My continuous harangue on the importance of death education

Todd Van Beck's picture

When I was in seminary we were required to do this assignment.  It was simple.  We walked to the Public Gardens in downtown Boston, and were asked by the professor to mark out some undisturbed piece of ground four feet square and then we were asked to examine very closely the variety of life which existed in such a small area of earth.  It was astonishing.  

There were many species of plants; evidence that mice had been roaming around; spiders, ants, and other small creatures abounded in just four feet square of earth.  Then the professor brought out a microscope and WOW what an incredible array of microorganisms all functioning in perfect association with the larger life forms which we had seen with our own eyes.

Then the professor gave each student a small garden spade and asked us to dig a small hole, small enough that the Boston Police Department would not notice, for digging in the Public Garden was illegal – and here we were seminary student’s breaking the law.  Oh well………

Just a few short inches into the earth it was literally amazing.  There were more insects, earthworms of various kinds, and a fresh array of bacteria right in the middle of downtown Boston.

I know that if we had not stopped we would have eventually reached bedrock and in the rock formations there would be hundreds of feet of dense fossil deposits laid down through millions of years representing the remains, the evidence of a myriad of dead species and an astronomical number of individuals who died.

The lesson that day was clear.  In that little square of ground in downtown Boston we witnessed an interdependent community of life in which birth and death were continuously taking place and in which extreme diverse life forms were sheltering and nourishing one another, constantly until death stopped the cycle.  The evidence of this stunning feat is well written in the rocks beneath the earth which tell the story of this process going back through millions upon millions of years.

Humankind is part of this ongoing community of nature, on a world scale subject to the same cycle of birth and death which governs all other creatures, and like them we are totally dependent on other life.  

It has been my observation that sometimes in our high rise apartments, living in the fast lane, our manicured suburbs, our obsession with youth and being carefree and endlessly happy, and our chromium plated institutions we tend to forget this.  I forget this.

Our need is not to conquer nature, the results of which attempts are frighteningly glaring at us as I write, but instead to live in harmony with it.  This does not mean rejecting technology, but it does mean adding deep thinking, developed philosophies concerning the meaning of life and also death.  Thinking just about life at the total exclusion of thinking about death simply does not work, because without thinking about death, death becomes something that is to be feared, and when we are fearful about something that is 100% guaranteed to happen – well, the results are not good.

Birth and death are as natural for us as for the myriad forms of life in that little square of ground in downtown Boston.  When we have learned to accept ourselves as part of that community of nature, then we can accept, explore and hopefully find meaning in death as part of the simple natural order of things.

Without thinking, pondering, meditating, praying about the particular subject of death, ours and others, we commonly behave as if we, and those we love, were going to live forever.  What a shameful attitude to possess. It is shameful because it is wrong, for all must die – and we cannot ever know when this will happen.

Throughout my entire career the subject of death has been taboo, and those of us who are called to minister in this world are viewed – well that is fodder for another blog when I am in a bad mood – and it seems utterly impossibly to get death education classes implemented in our educational systems – seminaries are not even interested.  This makes me sad, and this is really unfortunate for death is a normal and necessary part of life.  I am of the thinking that until our culture learns to face death honestly and accept it as part of growing up; we are not living at our best.

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB


What would Archie Bunker comment about your column? (borrowing from a past presentation of yours)

Hell, the kids coming out of mortuary college aren't learning much about's still the benzene ring. "Atlas Shrugged" and "Fall of The Roman Empire" are playing out before our eye. Caring about the dead is often planned around other, happier events.

I am having difficulties comprehending how attitudes towards death are changing so rapidly. I read recently that the next version of the Wirthlin Study is under way.....results should be thought provoking and serve as fuel for massive change in our educational and state board system.....don't hold your breath.

Just a simple, village undertaker from SC.