What you can learn from traveling with the Grim Reaper


When I tell people about my new book, Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper, many assume I have a serious illness. I don’t, thank goodness – except in the sense that we all have a terminal illness, given the long-term mortality rate of 100 percent.

Instead, the impetus for the book was my 59-year-old brother dying of a heart attack the same week my mother entered memory care in a nursing home. That existential one-two punch got me thinking about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality.

As a travel writer who specializes in holy places, I’ve long found inspiration in journeys. After those losses, my travels soothed my grief and helped me cope with the dawning realization of my own mortality, which for the first time seemed more than hypothetical.

At a Protestant cemetery in Rome — Photo courtesy of Bob Sessions

In my book I describe trips to places far away, including the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, Mayan temples in Mexico and the Vatican Necropolis in Rome. But some of the destinations I ponder are more universal, including nursing homes, graveyards and funerals.

Here are some pieces of advice I can give as a result of my travels:

Make friends with a mummy

Or to put it another way, welcome the reminders of mortality that come your way. For most of human history, people typically died at home surrounded by loved ones, but today these personal encounters with death are largely gone. Instead of families caring for the dying and then preparing the body for burial, death has become the province of professionals, from doctors and nurses to funeral directors. The result is that when we face a hard, tragic loss, we’re often woefully unprepared.

That’s why I welcomed the chance to come face-to-face with a mummy in Egypt, an experience that allowed me to view death without the emotion of grief. In gazing at its shriveled lips and matted hair, I had the chance to reflect on the fate that awaits us all from a more philosophical perspective. He was once a pharaoh, and I was a tourist passing through, but we were equal, somehow, in that moment of connection.

I hope my book will help people look for similar reminders of mortality, messages that can be as fleeting as the wailing of a passing ambulance or as intense as becoming a hospice volunteer. We should welcome these opportunities to remember that our lives aren’t going to last forever, that we need to let pettiness and anger go, and that simply breathing is an incalculable gift.

Don’t miss the funeral

Sun shines through the clouds over CrestoneSun shines through the clouds over Crestone — Photo courtesy of iStock / CampPhoto

My travels also taught me about the diversity and importance of end-of-life rituals. A visit to Crestone, Colo. was particularly enlightening. This small town has the nation’s only non-denominational, open-air cremation site, the Rocky Mountain equivalent of the Hindu ceremonies along the banks of the Ganges River.

While I didn’t see a cremation in person, I listened to residents reflect on what it means to watch their neighbors go up in smoke. “Death is the ultimate lesson in impermanence,” a local Buddhist teacher told me. “So I think it’s a good thing to have this here. During a cremation, you can look around at people’s faces and see how strong the experience is for them.”

Not all funerals are that dramatic, but even a more ordinary send-off can be profoundly moving and inspiring. I think we cheat ourselves by skipping these communal rituals (and for those who don’t want any service at all, please reconsider, because it’s the last gift you can give your loved ones).

Memorial services can deepen our ties with loved ones, help us reflect on our own mortality and leave us resolving to be better people. Many of us, I suspect, have left a funeral wondering what will be said about us when it comes our turn.

Welcome death into the family

Spiritual teachers of many traditions assert the paradoxical truth that remembering we’re going to die is the single best way to live more fully. That concept sank into my bones when I walked in the footsteps of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.

Standing at the spot overlooking the Umbrian hills where he’s believed to have composed his famous song “Canticle of the Creatures,” I learned that he included praise for Sister Death along with his appreciation for Brother Sun and Sister Moon. In naming death as kin, he provided a model for how to view mortality as a natural part of the cycle of life.

Do your homework well in advance of the final exam

At a Day of the Dead celebration in ChicagoAt a Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago — Photo courtesy of Bob Sessions

Each of us has to make our own peace with our inevitable death. It’s part of our birthright to wonder, question and reflect on when and how we will die and what, if anything, comes after. Giving up the chance to do so means missing an essential part of what makes us human.

At a Day of the Dead celebration in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, I watched in admiration as people danced, feasted and celebrated with death. I learned that during this holiday, it’s believed the dead come back to interact with the living, then leave again until next year. That experience, more than any other, provided a lesson in how it’s possible to live with death but not be overwhelmed by it.

For me, the quest to come to terms with mortality involved traveling to places far away and looking at familiar destinations with new eyes. Take it from me: traveling with the Grim Reaper can be a life-changing adventure.

Read more of Lori Erickson’s experiences in her new book, Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper, out August 13.

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