By Madronna Holden
This essay appeared in Parabola 27:2. All rights reserved by Madronna Holden and Parabola.
What does it mean to be intimate with death– as each of us must be in our turn? Here is a story that explores this theme: the story of Godfather Death.
A poor man was blessed with a son, but cursed with the task of providing for him. He began immediately to select a godfather for his child, hoping thereby to secure his future. None of the well-to-do villagers would assume this position, so the father resorted to prayer to obtain a mentor and guardian for his boy. God answered his prayer, but the father rejected Him as godfather on the ground that it was God Himself who had given his family their poverty in the first place. With this, the devil saw his chance. He appeared and proffered himself as godfather. But the man would not entrust the welfare of his son to one whose principal business was deceit. Now Death came to the father to offer himself as godfather. The father knew that before Death, neither the poverty that plagued him nor the riches of others meant anything. Death came to all alike, and in regarding death’s justice, the father chose Death as a godfather for his son.
When the boy became a young man, Godfather Death gave his godson a healing herb, and told him that he, Death, would stand either at the head or the foot of the bed of a sick person. If the young man saw Death at the head of the bed, he might administer the herb and the patient would thrive. However, if Death stood at that person’s feet, the person was not to be healed.
With the help of this gift, the young man’s renown as a physician grew, until the king himself requested his services. As Death stood at the foot of the king’s bed, the suffering king offered the physician great wealth and the hand of his daughter in marriage in exchange for a cure. The young man administered the healing herb, thinking that Death would surely forgive him. After all, he was his own godfather. And forgive him Death did– once. But when the princess herself fell ill, and the physician again administered the healing herb even though Death stood at her feet, Death whisked the young man away to the great hall where the candles of our lives burn. As each candle burns down, the life it represents goes out to make room for the one to be set in its place. Death told his godson that he must now trade his life for the one he had wrongfully prolonged. The physician, viewing his own stunted candle with alarm, moved to place his candle on top of another to extend his life. But more quickly, Death snuffed out his candle, and took his godson to his own kingdom forever.
This story, told from Iceland to Palestine, indicates that intimacy with death may bring us a powerful gift of healing. The healing alliance between life and death is both a physical and a psychological fact. In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko relates a Pueblo tale in which the earth becomes infertile through the hubris of human beings— who are tricked by a dangerous magician into thinking they can set themselves above respect for the natural cycles of life and death. These people ultimately find the only way to re-fertilize the earth is to “bring back the buzzard”.
In the natural world, life and death give rise to one another. There is no fertility without decay.
In the psychological world it is the same. As the physician in Godfather Death finds, our power to heal is only as good as our capacity to yield to death. The alliance between healing and intimacy with death is perhaps best expressed by the archetype of the wounded healer– the idea that those who survive their own encounter with death are best equipped to heal others. Certainly there is no small challenge in this. The wounded healer must understand what our wounds as well as our triumphs call us to.
At their root, the taking and the giving of life draw their power from the same source. Slavic Old Europe saw the earth as a double womb that both births us and takes us back to her at death. Chehalis tradition states that power great enough to heal is always power great enough to kill. This is why we must be very careful with our healing power lest we create the reverse of what we hope for.
We see this as the physician in our tale attempts to trick death not once but three times. Now notice: the rules are not always absolute. Sometimes, we may bend them a bit, as does the physician when he heals the king. But we cannot go on in this way forever. In the end, death’s justice comes to us all. And that justice is based on making space for the candles waiting in the hallway of life to be lit after us. Stories about the origin of death told from Navajo land to Asia echo this point. They tell us that each generation in turn must yield to death so that their children and grandchildren may take their place in life.
And as for the physician’s final attempt to prolong his own life by setting his candle on top of another’s—it is perhaps the most dangerous fallacy of all to believe that another can die in our place. How many wars have been waged under this illusion? It is no coincidence that Spanish Conquistadors who ravaged native populations in Florida and Mexico did so in their quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
However, both ancient traditions and nature herself tell us that a person whose time has come is simply a person whose time has come. Henry Cultee, a Chehalis elder and son of a powerful Chehalis Indian doctor, told me no Indian doctor would attempt to cure a person who had “seen himself dead” in a dream. According to Chehalis tradition, such a dream would come to someone a full cycle of seasons before their death in order to allow the dreamer to complete what needed to be done in their life.
