Bury the dead. Feed the living.

On the morning of 1 November 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake that residents could feel as far away as North Africa. Seismologists today estimate the Lisbon earthquake had a magnitude of at least 8.4. It is considered one of the most deadly earthquakes in history, killing an estimated 30,000 people if you include the fires and tsunami that leveled the downtown area called the Baixa neighborhood.

While politicians and bureaucrats were lamenting and wringing their hands about what to do, the first minister, Marquês de Pombal, was pragmatic. He issued the order, “Bury the dead. Feed the living.”

Of course, the rebuilding of Lisbon was complicated and complex. But this initial focus on what was essential is a good reminder for us as we try to recover from a global disaster.

1755 Lisbon earthquake
The earthquake and tidal wave depicted in a dutch print 1755: o grande terramoto de Lisboa. Artwork: Lisbon: Público and Fundação Luso-Americana.

As citizens of wealthy “global north” countries emerge (in fits and starts, at best) from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognize and honor the four million individuals (at this writing) who have died. That is four million families who have suffered a devastating loss. Over a million children have lost a primary caregiver. Even if you don’t personally know anyone who died, you have felt this global shudder in some way.

Meanwhile, you may be confronting some other kind of loss. Whether it’s a job, or a relationship, a belief, or a habit — something close to you likely died over the last 18 months.

bury the dead

Virtually every human — and some animal — cultures and societies have traditions and ceremonies for honoring the dead. These rituals don’t need to be reserved for funerals. Grief over any loss can help us process it.

Consider the last 18 months of your life. What has died, or is languishing near death, for you? How might you bury it, to bring peace to it and to yourself?

feed the living

Likewise, something new might have come up for you. A new meditation habit. A friendship that resurrected. A creative hobby. It needs to be nurtured.

What was born for you in the last 18 months? What needs care and feeding to thrive?

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

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