Reframing Death: A Simple Ritual

I turned 57 this past Saturday, July 17th. As a gift, my wife, knowing that I prefer “experiences” over material gifts, planned a hike for us through Willow State Park in Wisconsin. Midway through our hike, we stopped for a picnic in a park where she snapped this picture of me. (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The tree is a near perfect visual metaphor for how I look at my life — it is a combination of both death and life. The “life” is the lush, green, flourishing part of the tree and “death” is represented by the lifeless, barren branches.

At the age of 57, barring any extraordinary advances in life expectancy, I feel relatively confident stating that I am past the halfway point in my life. Unlike many people, however, I don’t view my death as something that is ahead of me. Instead, I view the years I have lived as being “dead” and the years (or time) yet ahead of me is my “life.”

In addition to looking to nature (and trees) as a source of inspiration for how to live, for the past few years, I have made a simple entry into my spiritual journal (see Figure 2). I draw 90 blank boxes in the form of a rectangle.

Figure 2

Each box represents one year of the 90 years I expect to live. (The 90 years is just an assumption. I realize I could die at any time). I then fill in the number of blocks I have lived so far in my life. These “filled in” boxes represent the years that are now past me and are thus “dead.” The unfilled boxes are my best estimate of the time — the life — I still have left in this earthly realm.

The purpose of this act is to force me to contemplate my remaining time. In turn, I hope the act will help me live a deeper, richer, more meaningful life.

This exercise, of course, isn’t essential. Anyone is free to think of life and death as they choose, but I have found it helpful because on an annual basis the ritual requires me to take an inventory of my life and question whether I am truly living my life in the manner I am called to live.

My “hack” is not the only way to do this. In medieval times, it was not uncommon for people to keep a skull on their desk or in a prominent place in their home to remind them of their impending death. (The Latin term for the skull is memento mori which means “remember you die.”) Ancient monks are said to have slept in coffins for a similar reason and, more recently, it has become more common for people to draft their own eulogies as a practical way to encourage them to think about how they want to live their life.

No matter how you do it, I can’t encourage you enough to spend a little time each year thinking about death as the art of living can be deeply enriched by thinking about death.

Jack Uldrich is a writer, poet, seeker, and lover of nature. Professionally, he is known as a futurist and keynote speaker