“If you live each day as it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” — Steve Jobs
For quite a few decades now, our culture has put on a pretty convincing show of whistling past the graveyard. Americans have long had high levels of assumed invulnerability. We pretended death didn’t exist. Starting in the late 1800s, we removed it from our homes and began to hide it behind the closed doors of hospitals, long-term nursing care facilities, and yes, funeral homes.
Simultaneously, we staved it off with better nutrition and remarkable medical-care advancements. Many of these developments were positive, but death grew so seemingly uncommon that many people didn’t end up attending the funeral of a close loved one until they’d reached their forties or fifties. As author Jane Walmsley observed, “The most important thing to know about Americans…is that they think death is optional.”
And then Covid-19 came along, and suddenly death was everywhere.
It took a global pandemic, killing more than 750,000 Americans so far and millions the world over (and counting), for our culture to get reacquainted with the reality and inescapability of death. Nearly all of us now know one or more people who died of Covid. More are being hospitalized and dying every day. Overall, more than 3.35 million people in the U.S. died in 2020—up twenty percent over 2019. We’re in collective grief. And we’ve remembered we’re mortal.
Estate planners report that they’ve never been busier because more people are now aware that they need to have a will done. All of us have seen the headlines proclaiming that hospital and long-term care healthcare providers—the ones who deal with death—were and continue to be overwhelmed. And, the last responders—funeral homes and crematoriums—have been inundated caring for the dead (though funeral services were down). Ironically, death is a new fact of life.
If there’s a silver lining in all of this, I think it’s that our culture’s newly enhanced mortality awareness is making us better at living. I for one have gotten better at being present in and appreciating the moment. I revel in deepened gratitude for friends and family. I find myself in awe of the beauty of nature around me. I’m so, so grateful for my community.
In the fall of 2020, Pew Research surveyed Americans to find out how the pandemic was affecting their lives. While eighty-nine percent reported negative impacts, seventy-three percent reported positive changes, such as strengthened relationships among people in the same household and more high-quality free time.
How we spend our time is how we spend our lives. When we devote more care and attention to our close relationships, we live better and love better. And when we develop or strengthen daily routines that enhance our wellbeing, such as cooking at home and slowing down the pace of our days, we’re more attuned to every precious moment, knowing that their number is finite.
This, in a nutshell, is the gift of mortality awareness.
The noted twentieth-century psychologist Rollo May wrote, “The confrontation of death gives the most positive reality to life itself.” Covid has confronted us with death. As the pandemic continues and, we hope, attenuates into endemic levels, let’s not let our communities forget what funeral directors have always known: Holding close the awareness that death is always at the doorstep makes life more meaningful.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition.