Ash Wednesday: You’re Gonna Die

I’m writing this a few days before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. Most Ash Wednesday services give participants the opportunity to have ashes–a symbol of mortality–rubbed on their foreheads. The presiding minister says something like “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I remember.

Ash Wednesday (image from

Ash Wednesday (image from

I think of death more than I used to. Death is nearer to me than it used to be, and not just in the sense that each day brings me closer to that inevitability. A few years ago, I read  Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, with its thesis that we humans seek to evade our fear of death by engaging in immortality projects–activities as diverse as accumulating assets, going to war, running marathons, and giving endowments, all with the intent of demonstrating our vitality or extending our influence beyond the grave. Now, when I hear of such activities, I wonder whether the perpetrators are motivated by an attempt to evade thoughts of death. Death has also seemed  closer to me after my father’s passing five months ago. I’m his oldest child, and it’s just a matter of time before I follow him.

I don’t expect to die soon–though none of us knows what the future holds. It’s more that I’ve become increasingly convinced that to ignore the reality of death would result in my trying to live as an “amortal.” The term comes from a 2011 Time article that reported favorably on those who lived as if neither time nor death mattered. Katherine Mayer, the author of the article, offered the following definition:

“The defining characteristic of amortals is that they live the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from their late teens right up until death.  They rarely ask themselves if their behavior is age-appropriate, because that concept has little meaning for them.”

I wrote at the time about a previous article in which Mayer had nominated several public figures as good examples of amortality:

“Madonna and Mick Jagger seem apt nominees, since they both cavort in much the same manner they did decades ago.  Mayer also includes Simon Cowell on the basis of his Botox use, Nicholas Sarkozy for his volatile temperament, and Joan Rivers for her “oddly undatable face” and “relentless pace.”

One of these amortals has already proved mortal; the rest continue on apace. For me, though, I am content knowing that my energy is decreasing and I probably won’t accomplish as much as I used to. I won’t be acting the same way I did when I was in my teens, or even in my 40s and 50s. Irregardless, life will be good. On Ash Wednesday, I’ll welcome the ashes and remember that to dust I’ll return, grateful for the many wonderful years I’ve had thus far between my coming into and my going out of this world.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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