Death with Dignity

Sufjan Stevens

Learn in three simple steps:


Listen to the song
Enjoy listening to the music using the video below. I suggest using headphones. Keep in mind any interesting words or parts, but don't worry about understanding yet. No video? Watch on YouTube.


Play the explanation
Sit back and relax. I'll explain each part of the song for you. It's okay if you don't understand every word, just use what I say to understand the lyrics. For an extra challenge listen without the transcript.


[Clickable Transcript]

Hello everyone and welcome to Explained in English. My name is Kiah and today I'll be explaining the song Death with Dignity by Sufjan Stevens.

Ever since I was a teenager, I've often been drawn to or attracted to sad music. There's something really special about a song that comes from this intense, often dark place. Art forms of all kinds, but especially music are perfect for channeling that energy, for expressing it. And once the art is created people around the world can hear it, connect with it, and in so find some kind of comfort and strength to get through their situation. Today's song, Death with Dignity, is a perfect example of this. It's written and performed by one of my favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens. I love so many of his songs and it was really difficult to decide which song to explain. The song I ended up choosing, Death with Dignity, is the first song on an album called Carrie and Lowell. The album is dedicated to his mother, whose name is Carrie, and his stepfather, whose name is Lowell.

Sufjan wrote this album as a way to process the death of his mother. It's important to know that his mother, Carrie, had a history of mental illness. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as schizophrenia. She also had a history of taking and abusing drugs. Due to these issues, she was largely absent for Sufjan’s childhood. He grew up in Michigan like me, but his mother moved to the other side of the country to a state called Oregon, which is north of California.

I chose Death with Dignity because it's the title track on the album. It's an introduction that sets the tone forall the other songs. I figure that if you're still listening to this explanation you either one, already know Sufjan Stevens or two, you're a very motivated English learner. That's one of the reasons that I'm making this explanation an advanced one, which means that I'll focus on explaining only the most difficult words, offering more background analysis and interpretation of the lyrics. If you struggle to understand or need all of the words explained, check out some of my intermediate or basic explanations. However, whether you're a beginner or an advanced student, I do want you to listen to the real song first. That will really help you enjoy and get the most out of this explanation. All you have to do is click the link in this episode show notes, and on that page you can listen to the song, read the lyrics, and get a free transcript of this episode. So, everything I'm saying right now in text.

Okay, so now we're ready to take a look at the lyrics. We're actually going to start with the title of the song: Death with Dignity. Dignity is a type of feeling. If you have dignity, then you feel proud and you feel respected by others. When dignity is inside of you, you might feel in control or you feel very confident and valued. Dying with dignity would mean leaving this Earth or coming to the end of your life without too much pain, without too much suffering. Dying with dignity implies some level of acceptance of your death. In this particular song the phrase “Death with Dignity” is directly connected to a law that was passed in Oregon in 1994. This law was called the Death With Dignity Act of 1994. And this is a law which said that terminally ill people, people who have a disease which is sooner or later going to kill them, have some right to choose when and how they die. These terminally ill people would be able to work with their doctor or their physician to end their life. Usually, by taking a lethal medication. In this way, the people can have some dignity to choose how they die. Remember that this song is written about Sufjan’s mother, who died due to stomach cancer. The first verse of this song goes:

[Verse 1]
Spirit of my silence I can hear you
But I'm afraid to be near you

He's looking deeply inside of himself, at his spirit. He says the spirit of my silence, which I think is a beautiful way to talk about what's inside of us. The deep, deep feelings that we have but that are not expressed. We carry these emotions in us but we don't necessarily talk about them and we might not share these feelings or thoughts with other people. So, we remain silent. He's looking deeply at everything that he's not expressing and he can hear it, he can feel it, but he says that he's afraid. He's scared to look at this feeling. He’s scared to express it with words. And that's what he means by being near this spirit of silence. He knows he wants to open up but it's a little bit uncomfortable. He ends this verse by saying:

And I don't know where to begin
As he looks deeper at his emotions, at the silent part of his spirit, he doesn't even know where to start. It sounds like he's overwhelmed with the intensity of the feelings, so he feels confused, and he doesn't know where to begin. How does he start unpacking this deep feeling? Verse 2 starts:

