01/30/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Death Gives Us Clarity

I like funerals.

I don't like them for the sadness or for the realization that we have lost someone we love. And I suspect that I won't like my own funeral as much as I like the funerals of others (just saying).

I like funerals because they remind me of what's important.

At funerals, we rarely hear about the designer throw rug that someone loved... or the career path that included a miserable job or two... or the fact that the deceased upgraded to the SSXL model on their last car. 

At funerals, we hear about the important things in life. We mostly hear about The Four F's: Family, friends, faith, and, well, flowers. Ever notice how we love to give flowers to people who are grieving? It's ironic that about a week later, the flowers die. It's as if we've said, "Here's a comforting gift that, in just a few days, will remind you once again of your loss."

The problem with funerals is that, just like life, we are usually distracted by why we are there (in the immediate sense -- because someone has died) and we miss why we are here (in the broader sense -- as in what does this all mean?).

But when we allow ourselves to think about the big picture, we realize that death is the ultimate clarifier of life. Once death happens, things come into focus. We see more clearly how we should live.

As part of my regular walking routine, I pass through a cemetery. One day, shortly after my father-in-law's funeral, I was particularly aware of my surroundings because I had just experienced the death of a loved one. I noticed the names, the dates, and the inscriptions on the tombstones more than I normally would. It felt as if the stones were talking to me. Not in a voices-from-the-other-side way but by symbolically showing me the important aspects of life that I might have otherwise missed.

The following are the actual names on several tombstones I saw that day and what follows is my sense of their meaning.

KEYS: It occurred to me that the keys to life are in death. Stephen Covey described it as "beginning with the end in mind." In business, the goal of any project determines the direction we should seek. Life is the same way. Whatever we want others to say at our funeral gives us plenty of information about the path we should take in life.

PAGE: Each page in our life is part of that path. The degree we got in college. The job we have. The way we parent our children. The things we eat. Each page becomes part of our life's book. And sometimes, like when we drink to much or stay in a job for a long time, the pages become a chapter or quite possibly, the entire book.

FEARNOW (yes, this was the actual name): Many people fear death. It reminds me of what Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

In reality, we should fear death now rather than later. I don't mean the paranoid, I-don't-want-to-leave-my-house kind of fear. But the I-want-to-make-sure-I'm-ready kind of fear. The kind of apprehension that reminds us to live each moment as if it were our last - because one day it will be. It's the motivation to value every day, every relationship, and every experience as important and life changing.

JONES: We do not want to pattern our lives by what the Jones' are doing but rather what we can do. We all have a uniqueness that can benefit the world. If we strive to be like everyone else, then we deprive the world of our special gifts. We can't all be Martin Luther Kings or Mother Theresas and we shouldn't try to be. Instead, we need to identify our own gifts and skills and share them freely with others. Are you a closet artist? I don't mean someone who paints closets but someone who keeps your artistic gifts a secret from others. Are you a great coach? Do you love to write? How can you share your gifts with others so that you not only enrich your own life but the lives of others as well?

MOORE: The key to getting more out of life is to focus more on living. This is about being present and attending to the richness of the life that's right under our noses. It's the beauty of a blossom on the first day of spring. Or the laugh of a child. Or the crispness of the air on a winter morning. Or the thanks from a friend because of something we did. These little moments of appreciation in life make it more meaningful.

BREADY: Finally, if we consider all of these messages, we just might b-ready. Many people die in pain, both emotionally and physically, because they are not ready for death. Relationships still need to be healed. Experiences still need to be lived. Words still need to be said. When we're not ready, our pain and anxiety get the best of us. When we've lived life well, however, we can approach death with less dread. It's not that we want to die but that we know it's just another part of life.

So, the first tombstone I saw in December, two days after my father-in-law's funeral, had this name on it: CLARITY. In that moment, I realized the power of death to give us clarity about life.

And that's why I like funerals. They make me sad but they give me clarity. And with more clarity, I can truly live.

For more by Ron Culberson, click here.

For more on wisdom, click here.