Death is fascinating. It is the one life reality which we must all face. Death happens all around us every day. Arguably more money is spent on cheating, avoiding or deferring it – or anaesthetising ourselves against it – than any other item, and it remains the most socially inappropriate thing to speak about, particularly at the personal level.
A glance through history reveals civilisations of all eras directly confronting death, developing stories to explain its mysteries, and at the same time constructing magnificent monuments to remind us that they walked this fair earth that is now home to us. They confronted death as a reality which needed explanation, and as something which shaped the way they lived. The narratives defined their cultures
Our attitude to death today is characterised by its many contradictions. While expending much energy to avoid death, we have strong advocates for it: proponents of euthanasia stand alongside those who find suicide abhorrent, and those who seek ever more effective treatments of cancer and increasing demands upon the health system for intensive care. In the same hospital we spend copious resources saving premature infants and aborting others of the same gestation.
As one wry observer commented, “Despite all the improvements in health care, the statistics on death remain very impressive.”
We have any number of life and business coaches whose mantra affirms that we “start with the end in mind,” yet we continue to plough time and energy into accumulation of possessions and fame which will dissipate after we have gone. Some view death with superstition, believing that to speak of it is to hasten it. When Jesus spoke of his own death, his disciples could not bear to think of it. “May it never be,” cried Peter when Jesus spoke of his impending crucifixion in Jerusalem.
In almost every sphere of life we are taught to consider the consequences before acting: the consideration of death and its meaning must surely fit into this same category. To look death in the face is fundamental in the search for meaning. Is not the ultimate determination of our lives to be found in death? Does it not give meaning, context and value to the whole of life?
Early Christians saw death as the entry into the presence of God: the achievement of something beautiful. There were many who counted it a privilege to suffer martyrdom for their faith. Such views seem a long way from our Western approaches today. We need to hear their voices speaking into our lives today.
October 2, 2005