We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically—with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings—without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind in the meantime?
— Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004)
Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd. For every single person you see, young or old, there will be one death, one funeral, one grave or ash-filled urn. I work on a university campus where most of the people I pass on the street are young and healthy—and in this context the thought is jarring.I don’t think about most of the time, of course, but sometimes it’s just there. On those days it seems a bit Victorian to be walking through a park-like campus, musing upon death. I feel like I should be wearing a long black coat and a tall silk hat. My walking stick would click, click, click on the pavement, and a crow would pierce the air with its sharp cry.
Because those were days when people weren’t afraid to talk openly about death. Granted, many Victorians placed a high value on deathbed statements of faith and inspiring last words, and the way they made a fetish of mourning with their grotesque monuments and black clothing seems bizarre.
But still, I think there’s something good to be said for a little Victorian melancholy now and then.
Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem was “Mortality,” by William Knox. He knew it by heart and sometimes wrote it out and sent it to people he cared about. It ends with the stanza:
’Tis the wink of an eye—’tis the draught of a breath—
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Despite his well-known sense of humor, Lincoln wasn’t the happiest of people. Even before the dark days of the Civil War he was prone to bouts of depression (one of which brought him to the brink of suicide). But “Mortality” seemed to give him comfort, though its words offered none.
“I would give all I am worth, and go in debt,” Lincoln wrote a newspaper editor, “to be able to write so fine a poem as I think that is.” (Quoted in Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 70.)
To me, the effect of all those walking future corpses isn’t gloom, but rather a sharper focus on priorities, and a clearer moral sense. Perhaps that’s also what Lincoln drew from his poem. He was a flawed man, not the saint he became to Northerners after his death, and like all of us he was prone to errors of judgment and the prejudices of his day. But even after four years of war he seemed to lack the vindictiveness of many of his contemporaries, and I think his sense of universal mortality may have contributed to that.
Because under the circumstances, why would we want to be anything but kind?