[Verse 2]
Somewhere in the desert there's a forest
And an acre before us

A desert is usually thought of as a place without much life, especially plant life. But here he says, that somewhere in this desert, in this barren land, there's a forest. And of course a forest is full of trees and plants and life. The desert sounds like a metaphor for his mind, for all of those silent feelings that he has deep inside. He knows that somewhere in that vast desert is a forest. He knows that there's some life, some truth to be found somewhere in it. But before he can get to the forest he has this acre of land before him. You can think of an acre as just a large portion of land. An acre is about 4,000 square meters of land. So, it's a pretty big amount of space. While he knows that there's a forest, that there's something worthwhile here, he once again says:

But I don't know where to begin
He doesn't know how to reach that forest yet. For the time being he's stuck in the desert. Verse 2 continues. He says:

Again I've lost my strength completely
Oh, be near me tired old mare with the wind in your hair

As Sufjan takes this inner journey into the world of his feelings, he finds that his strength, his energy, is sapped, taken away. He says, I've lost my strength completely and then he asks this mare, M - A - R - E, which is an adult horse, to be near him, to be close to him, to stay with him. Mares have this nice, long mane of hair, and we get a nice picture here when he says “tired old mare with the wind in your hair.” I picture the mane of this horse blowing in the wind *wind noise*. Good imagery. We don't know exactly who the mare is. It's probably not a real horse. I think there's a good chance that it represents his mother, especially because he says tired old mare, which would make sense for a mother who went through so much pain and difficulty in life. However, it's also possible that the mare is a representation of God or the universe and Sufjan here is just asking for strength and support as he deals with death and loss of his mother. Continuing now to verse 3, it begins:

[Verse 3]
Amethyst and flowers on the table
Is it real or a fable?

We can imagine seeing these two objects: amethyst and flowers. Amethyst is a type of stone, or a gem. It has a purplish color and it's often used in jewelry. The word amethyst comes from the Greek language and it literally means “without intoxication”. So, this stone was traditionally thought to help people stay sober or keep them from being drunk or intoxicated. To me amethyst and flowers sound like gifts that they might have given his mother in order to say, “Hey, feel better!”, or just reminders that people care about her. Sufjan and his brothers and sisters might have left these gifts, amethyst and flowers, on the table. Maybe the hospital table or the table at their mother's house.

After this, he asks, is it real or a fable? A fable is similar to a myth. It's a type of fictitious story that isn't necessarily true. So, the question is: Is it real? Is it real or is it a fable? Is it fake? It sounds to me like he's questioning his own mind and his own memories of his mother, because a lot of this happened when he was very young. It's also possible that during this time when his mother was dying, he was having a hard time believing that it was really happening, that this situation of his mother dying, wasn't just something that would pass, but it was truly, really happening. Verse 3 ends with the lines:

Well I suppose a friend is a friend
And we all know how this will end

This sounds pretty obvious, right? A friend is a friend, it means something good and something helpful is just that; it's good and it's helpful. It's a positive thing. So, a friend is a friend. Probably, this is referring to these gifts amethyst and flowers. They kind of represent all the little things that we do to help someone feel better, they're nice gestures. They're kind of like friends, and I guess they're good things, but he says, “we all know how this will end,” meaning we know that these gifts aren't actually going to take away the pain or cure the cancer. Sometimes we are truly powerless to change a situation but we do what we can, even though we know how it'll end. Getting now into verse 4. It starts:

[Verse 4]
Chimney swift that finds me be my keeper
A chimney swift is a type of bird. This bird, this chimney swift, is very common in the state of Oregon, which is the state where all of this drama -- this whole album is taking place. This bird is called a chimney swift because it nests, or it makes its nest, inside of a chimney. A chimney is the part of the fireplace where smoke escapes, the inside of chimneys is apparently a very nice, cozy place to make a nest and so the chimney swift is famous for this. One of these birds finds Sufjan. I picture one of these birds landing near Sufjan as he's reflecting on these memories and he's writing these songs. And so, he asks this bird, this chimney swift, to be his keeper, to stay with him, to inspire him, to help him through this process. Chimney swift, that finds me, be my keeper…

Silhouette of the cedar
A cedar is a type of tree. This tree is quite common in Oregon, so it's possible that the chimney swift landed in a cedar tree. In this line, he says silhouette of the cedar, which probably means that the sun is setting behind the cedar. Whenever an object is silhouetted, that means there's a very very bright light behind it. And so, the object looks completely dark or completely black. The next part of this verse asks:

