Death ends the chapter,
but Life is the name of the book
(A recollection on Ash Wednesday)
A. E. P. (Ed) Wall writes:
To refuse to die would be more than a social
impertinence. It would throw off the scientific
rhythm of the universe. It would toss a monkey
wrench into the apparatus of the galaxies, and
challenge the very mind of the creator.
Death is designed as an inevitable consequence of birth,
providing needed closure for each of us. It is the kind
of closure that marks graduation from high school,
which is required before the graduate moves on to
Death and eternity are mysterious, not mysteries
invented by Conan Doyle and not the
mysteries of gene and cell exposed in laboratories
like prisoners of undeclared wars. There’s the kind
of death that’s examined on an autopsy table, fixed
in time and place. There’s also an eternity that’s for
discoveries in space and hopes about time. Jesus
and Einstein speak a common language.
There could be no death without life. Life could reach
no conclusions without death. The system may be a mystery,
but it is part of the genius of creation. Suspense is necessary
to mystery, but fear is not. Nobody remembers being
born; nobody is told that birth is the leading cause
of death, inevitable rather than incurable, because
it is not a disease.
Life and death can be exciting. We are conditioned to
make the most of life and death, or to fear them.
Many never speak of death. Others deny death.
I was in my teens when I first heard someone deny
the permanence of life. An older woman said she hoped to
God — her phrasing —that there would be no life after
death. Her family, her education, her faith were all ad hoc,
she hoped, and would vanish as she would vanish.
I wonder where she’s living now.
During my years in Hawaii I knew many
Buddhists, whose friendship included invitations to
speak at Buddhist celebrations and services. I
learned to appreciate Buddhist ideals and even
Buddhist controversies. Buddhism has its
denominations, even as Christianity and Islam and
Judaism have sects and denominations. Buddhist
concepts of life and death, of reincarnation and
transmigration, appeal to many. I’ve known
Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and other
Christians, including clergy, who believe in
My belief in God, the Eternal, the Holy, the
Triune Creator, Love itself, gives meaning to life
and death. Not everyone who is offered this gift
has unwrapped it. Christ Jesus gives of himself. As
newspaper carriers used to call out when they had
an armload of Extras to sell: Read all about it.
Because of that gift I believe in the seen and
unseen. I believe in the human body, ocean waves
and printed words. I believe also in gravity, radio
waves, thought, love and eternity. I recognize a
desire for a good life and its companion desire for
a good death.
Jack Wall, my dad’s brother, was born in the
1890s with a form of paralysis that was to end his
life when he was in his early teens. My dad and
another of his brothers have each told me this: The
family was gathered in the garden of their
Liverpool home. Jack, cheerful and much loved by
everyone in the family, was on his father’s lap.
Suddenly he said, “Listen. Can you hear them?”
No one heard anything unusual as Jack said,
“Can’t you hear them singing? Listen to the music.
They’re coming; they’re coming for me.” He
slumped dead on his dad’s lap. Other families have
Maybe it is because I’m a writer that I think
of life as prose and religion as poetry. The
holiness in holy scripture is poetic. That’s why
myopic literalists don’t notice God’s bigness while
they squint at scripture with watchmaker’s loupe
and tweezers, magnifying some words and
plucking at others, like links pried loose to
disconnect a chain.
Death clobbered me when I was 10 years old
and living in my grandparents’ house. I was called
home from school, no reason given, and was
barely off the streetcar when I spotted the hearse
parked in front of the house. The place was
swarming with people and I headed for the privacy
of the basement to try to sort it out. My beloved
grandma, I knew, had died while I was choosing
true or false for a history teacher. I was numb, but
not at a loss for words. A memorized poem was
there for me,” The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not
When I heard about William Cullen Bryant,
a newspaperman who wrote poems, I was already
primed for his “Thanatopsis.”
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, that moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of the couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Thanks, Miss Rector, Mrs. Bracken, Mrs.
Humm, Miss Featherstone, Mrs. Routon, Mrs.
Peters and all you who taught restless teenagers
with smiles and a beat.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson grabbed me as a
teenager when one of those teachers opened the
book to “In Memoriam” and especially to “Crossing the Bar.”
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
And then there was (and is) Walt Whitman:
At the last, tenderly.
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the
keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O Soul.
Tenderly—be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh,
Strong is your hold O love.)
We who love life embrace it with enthusiasm.
We know that death is an element of life,
if not its fulfillment,.
Jesus died. Jesus lives. Way to go, Jesus!
Posted on Ash Wednesday 2013—
reprinted from a 2005 edition of Wall’s Paper.
Except for the quoted poetry, © A. E. P. (Ed) Wall.