself. Central Christian teachings about salvation did not translate to my imagining what my own demise would be like. I was healthy, I have lost few loved ones, I have lived far from war. Looking ahead to the terminus of my existence did not register. It is not as if I felt badly about deferring that work; it simply was not on my radar. Preparing oneself for death is the sort of issue that is not a problem until it is a problem.

Two things have challenged this, finally: philosophy and experience.

In studying Plato and Aristotle, Montaigne and Pascal, Heidegger and Derrida, I have found myself beginning to see philosophy as something that exists in relation to death. Plato portrays Socrates’s nobility in the face of execution in the Apology. More than that, Plato assures us that Socrates was able to meet his unjust death with a cool dignity because he spent his life valuing the mind over the body. In some sense, Socrates had been giving up his body all along. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s student Aristotle teaches that the evaluation of a well-lived human life cannot come until the end of that life, or even from beyond the grave. It is only when you take into account the welfare of your descendants that your own “happiness” (eudaimonia) can be measured. The tradition of theorizing about death continued through the twentieth-century Continental philosophers. Heidegger’s notion of being-toward-death, found in his magnum opus Being and Time, serves to motivate a life of attention and authenticity. Derrida, inspired in large part by Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, approaches the biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to slay his son in terms of paradox, secrecy, and divine alterity in the Gift of Death. Of these thinkers, the early modern pair of Montaigne and Pascal affected my orientation to death most of all.

I first encountered their ideas in the spring of 2009, when I was enrolled in Pierre Force’s graduate seminar on the French triumvirate of Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal at Columbia University. In those months as we met around the table in his office in Philosophy Hall, Professor Force’s formality and rigor temporarily transported me, in my imagination at least, to the even more illustrious world of the Sorbonne and École normale supérieure (his former institutions). As I muddled through class with my inferior language skills, I became fascinated with the topic of diversion—divertissement—and its relation to death, la mort, which definitely should not be confused with, or sloppily pronounced as, l’amour.

The title of Montaigne’s essay “That to Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” is, quite frankly, more memorable to me than any single aspect within the piece. The title says it all. Not only can one learn how to die—itself a shocking idea, given that a person only dies once—one can learn how to die by doing the work of philosophy, which is ultimately the activity of sustained thinking. Indeed, death is one of the notions that a philosopher can contemplate. And so Montaigne intones, “It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere.” To do that, to master death as the Stoics and Epicureans of old attempted, to “rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it,” you think about it. Constantly. Like Harry.

Not one to focus on the mind at the expense of the body, Montaigne relays a physical brush with death that he experienced in a riding accident in “Of Practice” (probably my favorite of the works in the genre-defining, 850-page collection of his Essays). He writes vividly of how he took a small horse for a jaunt near his house one day during one of the religious civil wars in France. (This would have been between 1567 and 1570 in the wine-producing hills of Bordeaux.) The famous scene reads,

This man, in order to show his daring and get ahead of his companions, spurred his horse at full speed up the path behind me, came down like a colossus on the little man and little horse, and hit us like a thunderbolt with all his strength and weight, sending us both head over heels. So that there lay the horse bowled over and stunned, and I ten or twelve paces beyond, dead, stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned, my sword, which I had in my hand, more than ten paces away, my belt in pieces, having no more motion or feeling than a log.

Unlike Montaigne’s times of deliberate concentration on the idea of death, where he sets out to find through contemplation what death is like, in this moment a taste of death comes to him unbidden. It overtakes him from an unforeseen force (a charging servant rather than warring Protestants and Catholics), which itself seems to be a lesson in what death can be like: from an unexpected source, impenetrable, blindsiding. In the absence of his dear friend and fellow humanist Étienne de la Boétie, with whom he might normally relay such a powerful anecdote, Montaigne tells us, his unknown readers, how the fall renders him inanimate, making him less human, more log. Whereas the horse is only stunned, he is, in his own words, dead.

