My grandfather passed away recently. It has been a tough few years for my family, but we have felt a lot of love and support from each other as well as from our community and network of friends.
My cousin gave an excellent eulogy at the funeral. One thing that he noted is that Papa has been insisting that every encounter with him could be the last for years. For at least the last decade, he has insisted that he is almost out of time.
I specifically remember the family telling him that he had to hold on long enough to see one of his grandchildren get married. He did. And then he saw four others. He even held on for the births of eight great grandchildren. He made it a lot longer than he told everybody that he would.
My grandfather talked about dying more than most. Some people may find this kind of talk morbid and unsettling. A lot of folks find talk of death unsavory. But I think Papa had the right approach. He had, in fact, uncovered an ancient secret to happiness.
Death in Ancient Rome
The Romans thought about death a lot.
After great military victories, Roman generals would be granted a “triumph.” The triumph was essentially an epic parade. The whole city would come out to see the general being carried through the city with the victorious army and the spoils of war on full display. It was a full day celebration of the general. He was on top of the world.
But on the float with the general would be a slave whose only job was to periodically remind the general that he was a mortal and that he would die one day.
The cheering and accolades and adoring fans feel great, but don’t let your head get too big, because you’re going to die just like everyone else.
Philosophers Thinking About Death
While all of Rome thought about death, the Roman Stoics were specifically interested in thinking about death in order to live a better life.
Epictetus said to “keep the prospect of death, exile, and all such apparent tragedies before you every day, especially death….” All of the Stoic philosophers talk about the importance of fighting our natural fear of death and keeping it at the top of our mind.
Their view is that death itself is neither good nor bad. It is just a fact. It is a thing that happens to everybody. Death is not negative. Fear of death is negative.
On top of that, death gives meaning to life. The fact that our time is limited provides greater weight to what we choose to do with our days.
A Better Life
Knowledge of death allows us to appreciate life. If we ignore death, then we act as if life is everlasting. We take the little things for granted. We don’t appreciate the everyday interactions with others.
Acknowledging that life could end at any moment instills a sense of gratitude. If you recognize that this is the last sunset you may ever see, you appreciate its beauty. If you remind yourself that any interaction with someone could be your last, you savor the conversation and are more present and engaged.
If we want to live a happier life, maybe it is time to start thinking more about death. It’s not necessarily an intuitive idea, but it is a lesson that we could all learn.