During the month of November, the Church tells stories about Death. The Maccabees are tortured and die. The thief on the cross dies. Everyone speculates on what happens when we die. The Old Testament sees Death as a punishment, the New Testament, as a doorway into light. The Saints live on, powerful as superheroes, in spite of death; and we, who knew all too well the failings of our families' dead, pray to God to forgive them and clean them up, and ourselves, too, incidentally, for when we die. Readings from the Bible continue with the theme of death as they approach the Christmas season and the shortest days of the year. The end of the world, the Final Judgement, the End of Time. In the long dark evenings we light candles to remind ourselves that there is light to guide us, and the readings promise that Light will return. The Church breathes a cycle of dark and light through the liturgical year in a kind of harmony with the world's seasons, a circle of life and death.
Where do the seasons begin? With the new life surging up from the depths of Winter's frozen death? Or do the freeze and thaw, compost and sleep build a Mother who conceives and births the Spring? Autumn stirs the leaves from the trees, and the fruit from the branches and feeds the soil to make the hungry lands rich again in living matter, and makes another year of life possible. The heat of Summer speeds the construction of beginning buds, the ripening, the nurturing of the sun, a greening, leaping growth. Where is the beginning? And if the beginning is hidden, where will we find an end? With the sunflower seed that is immolated when the sprout springs forth, leaving behind a dusty husk? With the tall corn that unfolds its stalk to bring to light a cob of seeds, dying when they are ready to fall? Death gives Life, and Life leads to Death; Ending shows a new Beginning, which will become an End itself.
Beginnings and Endings spiral with Life and Death in religion, too. Adam and Eve begin the story of humanity with death, the End of Paradise, bringing Death with them for everyone to share their experience.
Death is the motivational teacher that draws the students to ask the basic questions that will lead to all the religions of the world, to Ways of Life as diverse as Hindu and Shaker, to practices as strange as ritual cicatrizing and eating the flesh of the founder. "Why do bad things happen to us?" The human students chant across time and history. "What can I do to make life better for me? Where did I come from?" they howl. "What is this Death that is going to happen to me?"
Death, the portal through which every one of us must pass, the hole in Life that every one of us falls through. Every conception, every birth is also a creature who will pass through the gate of Death. No one, nothing is exempt. Like the waves of the ocean that never stop moving, like the clouds that form and dissipate and form again; like the turning of the earth, and the light of stars, Death is an indissoluble element of our lives. More consistent than anything else that is human, Death is what we do.
Most religions would have us believe that the new life that comes after death will be wonderful. These 'ways of life' tell us that we will never weep again, never age again, never be hurt again. Comfort will be ours in the land past the gate of Death. Enough delicious food to satisfy. So much beauty that we will never miss the past. No infirmities, no mistakes. We will be so totally real that we can hardly imagine what we will really be like. Time and space will be our servants, and all the unseen will be seen. Religions use flowers as a symbol of the new life after death: we are but seeds to give our lives to a new form, not separate, but quite different. A different life, a limitless life. A peaceful new life, with no worries or confrontations. No diseases or injuries. And this time, Death will not be allowed to follow us. No more Death.
November is for taking stock of mortality: the month begins with the honored dead and the remembered dead, with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and with watching the daylight flee. In this dark season, we look at the ugly face of Death, and look at the past and the future and into the mirror, searching our hearts and the morning skies, seeking the Light and Life and Hope that we also know is somewhere, in the morning sun, in the lengthening days, in the Beginning and at the End.