Can We Talk about Death?
It’s time to bring back the phrase memento mori ("remember you must die"). Socrates taught that the proper practice of philosophy is nothing other than preparing to be dead. Stoics emphasized the value of living with death on the brain — meaning it was best to avoid emotional entanglements when death was going to have the last word anyway. Every significant world religion expends the majority of its energy orienting its followers on how to live in the light of death and the afterlife.
This brings us to the first of two significant questions we should ask when entertaining conversations about death:
What's the difference between remembering death and being morbid?
Our society has reinforced our innate distaste for being morbid. That label now places you in the same socially outcast territory as being creepy or bigoted. The challenge is that being morbid is easier to sense than define. The sense is similar to when someone, in a group gathering, asks an overly personal question. In both cases, the trespass is the satisfying of a personal curiosity at the expense of another’s discomfort. And in both cases, the threshold is adjudicated by the one quickest to offense. This means that the safest course of action is to steer clear of the subject, or redirect as fast as possible, while in anything resembling polite society.
This, of course, has the cyclical effect of driving the reality of death further into the shadows, which is where we have most desired to keep him. We can’t bind him, or keep him as our prisoner, as we might like, but we can, at the very least, collectively pretend that he’s not there. Death is like that roommate with whom our relationship turned cold a long time ago. He’s still there—in fact, rather embarrassingly, it’s his name written on the lease. But we do our best to ignore him. We don’t look at him, we try to avoid him, and we certainly don’t talk about him with other people. Every so often, he leaves behind unmistakable marks of his presence, like dirty dishes in the sink, or the after-effects of a party. But we grimly try to clean these things up as quickly as we can, and then go on with our lives.
The slogan of memento mori, so far from being morbid, is simply the problem-solving method behind every successful business, every well-managed project, and every healthy and happy relationship. We start with the end goal in mind, and then ask ourselves, “What steps do I need to take to reach that end goal?”
The fact that we may not want there to be an end does not remove or postpone it. Our pretending that there will not be an end is the one surefire way to not have an end goal, and thus to fail to reach any goal by the end, when it does come.
The Bible teaches us the remembering death lives right next door to gaining wisdom"
"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'" (Ecc 12:1)
"Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps 90:12)
This leads to the second question we have to consider in any serious conversation about death:
Is death natural?
If we answer ‘yes’ to that question, it leads us to a smaller, more rigorously naturalistic, Darwinian perspective. Such an attitude brings death out of the shadows, but at the cost of human transcendence, and quite a bit of hope. If death is natural, we can now talk about, embrace, and even celebrate death, but only because we, like plants and animals, exist without eternal value. Death is simply part of the circle of life. My only remaining goal is to create whatever meaning I want, wherever and whenever I want it, while I serve out my blip of existence in a world that came to being and will pass away by sheer accidents of natural causes. This sort of view gives rise to the "death with dignity" (i.e. assisted suicide) movement.
If we say ‘no’, that death is unnatural—which is the more instinctive reaction— then we are left with three options for our response:
This response is usually triggered by a crisis, which is why we’ve seen so much of it recently. It is the right response... in its place. Our life is a gift from God, and we should cherish it and fight for it. And yet, because of the curse, this is a fight where we can win battles while knowing we must eventually lose. Our hope is not the avoidance of death, but the Resurrection. This alters our view on what true victory looks like. Meanwhile, the expectation that we can escape or elude death creates all sorts of problems: Paralyzing fear, obsession over our diet and exercise, burdening healthcare workers with unreasonable hopes, and the looming pit of disillusionment when, eventually, it all fails.
Being mindful of mortality is unpleasant not only because it reminds us of the end, but also because it brings gravity to our lives. We are forced to ask, “Is there an afterlife?” Which leads to: “Does what I do here and now matter?” This is where things get rather unsettling. Without a vision of the grace of Jesus, most of us are left with the gnawing fear that perhaps watching Netflix and not killing anybody may not qualify me for the standard of living I would like in my hypothetical afterlife.
This is also why the vested powers of this world simply have no desire for you to be asking such questions. The infrastructure of this world is, by necessity, meant to support life in this world. That’s why the currency of our entertainment is levity. If, for example, in my tv show I get you to stop and consider the questions of life and death, you may conclude that there are better things to do besides watching more of my tv show.
Both fighting and hiding from death have combined forces to professionalize the sphere of death. We have joyfully turned over the keys of this strange, mysterious, eery house to the experts in medicine. They now determine when life begins and ends, what accounts for a meaningful life, and what steps of intervention to take, or not take. Like nursing homes for the elderly, and prisons for lawbreakers, hospitals have become, for better or worse, the gatekeepers of death, so that the rest of us can be free of thinking about the whole business. Like any oligarchy, this means that much of our individual encounters with death will depend on the sort of doctor we are dealing with.
3) Make Peace
Making peace with death means we understand why death is unnatural. Christianity offers both the reason for death, as well as its solution. Sin leads to death (Js 1:15). The omnipresence of death serves as a physical reminder of the pervasiveness of sin and its effects. Death is the last enemy Jesus will destroy (I Cor 15:26). He came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). Making peace with death doesn’t mean we stop seeing it as unnatural, but that we trust that it doesn’t get the last word – Jesus does.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana.
"Numbering Our Days" by Patrick Ramsey
"Finding Gratitude in Unlikely Places" by Pierce Taylor Hibbs
"Death, The New Year And The Hope of Christ" by Matt Foreman
The Gospel Pure and Simple, with Sinclair Ferguson, Liam Goligher, and Mark Johnston