Death is very real in my life right now.
We said goodbye to a family member.
Kitty (yes, Kitty the dog—on the left of the photo) made it to 19 years old. My wife had her since Kitty was 8 weeks old (~7,000 days). And, she’s been a part of my life for the last 11 years (~4,000 days).
Kitty was a constant—we’d often joke that she would live forever. Even though the signs of old age first started appearing a couple years ago, it all still feels very sudden. It seems like we spent more time planning for death than thinking about what life would be like after death moving forward. The house is quiet. Energy is different.
All ends bring new beginnings and opportunities to reflect on life. I’m taking this time to really contemplate death—and therefore life.
While I don’t think it’s possible to fully mentally and emotionally prepare for a loss—the experience is so much deeper than any preparation could prepare you for—I felt called to organize my notes on death for the first time and see if there are themes / insights to help us live now.
Here’s what I discovered about death and the meaning of life.
15 Deep Insights about Death to Understand the Meaning of Life (& 75+ Death Quotes)
1. NATURAL — Death is a natural part of life’s cycle of development.
“There is a certain limit to the appropriate length of any time in this world. Just as the fruits and vegetables are limited by the seasons of the year, everything should have its beginning, its life, and its ending, after which it should pass away. Wise people willingly submit to this order.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
- “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” — Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech
- “Death is one step in a continuous development.” — Theodore Parker
- “If life is good, then death which is the necessary part of life, is good as well.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “The more deeply you understand life, the less you grieve over the destruction caused by death.” — Leo Tolstoy
2. WHOLENESS — The paradox is that death makes life whole.
“In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of ‘hidden wholeness.’” — Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
- “Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.” — Eckhart Tolle
- “It is truly a great cosmic paradox that one of the best teachers in all of life turns out to be death.” — Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
- “To decompose is to be recomposed. That’s what nature does. Nature through whom all things happen as they should, and have happened forever in just the same way, and will continue to, one way or another, endlessly.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
- “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” — Richard Bach
3. SURRENDER & ACCEPTANCE — Surrender to nature, and accept that you just won’t get around to some things.
“Never postpone a good deed which you can do now, because death does not choose whether you have or haven’t done the things you should have done. Death waits for nobody and nothing. It has neither enemies, nor friends.” —Indian Wisdom
- “All of us are going to go to our deathbeds with some very important parts of us still unexplored.” — Alain de Botton
- “If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.” — Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell Version)
- “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.” — Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell Version)
- “Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.” — Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell Version)
4. JUST VISITING — You are just a visitor on Earth.
“Who brought me into this world? According to whose command do I find myself at this exact place, during this particular time? Life is the remembrance of a very short day we spent visiting this world.” — Blaise Pascal
- “Remember, you do not live in the world, you only pass through it.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
- “Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience.” — Michael Singer
5. LENGTH — A certain amount of life has already passed, and you don’t know how much longer you will get.
“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” — Seneca
- “Any day is a good day for a midlife crisis. After all, you never know when it will be the middle of your life.” — Anonymous
- “If I die in two seconds, I’m still alive in this one.” — Ryan Holiday
- “One day and again, who knows when, all will be over. You won’t be able to change a sentence of the story of your life.” — Gordon Marino, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
- “How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!” — Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
- “Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.” — Attributed to Benjamin Franklin
- “Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” — Marcus Aurelius
6. DEPTH — Due to the unknown length of life, your best bet is to live deeply and fully.
“What is important is not the length of life, but the depth of life. What is most important is not to make life longer, but to take your soul out of time, as every sublime act does. Only then does your life become fulfilled.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca
- “If you are living every experience fully, then death doesn’t take anything from you. There’s nothing to take because you’re already fulfilled. That’s why the wise being is always ready to die. It doesn’t make any difference when death comes because their experience is already whole and complete.” — Michael Singer
- “Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” — Seneca
- “You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: ‘But I’ve only gotten through three acts . . . !’ Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.” — Marcus Aurelius
7. PURPOSE — Living deeply and fully could simply be called living purposefully.
“Your life may be cut short at any time; therefore, your life should have a deep purpose, a significance that will not depend on whether it is short or long.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “It is bad not to have something for which you are ready to die.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “Everyone has a gift to share with the world, something that both lights you on fire internally and serves the world externally, and this thing—this calling—should be something you pursue until your final breath.” — James Clear
- “(The Being-Values or B-Values) are worth living for and dying for. Contemplating them or fusing with them gives the greatest joy that a human being is capable of.” — Abraham Maslow
- “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
8. KNOW THYSELF — Have awareness of your essence and know yourself.
#1 Regret of the Dying: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” — Bronnie Ware
- “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.” — Eckhart Tolle
- “Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life.” — Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
- “It shouldn’t take death to challenge you to live at your highest level. Why wait until everything is taken from you before you learn to dig down deep inside yourself to reach your highest potential? A wise person affirms, ‘If with one breath all of this can change, then I want to live at the highest level while I’m alive. I’m going to stop bothering the people I love. I’m going to live life from the deepest part of my being.'” — Michael Singer
9. ART OF LIVING — Awaken the art of living to understand the art of dying (and vice versa).
“The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis.” — Henry Miller
- “One learns the art of dying by learning the art of living: how to become master of the present moment.” — S. N. Goenka
- “We should get ready for death, because it will come, sooner or later. The best thing to do is to live a good life. If you live a good life, you should not be afraid of death.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.” — Marcus Aurelius
