"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in our places but will never in fact see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. To live at all is miracle enough."
So says Richard Dawkins - not everyone's favourite humanist on account of his occasional aggressiveness towards the beliefs of others, but nevertheless, a brilliant scientist and writer. What he says here feels right to me, as well as being valid scientifically, no doubt.
Us funeral minibrants spend a lot of time looking for the right things to say to people who have lost someone dear to them and, because they don't believe in an afterlife, don't think they'll ever see them again. Or at best, they are "Perhapsists." Although they have been chosen by strong-minded atheists for a funeral reading, for most of us, Dawkins' words might offer very little comfort, at this stage of their grief.
That would be because if this is a new idea to those concerned, it comes too late. "To live at all is miracle enough" is a really valuable insight to help people accept their mortality, to live with death as part of life. To quote him again, the Dalai Lama said that people in the West don't think about death until they are dying, and it's a bit late then. (There is an opposite view, of which more another time.) But to realize that having lived and having to die is miracle enough as you're dying, or for your family to realise it after you've gone, is a bit late to be of much comfort, I suspect.
In a recent post, Comfort Blanket at http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2011/02/not-why-but-when.html
writes helpfully and interestingly about the need to accept the randomness of death, stop thinking "why me" and maybe think "why not me," and feel more keenly how lucky we are to be alive. (cf Dawkins.) She also points out that really, there is no right or wrong time to die. There is just - the time. Whenever.
Of course, most of us still have a feeling for a natural life-span - 3 score and ten, I guess, plus a bit for improved diet and better medicine. And who would deny that a youthful death is a particularly dreadful event. If I help with the funeral of an 85-year old who's had, it seems, a good life, and hasn't suffered too much on the way out, well, there's sadness here, I feel, but no tragedy. Sorry if you've read this before, either of you, but: if I see a traumatised young father with three small children sitting in the front row of a desolate cremaholeium after the slow decline and death of the mother in her thirties, well, FFS, that is a tragedy. And I'd better keep a tight grip on my old tearducts and sobmuscles, at least till I'm back in the car.
But it might just help all concerned, in either case, to see that fairness doesn't really come into it. We tend to bring up our children in the belief that we and they should try to be fair. That's only civilised, no? But the unwelcome spin-off is that we tend to get unduly knocked back when things beyond the reach of fair/unfair (i.e. death, storms, earthquakes, the greed of certain sportspeople....) stray from what we want a "fair" norm to be.
And the prospect of significant unfairness frightens us. But: "If a man harbors any sort of fear, it makes him landlord to a ghost," , said Lloyd Douglas, apparently. To evict the ghost, scrap the idea of a fair point at which to die, and live with maximum presentmomentness. CB's blogpost helps point the way.