On Easter Sunday, my grandfather asked me if working for a year as a forensic anthropology intern at a Coroner Department made me more of a realist or a philosopher. Did dealing with death and its often horrible aftermath make me more grounded or more spiritual? Do I, after logging hours and hours in the campus lab and the autopsy suite, have any more answers to what life is all about? I have spent the weeks since thinking about our conversation and I stand by my first response: I am now a realist and a philosopher, I told him, because you can’t help but be changed by the viscera of an experience like that and hope to find answers. The only answer I have is: death is certain. Sometimes, what you believe happens after helps you while you’re here. But it’s what you do before you die that counts.
As someone who has too many answers to questions about what happens to one’s physical remains after death and absolutely zero certainty about what happens to one’s essence once it is freed from its mortal coil, I try to remain conscious and present in every moment every day. I try to be grateful and wonderful and active and joyful. I try to be open and honest and to gather as many experiences as possible. This doesn’t always work. I am not always successful. I am learning not to live my life by comparison and to instead just live my life. To embrace my choices and to move on from the decisions hindsight has deemed mistakes. Every morning, I commit to trying.
Ultimately, I want to live each day as if tomorrow isn’t promised to me, because the awful, horrifying truth is that it isn’t. Death is not just something that happens to other people, people in war-torn countries far away or in hospital beds out of sight or in nursing homes we are afraid to visit. It happens to all of us. In this way, we are all connected, regardless of our nationalities or our politics or our ideologies. We will all lose the things we love, including ourselves.
The only way to cheat death is to ensure that our love is not taken with us when we go. We must spread it out and spread it far and touch as many people as we can with kindness and goodness and hope, so that when death comes for us, as it will, the best of us remains behind.
The world has always been a violent, unforgiving place. It is how we respond in the face of fear and uncertainty that defines who we are.