- “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…” — Henry David Thoreau
10. TODAY — A single day is a fractal version of a full lifetime.
“The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. He knows that he is going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body. He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being. He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” — Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell Version)
- “When you have doubts about what to do, just imagine that you might die at the end of that same day, and then all your doubts will disappear, and you will see clearly what your conscience tells you, and what is your true personal wish.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “One day is equal to every day.” — Heraclitus
- “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
- “Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.” — Seneca
- “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” — Mahatma Gandhi
11. UNBUSYNESS — Busyness is one of the biggest distractions from living.
“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” — Seneca
- “He who hurries has one foot in the grave.” — Moroccan saying
- “I worry that I’ll face my death and realize that my life got lost in this frantic flotsam of daily stuff.” — Brigid Schulte
- “When will we find time to do what we love? When things calm down, when the visitors leave and the trips we have planned are finished … and this busy project is wrapped up and the kids are grown up and we’re retired? Maybe when we’re dead there will be more time.” — Leo Babauta
- “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” — Anonymous
- “It’s hard to think about the fact that we’re going to die; it’s unpleasant, so we constantly seek ways to distract ourselves from the awareness of our own mortality. Speed, with the sensory rush it gives, is one strategy for distraction.” — Mark Kingwell
- “It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.” — Seneca
12. PRESENCE — Life only ever exists in the present moment.
“The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.” — Marcus Aurelius
- “At any time each of the moments of which life consists is dying … that moment will never recur. And yet is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
- “If you’re reconciled with death or even if you are pretty well assured that you will have a good death, a dignified one, then every single moment of every single day is transformed because the pervasive undercurrent—the fear of death—is removed. . . . I am living an end-life where everything ought to be an end in itself, where I shouldn’t waste any time preparing for the future, or occupying myself with means to later ends.” — Abraham Maslow
- “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” — Seneca
13. FINAL REVELATIONS — Know that some things won’t be revealed until the verge of death.
“Many people don’t realize until they are on their deathbed and everything external falls away that no thing ever had anything to do with who they are. In the proximity of death, the whole concept of ownership stands revealed as ultimately meaningless. In the last moments of their life, they then also realize that while they were looking throughout their lives for a more complete sense of self, what they were really looking for, their Being, had actually always already been there, but had been largely obscured by their identification with things, which ultimately means identification with their mind.” — Eckhart Tolle
- “In our final moments we all realize that relationships are what life is all about. Wisdom is learning that truth sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to figure out that nothing matters more.” — Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
- “Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?” — Viktor Frankl
- “When there is nothing to identify with anymore, who are you? When forms around you die or death approaches, your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from its entanglement with form: Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter. You realize your essential identity as formless, as an all-pervasive Presence, of Being prior to all forms, all identifications. You realize your true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what consciousness had identified with. That’s the peace of God. The ultimate truth of who you are is not in I am this or I am that, but I Am.” — Eckhart Tolle
14. BEYOND DEATH — Contemplate what may happen after death.
“The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that death finally comes to everything—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.” — Parker Palmer
- “The recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death. Jesus called it ‘eternal life.’” — Eckhart Tolle
- “The more spiritual a life a person leads, the less he is afraid of death. For a spiritual person death means setting the spirit free from the body. Such a person knows that the things with which he lives cannot be destroyed.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” — J.K. Rowling
- “Death is a liberation of the soul from the material personality in which it existed in this world.” — Leo Tolstoy
15. OVERCOMING FEAR — It is possible to truly overcome the fear of death while you are alive.
“Learn to live as though you are facing death at all times, and you’ll become bolder and more open. If you live life fully, you won’t have any last wishes. You will have lived them every moment. Only then will you have fully experienced life and released the part of you that is afraid of living. There is no reason to be afraid of life. And the fear will fade once you understand that the only thing there is to get from life is the growth that comes from experiencing it. Life itself is your career, and your interaction with life is your most meaningful relationship. Everything else you’re doing is just focusing on a tiny subset of life in the attempt to give life some meaning. What actually gives life meaning is the willingness to live it. It isn’t any particular event; it’s the willingness to experience life’s events.” — Michael Singer
- “You should live your life so that you are not afraid of death, and at the same time do not wish to die.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” — Attributed to Mark Twain
- “People living deeply have no fear of death.” — Anaïs Nin
“The level of fear you feel about death is the level of your understanding of life.” — Leo Tolstoy
- “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” — Steve Jobs
- “Modern research suggests that the transcendent state of consciousness is related to positive mental health—including positive changes in family life, reduced fear of death, better health, and a greater sense of purpose—as well as a motivation for increased altruism and prosocial behaviors.” — Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend
- “Less afraid of death as they get closer to it … From the perspective of a young person, such a statement may signal that somebody is not mentally stable, but for the person who has transcended this (life-death) duality, it may sound like wisdom.” — Gerotranscendence
What was most impactful for you? Have any other favorite insights or quotes on death?
Please let me know in the comments.
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Very sorry about the loss of your “kitty”
My deepest condolences. It’s heartbreaking when a beloved canine family member dies. May your heart be comforted.
Appreciate the support, Jeff!
Thank you, Emily!
Michael Keller (Victoria BC) and I are teaching an extended form of the Integral Life Boat experience. This is an amazing and precious resource to deepen our own perspectives. I love your phenomenal capacity to distill knowledge and support it with relevant quotes