In Giovanni Paolo Cimerlini’s etching “The Aviary of Death,” a skeleton perched on a rock is setting a series of snares. The snares look like they are for birds, but they aren’t. These snares are for the group of people lounging and enjoying themselves in the foreground of the park. One man plays a flute. Another reads a book to a beautiful woman. The snares are death, and the parkgoers look shockingly stupid, clearly unaware of the traps being set for them. In fact, one man has already been caught and doesn’t know it.
The point: Death is after us and most of us are embarrassingly ignorant of that fact, denying our obvious mortality because it makes us uncomfortable. There is another message in the engraving too. In the background, another skeleton chases a group of ladies. Clearly these ladies are terrified—not ignorant of their mortality—but they are running from the skeleton…straight into a net. The point there: You can fear death all you want, and it will still get you.
Marcus Aurelius would say that death wasn’t something to be scared of (to deny its existence because you were scared of it): “It makes no difference whether you look at the world for this long or that long…” he said, so “death shouldn’t scare you.” Again, that’s not nihilism. It’s the opposite.
In fact, the last lines of his Meditations deal with how to think about life and death. We can imagine, perhaps, that they were the last words he ever wrote. “To be sent away from [life], not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible?…So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”
Death is the final act in our play of life. No need to fear it. You know it’s coming. Just make sure you act the hell out of your role while you’re here.
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