Eugene Peterson tells of a time he was staying at a monastery and being shown around the grounds when he noticed an open grave. He asked his host if one of the brothers died recently. The monk giving him the tour casually responded: “No. That’s for the next one of us.” The open grave served as a reminder of their own mortality, a memento mori.
Think that’s macabre? That’s most of us these days. We live in the most death denying culture in history (for the implications of this see Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death). We talk all around the edges of death in hushed, taboo tones, like Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter, “the one who shall not be named.”
Although it seems so contrarian, in truth we live best when we have a clear sense of our own demise – it teaches you to “live the life you’re given.” Biblically speaking, it’s probably the healthiest thing for someone to linger for a while on your mortality; it scrubs away any frothy spirituality, pointing you to the real life held in our daily living. So in the face of a culture largely dodging it (but trust me: I’ve done the research on this one and the statistics show a consistent 100% mortality rate), we need helpful friends who can help us live with the reality of our dying.
Poets and artists are good starts, and books like Ecclesiastes are even better. In the past few years, I’ve found Ecclesiastes-like friends in the music of the Avett Brothers. I was introduced to their music a few years ago and was hooked immediately (when the first lyrics I heard were “shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same” and I knew I’d like these guys). Fabulous live performers who bring it; raw energy; amazing banjo picking; Joe Kwon’s cello regularly thrashing into the mix; music that switches gears in a heartbeat from a soft melody to a frenetic, rave-like romp; a fusion of sadness and soul and joy; and the heft of their lyrics.
But with the release of their latest album, The Carpenter, I figured out something more – these guys are my musical memento mori. There is an unflinching focus on death that surfaces throughout their music (Die, die, die, Murder in the City … even the cover art for I and Love and You hints at the traditional memento mori image). And this latest album of theirs has the reality of our statistically-secured mortality layered throughout (Once and Future Carpenter, Live and Die, Through my prayers – this last one so emotionally packed with that yearning to communicate just once more with a lost loved one – “My dream of all dreams and my hope of all hopes, is only to tell you and make sure you know, how much I love you and how much I always did,”), yet woven into tracks so richly beautiful and lovely and infectious you’ll want to smile and dance and cry all the while. A lot of the tenderness with which they handle it emerges from the real life experience of bassist Bob Crawford whose two year old daughter had brain cancer. The end result is that their music is like a walk through a cemetery on a gorgeous spring day with a blue-bird sky and dewy green grass, birds singing and flowers blooming – the beauty of all that life helps and heals.
That’s the strange and lovely paradox, the blessed affliction of facing your mortality – it brings a heightened appreciation for life it brings, a clarified vision for embracing life. That is why the ancient wisdom was to remember your death, why Benedictines will dig a grave for the next one – to live and die well. Or as the Avett’s sing it: “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”
Here’s a cut from their recent album …
… and one from a recent Jimmy Kimmel show, where they played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.