Ash Wednesday services include the words, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." You'd think that we wouldn't have to be reminded to remember death; we're already reminded daily of death's inevitability and unpredictability. For instance, our evening news almost always has at least one story of a shooting or a fatal automobile accident. Also, we all have lost loved ones whose absence is difficult.
But we never get "used" to death the way we get used to other things. I suppose we only get used to death as we see it certain kinds of movies and shows. Any horror or action movie contain “death tropes.” For instance, the first death will likely be a character with whom you’ve built no special sympathy. The dead person is the murder victim at the beginning of the mystery, or someone foolish enough to walk into that forbidden door, or the secondary character who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. When stories include a sympathetic character who dies early (Janet Leigh in Psycho) or when a sympathetic character dies at all (Cordelia in King Lear), the effect is jarring.
We also introduce “tropes” in our interpretation of news stories. Who died in shootings today? No one with whom I’ve even a casual relationship. Where did the shooting happen? Not in my neighborhood. A hurricane strikes, a plane crashes: but where did it happen? Many times we'll worry about a disaster that involves people in our own country; some overseas crises become major news, but not always.
Though we never get "used" to death and its universality, sometimes the disaster is such that it awakens us to a kind of common expression of concern and humanity. One thinks of the Fort Hood shootings last year, and also the recent shootings in Tucson which temporarily inspired national soul-searching about ugly political rhetoric. Obviously 9/11 was a tremendous example of solidarity amid tragedy and shock.
It occurs to me that Ash Wednesday---when we ponder death's inevitability through liturgy, prayers, devotional readings, or the use of ashes---can be a time of common humanity and concern for one another. We're not just asked to "remember death" privately, but to remember it among other people who are also seeking God who is alive, greater than life and death, and the source of our hope.
In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being (Job. 12:10).
If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15).
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Ps. 36:9).