Let's Talk About Death
The Reality of Death
My pastor in Beirut once said: a person’s journey to the grave starts at the moment of birth, and some journeys are shorter than others. This may sound morbid, but it is a fact. Yet how often do we ignore the facts, substituting them for wishes? At times, we are so preoccupied with what ought or what should that we overlook what is. We might do so consciously, or we may have our senses trained to suppress all talk of morbidity and mortality.
But when a pandemic comes knocking on our door, knocking down the walls of straw that we have built between us and certain uncomfortable realities, we suddenly find ourselves staring our enemy in the face. This enemy has been practicing and working since Cain struck Abel, yet we may come to this face-off unprepared. When an unprepared army meets a strong foe, that army tends to give in to fear and anxiety. Should the army desert the field, they risk being pursued and struck down on the run. The bottom line is this: facing an enemy while ill-prepared is dangerous. Death is a strong enemy. Therefore, we better be prepared.
We have suppressed the reality of death in so many ways. Funeral services have given way to memorial services. Nowadays, many of those do not even have the body of the deceased present. We talk of celebration of life rather than mourning death. One is not a substitute to the other: both should be performed in a wise ratio. Our cemeteries arguably have some of the best landscaping in town. Many patients seeing their primary care doctors decline to answer questions regarding advance directives and wills. Those who are critically ill, along with their families, sometimes do not want to talk about it at all, refusing even to mention the word death. Many healthcare providers often feel uncomfortable discussing end of life matters despite the apparent imminence of demise. Ignoring death comes at a high risk.
Yet there is reason to rejoice. Praise God for the advancement of medicine, the discovery of antibiotics, the development of vaccines, and the progress of healthcare, all of which have decreased the rate of child death and helped prolong life. But none of these can defeat death. They merely delay the inevitable, sometimes at very high cost on the body and the soul, the individual, the family, the community, and the system.
Christian Readiness and Hope
Christians, however, should be ready to face death and talk about it. It seems we have fallen far away from our ancestors over the past centuries. The Ars Moriendi, the art of dying well as a Christian, was an essential teaching of the church in the 15th century, frequently included in children's catechism. Many of the great preachers addressed the matter of dying. The early North American settlers taught in schools the reality of death and how to face it. The Negro Spirituals often took up death and suffering in song. Should we then ignore wise counsel from the faithful who preceded us?
We have heard Franklin’s saying about the certainty of death and taxes. But for the Christian, there’s another assurance: death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Death is an enemy, but a defeated enemy. It may win a battle here or a skirmish there, but the result of the war is guaranteed: Christ is risen! And we will rise again with him! To us, death becomes a painful event, a dark shadow, a laborious matter, a deep valley. Yet on the other side, life reigns forevermore; unhindered by pain, undarkened by shadows, it is rather punctuated by fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Death is real, but temporary. Life is assured, and eternal. Eternal life is a reality that is much more fascinating, eternally so, than the reality of death.
What shall we do then? We ought to talk about death normally, such as it is a normal part of every human life. When our children ask us questions, let us not avoid them; let us discuss them openly, even when we do not know it all. Let us go to more funerals. Let us take our children to funerals. Let us mourn the dead and take our time in grief, not hastening the process. Let us visit the sick and terminally ill. Let us read articles, biographies, and books that address death. Let us sing songs that tackle sorrow and mourning. Let us sit in silence with those who are mourning. Let us remind ourselves of our temporariness on this earth. Let’s have conversations with widows, orphans, parents who lost children, and mothers who miscarried.
I have been asked a few times how I am affected by death. I see death, deal with the dying, have conversations about demise, and try to fight deadly diseases every single day in my line of work. Despite its ubiquity, I have not become callous to this reality. Each death affects me, even as I trust God’s sovereignty. In fact, it specifically affects me because of God’s sovereignty in creation, salvation, and resurrection. But because my Redeemer lives, I live daily in light of the death and life to come, and I strive to share his assurance to those who feel hopeless. One of the biggest catalysts for me to proclaim Christ is the reality brought on by the imminence of death, pointing to a potential eternity without Christ. And outside of Jesus Christ, I know of no other hope for mankind.