What does Montaigne find out from within that state? Does he have a Heaven Is for Real revelation? True to his “What do I know?” (Que sais-je?) project of self-discovery, Montaigne reports the first stirrings of life in his body and soul. Several hours after the accident, he throws up buckets of blood, and tries to make sense of what happened:

The first thought that came to me was that I had gotten a harquebus shot in the head; indeed several were being fired around us at the time of the accident. It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

Montaigne captures the ephemera of his dying thoughts. Convinced by something like firsthand experience—by practice—that he was correct in his earlier theorizing about the ease of death, Montaigne discovers that he can sweetly rest in peace about Resting in Peace. The dead are not to be pitied for their dying, he assures us, which is a relief not only for ourselves (“when our time comes,” as we euphemistically say) but also for those who have predeceased us. He tells his readers, whom he treats as intimate friends, that focusing on death frees one from fearing it. After all, who fears slipping into sleep?

So thorough is our denial of death that we may not even be aware of the lengths we go to avoid contemplating it.

What moved me about reading “Of Practice” were not Montaigne’s particular claims about the nature of death as much as the vividness of the WHAMMY scene of equestrian danger, which could represent any life-changing, perspective-shifting moment accessed viscerally from a place of deep interiority. It was the fact of his phenomenology that struck me and then stayed with me. Through his writing, Montaigne successfully opened up the first-person reality of his experience for me. In some rather magnificent, loopy way, reading about his being thrown from the horse knocked me off my metaphorical horse. Pinned in my memory, the passage has given way to fundamental questions of identity and reality—Who am I really when I am unconscious? How does my conscious life prepare me for other states? Am I present to myself, even when I am absent? Are near-death experiences truly indicative of what dying will be like?

After having tarried with Montaigne’s essais, I still suspect that the oncoming of death could be terrifying, akin to collision-with-a-freight-train instead of gently-succumbing-to-the-comforts-of-a-down-pillow-at-the-end-of-a-long-day. Despite its appeal, I am not solely convinced by Montaigne’s stance, which implies that being hit by an eighteen-wheeler (or whatever gruesome form of death you wish to imagine: Alzheimer’s, a mass school shooting, suffocation) could at the soul level be experienced without distress. My instincts run in the opposite direction. What if dying in one’s sleep is the soul-equivalent of being violently mowed down? Philosophy, it’s time to meet Theology.

Pascal, the Christian apologist, polymath, and inventor of the first calculator, comes along in the 1660s and furthers Montaigne’s attack on mindlessness toward death, but he does so with an eye toward salvation. In his incomplete Pensées, he uncovers the human lot: “Man’s condition. Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.” Obsessed with opposites, Pascal insists that human beings partake in the extremes of greatness and wretchedness. We are susceptible to the powers of infinity and nullity. And yet Pascal continually presses for a middle way, whether it comes to a painting (do not look at it from too close up or too far away) or to human nature (we are neither beasts nor angels). In his frank dealings, he skewers people who can be so easily and thoroughly captivated by chasing hares or balls. An equal-opportunity critic, he levels his accusations against ordinary people and kings alike.

The main idea that I learned from Pascal in that class, and that I have carried with me in the intervening years, is that boredom, in its very painfulness, is a helpful step on the way to finding God. We do not have to be led by diversions, lemming-like, off the cliff of life. By sitting with the difficulties of existence, we create the space to seek “a firmer way out” of our despair:

Wretchedness. The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is distraction, yet that is the greatest of our wretchednesses. Because that is what mainly prevents us from thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to damnation. Without it we should be bored, and boredom would force us to search for a firmer way out, but distraction entertains us and leads us imperceptibly to death.

Very often, when I am waiting for the subway, say, or am headed out on a walk, I pause—because of Pascal—before I decide to take out my phone or put my headphones on. Would it be better to spend that time in noiselessness to see what thoughts arise? Do I owe myself the discomfort of the silence to confront what is wrong with myself or the world, to acknowledge it and not simply stuff it down, down, down? To be available to another person? To learn about myself and what I idolize? To perhaps lift my thoughts to God? Even if I routinely choose the distraction, my behavior has emerged from the realm of habit and risen to the level of consciousness, and I have Pascal and Professor Force to thank for that.

