Death is really important to think about, affecting approximately 100% of humanity. In the Western world especially, it remains a stunning source of perplexity why so many people in their old age, 70’s+ often seem less to contemplate the inevitability of death. Just recently whilst visiting an elderly sick man in the church, it seemed a thought unthought that he should be preparing himself to die, something I stuttered to his wife even as they used language of ‘healing’ and ‘planning for a great future of good health’. It struck me as very unreasonable to think of both life and death in this way!
The wonderful Jurgen Moltmann tackles this head-on. He says that many people live as though death didn’t exist, adding that this is not the way to live a life ‘to the full’. He continues, “To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent…To live as if there were no death is to live an illusion” (The Coming of God, p.50.)
The fact is, we need a ready if not brutal honesty about death, which in itself can be liberating and even life enhancing. Surviving a serious illness or accident or whatever can actually serve to give our lives more depth. Surely it is those who repress the thought of death who turn life into an idol – maybe these people are the ones who have deep repression anxieties about death!
Our Western culture doesn’t really help. Observe a cultural trend. People used to die at home and be laid out at home for all to see, to mourn, to say “Goodbye.” Children were present, death was seen in all its glory. Church graveyards were the centre of village or town life, people went to mourn in the centre of their everyday lives with everyone else. But now, hospitals have taken the place of the home and the graveyard at the centre is now the crematorium on the margins of our towns. As a result, death is privatised, even children are sometimes (often?) kept away (as I was at my own grandfather’s funeral in 1985, which left deep scars and a trashed bedroom)!
It is quite likely that that one event, coupled with Christian conversion to Christ as a young man, has made me determined to face death and “be real” about it, and being a Christian means many things, but here, it means facing death with courage knowing what God says about it and what Jesus has done to it. No wonder the Apostle Paul can burst into song in one of his letters in the New Testament, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).
This is not to say death is easy. It isn’t! Mourning is costly and painful. Moltmann is right to say that the greater the love, the deeper the grief, “the person who cannot mourn has never loved.” Christian mourning is not the denial that something has happened, a loss unimaginable; rather, it is the acceptance of that painful loss, and further, a trust into the merciful hands of a loving God, the One who’s promises supply the faith to believe what He has promised – in Christ, a new Resurrection future with Him. This is not soppy wishful thinking or earth-denying escapism. In fact it is as real as reality gets, it forces us to face death as creatures made in the image of God, creatures who will one day die, and be accountable to Him. For many, the ignoring of death and the triumph of the idolatry of life is more absurd than anything even in Alice in Wonderland!
There is a wonderful native American proverb that I’ve used in funeral sermons, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”
That is why on my gravestone I want the words, “To live is Christ; to die is gain!” Because in death I will die, but in Christ, I will live!