Helpful lessons from songs of death and dying

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songs of death and dying
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Death is on the mind of the Church in November. By celebrating the saints and praying for all the dead, we acknowledge that death comes for us all. The rich and mighty face the same end as the poor and weak. Memento mori — remember you will die — is a universal, perennial admonition. Death does not discriminate.

The best songs about death do not attempt to make death something it is not. We were not made to die. Death results from our attempt to put ourselves in the Creator’s place. From “the tree of knowledge of good and evil … you shall not eat,” God told our first parents; “when you eat from it, you shall die.”

Lucinda Williams captures the sinister essence of the death of a loved one in her brooding song “Dust” from her album “The Ghosts of Highway 20.” Death causes “a sadness so deep the sun seems black,” she sings.

Death is the effect of rebellion from false assertions of autonomy and self-creation. But it is not our natural state. We should always regret death as alien, dark and painful.

The anguish is sometimes so overwhelming that “You don’t have to try to keep the tears back / Cause you couldn’t try if you wanted to.” So, continues her narrator, “you stare at the ceiling / And wish the world would mend / Try to recall something better / To no good end.” Thus, the song repeats its doleful ending, “Even your thoughts are dust / Even your thoughts are dust ….”

Williams’ song says something true about the grief that accompanies death. It is bleak, overwhelming, hopeless and — seemingly — final. Death fills us with regret about what we have failed to do when our loved ones were living.

Our lives are temporary

Patty Griffin captures that feeling of remorse in her rueful song, “Long Ride Home,” about a widow who laments her failure to have better-loved her just-deceased husband.

Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you wish you’d never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

As she arrives home from the cemetery, she realizes the finality of her failure.

Headlights searching down the driveway
The house is dark as it can be
I go inside and all is silent
And seems as empty as the inside of me

In contrast, the narrator of Jason Isbell’s gorgeous love song, “If We Were Vampires,” realizes Griffin’s lesson before it’s too late. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll get forty years together / But one day I’ll be gone / One day you’ll be gone.” Our contemplation of death compels us to love one another more faithfully and truthfully.

Knowledge of the finality of death might even have a salutary effect: “Maybe time running out is a gift,” sings Isbell’s narrator. “I’ll work hard till the end of my shift / And give you every second I can find / And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.” These mortal lives are temporary. So let us seize every moment for the sake of those we love.

Living in hope

Of course, we Catholics live in the hope that death is overcome by resurrection. Or, as Bob Dylan puts it, we know that “Death is Not the End.” When our thoughts are dust and we have no more tears to cry, we know that hope awaits beyond the grave.

When the storm clouds gather ’round you, and heavy rains descend
Just remember that death is not the end
And there’s no one there to comfort you, with a helpin’ hand to lend
Just remember that death is not the end

Dylan captures the essence of the Christian understanding of death and dying. We face the fact that we are destined for death. But we also know that we are offered a new life that does not end. We were removed from the garden, but the tree is still there, beckoning us to eat of its fruit. Or, as Dylan concludes:

Oh, the tree of life is growing
Where the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies

All roads lead to death, for us and for those we love. That prospect compels us to love one another along the way. And when the journey ends, we embrace the hope that death is not the end.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.