After Pascal reveals and ridicules, he redeems. Pascal does not seem to believe in the sufficiency of the solution that other philosophers have offered. “It is all very well for philosophers to say: ‘Withdraw into yourselves, you will find your goodness there’; we do not believe them. Those who do are the most hollow and stupid of all.” Instead, he points to divine grace, which moves the heart. He names the inner void, which people try to fill with all manner of things—adultery and stars are on his list, but so are, oddly, cabbages and leeks—and then he suggests that rather than finite things, we look to fill the infinite abyss with the infinite God, who is “alone our true good.” I was drawn to Pascal’s views because of the Christian sentiment that I found there, one that was paradoxically tough and tender. And I was touched by Pascal’s own dying words: Que Dieu ne m’abandonne jamais! (May God never abandon me!)

Pascal names the inner void, which people try to fill with all manner of things—adultery and stars are on his list, but so are, oddly, cabbages and leeks—and then he suggests that rather than finite things, we look to fill the infinite abyss with the infinite God.

Over and above what I learned from Montaigne and Pascal, I was schooled by death and change.

Later that year, in the fall of 2009, I fell grief-stricken by the sudden passing of my friend and former boss, Karen. A fit fifty-four-year-old civil rights lawyer from Paducah, Kentucky, she died in her sleep of an aortic aneurysm. In addition to the sheer loss of her presence in my life, her death shook me by its very possibility. It was the first time since childhood that I sensed how terrifying the world could be.

When I flew to Tennessee, where Karen had been living, to meet her sister and attend her memorial service, I was floored by the in medias res state of her house—all the signs of a life in process that shone a spotlight on the suddenness of her death. Was Karen in any way prepared for her last night on earth? In the remaining second of her life, did she have an emergency “this is it” final thought? Did she even realize she was dying? Is one way of exiting (knowingly, unknowingly) more desirable than the other? By perishing, had she lost the self that could be aware of nonexistence? By the morning, was there no longer a self to be aware that she did not wake up?

Though mundane, the details from that funereal visit were searing for me. There was a single copy of the New Yorker neatly laid by Karen’s bedside. There were the cashews in her pantry, part of the healthy lunch she would always bring to the office. The odd intimacy of seeing her food without her there and immediately feeling the familiarity of her tastes hit me—WHAMMY—a wave of grief recognizable to the bereaved. (“Bereaved” means “deprived or robbed,” which is a hauntingly accurate way of describing the experience of the death of a loved one.)

The overwhelming propriety of Karen’s home lodged in me as a kind of accusing memory. Everything was clean and in its place—prepared, as it were, for us, her unexpected guests. Sometimes, today, when I look around at the disarray of my own apartment, including my stacks of unfinished, undiscarded New Yorkers—those silent piles of shame and aspiration—I think about what people would find if I were to die like Karen did. But preparing your space for those who find you dead is not the same as preparing for death.

We do not have to be led by diversions, lemming-like, off the cliff of life.

Moving was another experience that inched my consciousness forward. In my mid-thirties, getting ready to relocate across country, I cleaned out or boxed up the contents of my tiny Manhattan apartment—all the things that had accrued from years of living there, the majority of which I had carried into the apartment one at a time. During the weeks leading up to the move I consciously (but unintentionally) experienced the purging and packing as an exercise for death. Why? Handling stuff that touched on different parts of my life was emotionally intense. It stirred memories.

Moving day was not Judgment Day: when the moving van rolled up and parked illegally in front of the M7 bus stop by my building, I did not come to know a divine reckoning firsthand. Nevertheless, I was cognizant of the way in which I was taking stock of who I was through what I owned. Even if the things—the books, the notebooks, the mementos, the trinkets, the framed pictures, the clothes, the jewelry, the hangers, the shoes, the Christmas ornaments, the cookware, the silverware, the mugs, the collection of Moroccan bowls, the photos, the CDs (!), the rug, the sheets, the pillows, the bedding, the towels, the toiletries, the luggage, the furniture—were not exactly integral to my being, they told the story of my life in a material way. They added up to the person I had become. Loading those objects onto a truck and watching them roll away for an untold number of days as they made their way to California was a severing. A chance to practice letting go.

