Sing Your Death Song

By: Christopher Brennan

The Death Song is spoken of in the spiritual beliefs of many Native American tribes. Perhaps a modern audience might know it from the abridged, “Tecumseh’s Words of Wisdom” that appears at the end of the movie Act of Valor. Tecumseh, a Shawnee, is said to have composed the following:

So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion;
respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.

Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled
with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep
and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home. (1)

My interpretation is that your Death Song is as much about celebrating your life and your chance to cross over to the next plane as it is about facing the inevitable death of our mortal bodies with grace. I’ve written a bit about the importance of a calm bearing and a willingness to confront one’s own mortality if we are going to be able to aspire to a warrior culture in the fire service. I have written before about the words the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is reported to have said riding into battle, “Today is a good day to die.” If we are going to place our lives on the line and make our lives, “in the service of our people,” then we must be prepared to greet our own death knowing that we have left nothing unsaid, nothing undone. We must make every day a good day to die.

I dropped off the face of the planet (to the extent that is possible) to travel to South Dakota with my family. Our first stop of our first full day was at the Crazy Horse Memorial ( It was stunning, breathtaking, and physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually moving. I am not going to spend a lot of time here on back story or history. If you don’t know who Crazy Horse was and you visit, then you need to use Google, go buy a book or two, and catch up. At the site of the monument is The Indian Museum of North America. Inside this museum is a statue, “Death Song” by Ernest Berke.

And from the plaque accompanying the sculpture:

I took these photos after spending a brief time contemplating the statue, its meaning, and feeling a host of emotions well up inside me.
When I hear people say they are going on vacation, I think of sleeping in, lounging on a beach or by a pool, reading, sipping a cocktail, and generally checking out. My vacations don’t often seem to take that form; they end up being pilgrimages of sorts. My trips seem to become quests: to experience, to feel, to explore, for myself and with my family. My wife likes to point out we are making memories for us and our son, and she is right. We have a lot of fun seeing sights, swimming, enjoying “playing” in the world. Beyond memories, though, I seem to make connections, and come away with new thoughts to ponder and emotions to sort. Oh, and books… I come back with new books. I came back from this trip needing to spend some time in reflection and meditation, and I will do that, but I want to share with each of you something that I believe to be true.

The concept we have labeled Fire Service Warrior isn’t a catch phrase, it isn’t a website and a Facebook page, it isn’t a training tool or anything of the sort—those are all merely expressions of what it is. To me, aspiring to be worthy of being considered a Fire Service Warrior is a philosophy rooted in the idea of being of service to our people. My people are not only the neighbors I protect on duty, but also the neighbors of every man and woman who come to this site looking to learn, grow, and prepare themselves to be a warrior and protect their neighbors. I could rant and rave about how we are lacking a spirit of service, of how we are far more concerned about our own lives than we are about the welfare of our communities. I’m not going to, though. I’m done ranting and raving. I have come to peace with the fact that many people will disagree with me, some will see me as reckless, and others will decide my motives are self-aggrandizing or driven by a desire to get rich. What I have come to know is that we tend to accuse others of the things that we would be guilty of ourselves.
So I am done ranting and raving. What I have done and will continue to do is share with each of you my beliefs, my ideas, and what I think this Fire Service Warrior culture is. For me this is a spiritual existence as much as it is an operational one.

I know in our secular, machismo-driven fraternity that is an idea to be scorned; if you want to then feel free. The truth is that protecting my neighbors from unrestrained fire, stepping into their lives during struggles and horrors, is MY way of being able to show the love I have for my neighbors; it is my way of living a life in service of my people. I do seek to make my life long. I seek to learn, grow, and share so much more; but I know this… if the mystery that is the spark of the universe and I become one today, I will sing my death song and give thanks for my unconquerable soul.



  1. Sid Newby says:

    Great post Chris. I appreciate your honesty and have the same beliefs. All the ranting is doing for me is wearing me out and not focusing on the what I need to do to be better at my trade. Please post the book titles for the future.

  2. Shane Smith says:

    Great post Chris!!!!!!!
    You keep writing and believing in what you do and many more like you and myself will surface. I was told once by a very wise man, “What others think of me is none of my business”. I appreciate your willingness to put this out there.

  3. charlene lustig says:

    i was very moved by your comments regrding the death song by ernrst berke. mr. berke has another life size bronze sculpture called the “washita”. this is the story of custer’s massacure of black kettles village of cheyenne,ok on the washita river in 1867… the bronze is located in the courthouse in cheyenne in western ok. the bronze is of a indian woman running in the snow, carrying her baby covered by a buffalo robe..i was married to ernest berke and modeled for the scupture. all mr. beke’s works tell a story of history of the west.

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