The idea that we know what needs doing in our life because we have seen our death is an old one. In Godfather Death, the physician receives his calling from his closeness to death. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, death is the primary “horizon” against which we create our authenticity. Shamanistic traditions concur, noting that we need only imagine death sitting on our shoulder to understand our priorities in life. Emotional intimacy with death is the key experience of traditional initiation ceremonies. In Men and the Water of Life, Michael Meade observes that the risky behaviors of adolescents often indicate their attempts to initiate themselves into adulthood when their society fails to do this for them. The understanding that these young adults intuitively—and sometimes tragically—enact is that those who are not intimate with their death can never step into the full maturity of adulthood.
And what of those who would knock death from their shoulder and live forever? A story told throughout Europe and Asia warms us of the dangers of such a stance. In this story, a man searches for the land of “life without death”, and tragically, finds it. He sequesters himself in this land, where he does not age as the rest of the world does. At last his loneliness overtakes him, and he seeks to leave this land and return to his family and friends. But he can only return a desperate stranger to the world where those he loved have lived and died in his absence. Further, when he re-enters the real world, time catches up with him, and he crumbles to dust— but now there is no one to remark or remember his passing.
In this story, there is an impassible wall that sets off the land of “life without death” from the real world. The man who enters this magical kingdom can only live there in isolation from others, even as he isolates himself from time itself — and the cycle of generations that flows from it. Ironically, he thus he robs himself of that special human longevity, as the Chinese saying has it, that is measured by how long we remember into the past and how long we will be remembered in the future. Ultimately, to take up residence in the land of life without death thus results in a loss of personal legacy. There is no one to remark or remember this “eternal youth” as he turns to dust. Certainly, there is no greater loneliness than this.
There is more for traditional folklore to tell us on this point, in another tale told throughout Europe and Asia: “Three Golden Hairs of Grandfather Wisdom”. In this story, we witness the fate of a king who would defy aging— a defiance for which he expects others to pay the price. He does not hesitate to plot the death of a baby destined to become his future son-in-law and replace him as king. And when this plot does not work, he sends his would-be successor on a life-threatening quest sixteen years later. However, the young man not only succeeds in this quest, but also passes through a city in which grow the apples of youth. Hearing this, the king rushes away to find these apples for himself. But because he does not wait for the end of the youth’s story, he lacks the knowledge to save himself from a trap. He winds up rowing others back and forth, back and forth, across a great river, a task he is condemned to repeat forever since he has never learned to “pass on his oars to the next one”.
In life as in this story, the obsession with eternal youth may trap us in compulsive, repetitive and mindless behavior.
In contrast with the attempt to escape death, facing death adds both substance and authority to our lives. If we become an elder by virtue of the length of our life, we take on an elder’s authority through our intimacy with death—no matter what the count of our years. Thomas Pinkson’s moving article about his work with dying children, “Do They Celebrate Christmas in Heaven?”, details the profound wisdom of children who are forced into painful confrontations with death. Pinkson deems these children, “old prophets in young bodies”, and he counts them as his greatest teachers. One of these children, Brian, had this to say:
Everyone has an assignment in life, that’s why we’re here, to work on it. Sometimes they’re longer and sometimes they’re shorter, like with me. But that’s why we’re here, to work on our assignment and when we’re finished we get to graduate.[i]
We each have a singular purpose in life—and an allotted time in which to undertake it. Godfather Death shows us the dangers of unduly prolonging life. And Pinkson’s work elaborates how this may violate both the spirit—and the spiritual process- of the person whose time has come for completion and release. Pinkson found that the process of letting go was essential to a good death—and it could be thwarted both by undue medical intervention and by those among the living who are unable to let a dying person go.
In my collection of oral history and traditional stories, I have worked with a number of elders close to their own “graduation” from life. I have been deeply touched to be in the presence of these elders, who shed layers of daily, surface, and egoistic concerns as a striking translucency of spirit emerged from them. Their lives were focused on story rather than the present moment—the story that garnered the meaning of their lives for the sake of those who would follow. As one Finnish man put it, his story was “the ninety-six book of my life”.