That, incidentally, was how I also experienced returning the piles of library books that I would routinely and gleefully acquire as a graduate student. When they were due, I had to give them back. Clearing my shelves was moving in miniature, a concrete reminder that on my last day I will not be able to carry anything over. It all has to be given back. Term up. Renewal denied.

It could be said that, for most of the span of those decades, I practiced for death in an implicit manner as I kept the Sabbath. I would observe a day of rest in an idiosyncratic way, which is to say, I would go to church on Sundays, refraining from work and chores and email but not refraining (as my Orthodox Jewish friends would) from spending money, using electricity, or writing things down. Feeling somewhat rudderless as to what I could or could not do when I first began to keep the Sabbath in college, I focused on literal rest, taking luxurious naps. Like an overrun piece of technology, I powered down. Sleep, it turns out, is 1/60 death, and Sabbath is 1/60 of the world to come, at least according to the Talmud.

Theology and philosophy teach us that we prepare for dying by thinking about death, but we prepare for death by living well.

Rich theologies of the Sabbath permeate Jewish and Christian traditions. Shabbat (the seventh day) or Sunday (the day of Jesus’s resurrection) functions as a boundary, telling work as God told the sea, “thus far shall you come, and no farther” (Job 38:11). The day of rest is a day of freedom (both negative liberty—freedom from work—and positive liberty—freedom to praise). Moreover, rhythms of rest can serve as explicit reminders of our humble dependence on a good and faithful God. We no longer “get to” or “have to” be defined by our labor. Week by week, we see the globe still spinning without our efforts. The cessations in self-importance brought about by the Sabbath are not unlike the relief from self that sleep regularly provides. For some not-insignificant proportion of our lives, we have to be unconscious. The Sabbath is a longer nighttime—peaceful, restorative, mysterious, and a way to prepare oneself existentially for that eternal Sabbath, death, which may be unending, paradisiacal life. But the Sabbath is remarkably unlike sleep too: it is a sacred time of heightened consciousness, when one awakens to God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (throughout his short book The Sabbath) and Augustine (in the final pages of his magisterial City of God) are theologians of resting in the eternal, which perhaps adds credence to Montaigne’s findings after all.

Purposeful reflection on death is not a widely recognizable cultural practice in much of Anglophone twenty-first-century North America. We lack role models for it as an activity; there is no social pressure to direct our thoughts toward death, no widely shared Day of the Dead–like holiday or ritual. But we can and should take clues from specific Christian practices like Ash Wednesday (when we are told the words of Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return”), the sacrament of baptism (in which we are plunged into Christ’s death and raised into his new life), and spirituals (“I wanna be ready, I wanna be ready, I wanna be ready to put on the long white robes”).

In some versions of the Catholic and Anglican traditions, sermons on the four Sundays of Advent are preached on the Four Last Things, of which death is the first. In that way, Christians are invited to keep death in view as they approach the miracle of Jesus’s birth—a birth that ultimately ushers in the hope of a day beyond death.

And so resources are hidden in the breadth of Christian praxis to complement and supplement the wisdom of the ages. Together, theology and philosophy teach us that we prepare for dying by thinking about death, but we prepare for death by living well.

As I was writing this essay, there was a moment where I thought I was dying. I was in the bathroom when a searing pain raced blazingly like a red-hot wire through the anterior right side of my brain. The intense sensation came and went quickly, but its duration was long enough for me to have a series of rapid thoughts. Is this it? Am I going to die in the middle of working on a piece about dying? I don’t want to die yet! Was thinking about death helpful?

And then I kept thinking. And then I lived.