What is that song you sing for the dead?
So, we know that birds can chirp and sing songs, like *bird chirping noise*. Once again, it really feels to me like he's just searching for answers -- he’s searching for inspiration. He hears the song of this bird and he's treating it almost like a muse, like a messenger that can help him solve the mysteries of his memories. Before ending this verse, he says:

I see the signal searchlight strike me in the window of my room
Well, I got nothing to prove

So, he sees this signal searchlight. This is literally a type of light that is used on railroads. These signal searchlights project either a red or yellow or a green light. They signal to the conductor of the train to continue or to stop or to take caution. It's a pretty old technology that is slowly being replaced on the railways in the United States. While it's possible that he's in a room where he can see a signal searchlight from his window, what's more likely is that this is representative of the sun. The setting sun is shining on him just like a signal searchlight. The light of this evening sun is striking him or hitting him or shining on him, you could say. This would also explain the silhouette of the cedar tree that he sees. With this light shining so brightly on him, illuminating him, he says: I've got nothing to prove. He's saying he doesn't have an agenda. There's no theory here that he needs to prove. This line also plays with similar phrases in English, such as “I've got nothing to lose” or “I've got nothing to hide.” They all suggest an openness and a willingness to be vulnerable. Now, we get to the last verse of the song, verse 5. It starts:

[Verse 5]
I forgive you mother
I can hear you and I long to be near you

This first line about forgiveness is very important and it connects with the previous line about him saying “I have nothing to prove.” He's not opening up all these memories and writing these songs so he can get back at his mother. He's saying from the start that he forgives her for the bad things that she's done and even for any hurt that she's caused him. He says, I forgive you mother, “I can hear you.” Perhaps he literally hears his mother's voice in his mind, but more likely, he's talking about understanding his mother. Sometimes when we say that we hear someone, we're acknowledging that we comprehend -- we get it. Hearing someone is thus similar to saying, “I understand you, and I can see your point of view as well as my own.” Besides hearing his mother, he also says that he longs to be near her. Whenever you want something very very badly, you can say that you long for it. He's looking to connect with his mom, to be close to her and to the feelings that he has deep inside of him from his childhood. Next, he says that:

But every road leads to an end
I think the symbolism here is evident. The road being a symbol for our lives, or the experiences in our lives. They begin and, of course, they eventually end. So, this story too will have an ending. In the final lines of this song he says:

Your apparition passes through me in the willows
Five red hens -- You’ll never see us again

An apparition is similar to a ghost, it's like a spirit. You can see the word appear in there, which means it's almost visible. So, the ghost or the spirit or apparition of his mother passes through him. While this could mean that he sees the ghost of his mother, probably, it just means that he feels her presence. He feels her close and near to him. And he sees or feels this apparition in the willows.
A willow is another type of tree. Perhaps you've seen this tree before, it has branches, which hang and droop down, almost like it's crying. For this reason people sometimes call it a weeping willow. Weeping is another way to say “crying.” This could mean he was physically near a willow tree, but it probably means that he was going through a sad moment in his life. So, he was in the willows. And the final line of this verse says, “Five red hens, you'll never see us again.” In all honesty, I'm not 100% sure what the five red hens represent. My best guess is that he means himself, his three siblings, and his father-in-law, Lowell. This is the immediate family that his mother has left behind in her death. And so, he says, “You will never see us again.” It sounds to me like one of those shocking realizations that this person is really gone, and that you'll never be able to see each other again. At this point, he can see and feel his mother, but she is unable to feel them anymore. Her apparition goes right through them.

I hope that by learning about this song and what it means, you'll be inspired to listen to the rest of the tracks, which are really just so good. And all of them connect with each other to make a beautiful album. It is sad, but if you take the time to listen and even more time to listen with the lyrics and analyze them, you won't regret it. If you have any questions or comments about this song or any of the others on the album, I'd be happy to hear from you.

And if you're enjoying learning English with music, you can get nine unreleased song explanations whenever you make a donation to the podcast. The explanations are a great way to learn English and truly get to know some really great songs from the past decades. So, thank you to everyone for your support. Okay, that is it for today. I wish you all an excellent week and I will see you in the next explanation. Bye-bye.



Now listen to the song again and see how much more you understand. The second video is the whole album if you are interested in hearing the rest of the album. I also suggest his albums "Michigan" and "Illinois".

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