To receive such a “book of life”—and certainly, to be witness to the human spiritualization at the great passing between life and death is a gift that immeasurably increases our capacity for intimacy with one another.
We may expect the spiritualization process, which takes us from our ordinary sensory life into a wider realm, to happen to all of us at the end of our lives. Sometimes, as in the case of young Brian, it happens quickly. More often, we withdraw from ordinary life toward “the door we all came in” [ii] more slowly. In all cases, it is an essential part of the natural process of life’s completion—a process that readies us readies us for the great mystery that awaits each of us on the other side.
Part of death’s power to hold us to one another lies in the fact that, before death, we are all equal. It is this very thing that causes the father to choose Godfather Death for his son in the traditional story. Great compassion flows from this knowledge of our equality in the face of death. But this compassion is no easy thing to feel: under it lies grief. It takes only a moment to tell the part of the story of Godfather Death in which the physician sees death at the foot of his beloved princess and decides to cure her. But it may take years to tell the story of the loved ones we release to death only after we have tried against all odds to pull them back from the brink.
The grief of death, in turn, can only be transformed by giving it its due in a story. Good deaths are passed to us as stories ready to be told. With bad deaths, we have to work harder, but it is even more essential that we tell their stories– and tell them with compassion– in order to redeem and transform them.
We must tell such stories in order to honor the dead and heal the living. In her family autobiography, In My Mother’s House, Kim Chernin details the way her mother’s grief over the death of her older sister was passed as trauma through three generations of her family until the story of that death could be told. In secreting away the death of that child, her mother had also secreted the life of that child—and her love for both the child who died and for the children who came after her.
Great as the grief for a single death may be, the grief for the death of a people through warfare or genocide is the greatest grief we can imagine—and to tell a transformative story of such death may be hardest human task there is. But especially in this case, such stories need to be told for the sake of both the living and the dead. To tell such stories takes tremendous courage on the part of the living—and often, it takes more than one generation. A contemporary Puyallup grandmother in her fifties told me she had just begun to be able to hug her children—a hundred years after the brunt of the devastation ushered in by white settlement was borne by the Puyallup people. But now the story was finally being told—and the capacity for love and healing released once again.
I heard a parallel idea from a Romanian Jew in her 80’s who escaped the Holocaust though others in her family did not. For many decades no one told the story of the lost ones, but now she could tell their story (not, I will add, without terrible pain in the telling). But she realized how the holding back of that story had held back her expression of love for her sons—and she spent the last years of her life working to repair this.
Sometimes we must tell the story of death in order to save our lives.
It is the story of our love and the grief for the loss of our love that both redeems that grief and makes our love transformative. Telling such stories is the only way that the emotional ghosts of bad deaths can be released—and the power of the good death inherited.
Godfather Death urges us to a very different kind of immortality than the fruitless attempt to extend our mere physical existence: the immortality of meaning created by the human story. If no one else can die in our place, we can face our own death on behalf of others. To die well may be both a celebration of life and a gift to those that follow us. If one generation knows how to die well, the next generation will know something about how to live well—about the potential for spiritualization that exists in each of the little deaths in our daily lives on the way to our own final “graduation”.
I have a story of such a good death that I keep as a personal treasure—the story of my grandfather’s grandmother, a revered shaman in peasant Moravia. She was nearly a hundred years old when she called my grandfather to her and told him she had a hankering for a certain kind of sausage—a sausage that could only be obtained in the village, five miles away. My grandfather adored his grandmother and gladly walked the five miles to the village and five miles back to get her sausage for her.
On his return, the wise old woman gathered her extended family and her large bevy of friends about her and threw a great party, at which all of those present ate and sang and danced and laughed together. When the celebration was finished, she withdrew to her room and died peacefully.
It was a great satisfaction to my grandfather that she ate all the sausage.
[i] Thomas Pinkson, “’Do They Celebrate Christmas in Heaven?’ Teachings from Children with Life-Threatening Illness”, in Betwixt and Between, ed. Louise Mahdi, Steven Foster, and Meredith Little. Open Court Publishing: LaSalle, Illinois, l982.
[ii] This phrase comes from Brian Cutean’s Song, “The Old Ones”.