I occasionally like to visit an old chapel, high on a hill, that is familiar from my childhood. Like most churches and chapels of a certain age, it is surrounded by a graveyard. I quite like visiting old cemeteries because there’s something peaceful about them, and it’s a good thing to be reminded of mortality occasionally. Sometimes the older graves have a verse or a poem on them as an epitaph.
The above picture is the gravestone of Thomas Morgan of Llaniddel (Llanhilleth), who died in November 1896 aged 55. The language is Welsh, which was the language of the majority of people in this area when Thomas Morgan was alive. The epitaph (with poor spelling!) reads:
MEDDWL DDYN WRTH FYNED HEIBIO,
FEL ‘R WYT TITHAU MINNAU FUO.
FEL ‘R WYF INNAU TITHAU DDEUI,
COFIA DDYN MAE MARW FYDDI.
Translated into English, it means:
Think, man, while going past,
As you are I used to be.
As I am you will become,
Remember, man, that you will die.
When I first read this, it struck me that every single grave in that graveyard contains the mortal remains of someone who once lived, loved, was loved, laughed, cried, worked hard, experienced joy and suffered hardship. They were just like me, with their own daily challenges and, undoubtedly, a love of life equal to my own. And now every single one of them is dead. The only signs that they were ever here at all are the fading scars on the landscape caused by the coal mining industry in which most of them were employed, and a collection of lichen-spotted gravestones in various stages of erosion. This realisation struck me hard because even though I already knew it factually, I suddenly realised on a far deeper level that this was absolutely true and that one day I, like everyone else who has ever lived, will die. I knew it and understood it in the deepest part of my being. That’s the sort of thing that can happen when you meditate on death, and it is quite liberating because it gives you a chance to come to terms with the idea and to be free of the fear that so often surrounds the realisation of our own mortality.
When Thomas Morgan of Llaniddel died, no doubt there were grieving family members and friends who felt his loss keenly. I know he was married because his wife, Jane, is buried in the same grave, having died at a later date. No doubt she loved him and treasured his memory after he was gone. However, Thomas Morgan’s wife and friends all died as well, one by one, as the world grew older and time marched on. With them gone, the only memory of Thomas Morgan is an inscription on a slab of sandstone written in a language that few people in the village of his birth now understand.
Death has no meaning. Death has no nobility. It is inevitable, merciless and final. No-one escapes it. It’s possible (though by no means certain) that I could live another forty or fifty years, but one day, sooner or later, I will die. Eventually there will be no memory that I was ever here. All the joy, sorrow, love, heartache, work and play that now characterise my life will, at that point, be meaningless. As far as this world is concerned, I will no longer exist.
Will I be reborn after I die, with my karmic burden transferred to another being, as classical Buddhism teaches? Perhaps, but there is absolutely no proof that this is so. It is quite possible, and to my mind more likely, that I will simply cease to be when I die.
Whether death really is the end or not, in physical, material terms it is absolutely final. Our time here is short. Nobody gets out alive. Many people I once knew, some of whom I loved dearly, are lost to me because of death. I will never see them again in this life.
What should we make of all this? My thought is this: life is short and those we love are with us for all too short a time, so make your life count. Focus on living a good life in the here and now, and on being as good and kind and loving as you can to those who enrich your life now, because neither they nor you will be here forever and once you’re gone, you will all too soon be forgotten. If rebirth turns out to be true, then living in such a way will generate good karma and give you a favourable rebirth. If rebirth is not true, and this life is all we have, then you will have made every bit of it count. Either way, you (and those around you) win.
A morbid preoccupation with death may be unhealthy, but it’s a good thing to remind ourselves occasionally that this life doesn’t last forever.
MEDDWL, DDYN, WRTH FYNED HEIBIO …