‘I will reflect on my own death – and try to conquer my fears’: the thing
I’ll do differently in 2023
My new year resolution by Monica Ali
Tue 27 Dec 2022 10.00 GMT
I don’t want to be mawkish or indulgent. But I want to consider my
mortality in order to live well in the years I have left
Have you ever spent time seriously contemplating your own death? I haven’t.
I’m 55, in good health, exercise regularly, eat well and – barring the
proverbial bus – have no reason to think death is imminent. Thoughts of my
own mortality naturally arise from time to time but they’re easy to banish.
After all, both my parents are still alive, forming a kind of metaphysical
barrier. Not my turn yet! But one thing I will do differently in the coming
years is to begin reflecting on my demise. Does that sound mawkish?
Well, I won’t be picking out a coffin or selecting music for the funeral or
tearfully imagining the mourners gathering. All that would be a waste of
time and, like everyone else, I’m busy. With work, family, friends, travel,
trips to the theatre, galleries, restaurants and so on. What I mean to say
is that I have not lost my appetite for life. Why, then, do I wish to begin
meditating on death?
For two reasons: in order to live well during whatever years I have left;
and to begin to confront and maybe even conquer the fear that, thus far,
has stopped me from having more than a fleeting engagement with the
knowledge that death is the inevitable outcome of life.
There’s a well-worn trope about living each day as if it’s your last, or if
you only had one year to live you wouldn’t choose to spend it at the
office. That doesn’t quite chime with me. If I only had a year to live, I’d
still choose to work. (I might try to write faster!) Nevertheless, it is
death that makes life meaningful. In Howards End, EM Forster puts it like
this: “Death destroys man: the idea of Death saves him.” The value of our
days floats on the metaphysical stock market of ideas that we hold in our
The idea of ceasing to exist isn’t easy to contemplate. But I don’t believe
in reincarnation or an afterlife. I don’t believe that raging against the
dying of the light is going to achieve anything. And ignoring the issue
isn’t going to make it go away. In fact, it makes the prospect more, rather
than less, frightening.
I first read The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne when I was at
college, but it’s only now that I’m ready to take on this piece of sage
advice: “To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us
deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to
it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.”
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How will I go about it, then, this new contemplative practice? Place a
skull or some other memento mori on the shelf above my desk? Fly to
Thailand or Sri Lanka and visit the Theravāda Buddhist monasteries where
photos of corpses are displayed as aids to the maranasati (mindfulness of
death) meditation? Walk around graveyards?
I’ve recently rented an office where I go to write. There’s a huge picture
window under which I’ve placed the desk. The window overlooks a Victorian
graveyard that’s still in use. When I sit down, all I can see are the
trees. But when I stand I have a view of the tombstones and, in the
distance, the crematorium.
One day I’ll be gone, my body consigned to the earth or turned to ash.
Sooner or later I’ll be forgotten. Truly accepting that revivifies life. It
doesn’t make every moment wonderful, but knowing I will die is a source of
strength to endure the difficulties, and a spur to be more present for all
that is good and precious in life.
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