Life should be lived in preparation for death. The well-lived life is one marked by taking up the discipline of dying so that, when natural life comes to an end, we are able to die well. Death is inevitable. An old Yiddish saying goes something like, “Man plans and God laughs.” Yet, we go on building empires knowing that someday we will have to hand over the crown and scepter to someone who will probably run our empire into the ground. Euripides wrote, “No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.” I think this is a good reminder to us. Among Orthodox Christians, the common response to the phrase, “See you later” is, “God willing.” In Islam there is a similar response, “Insha’Allah,” which means something like “if Allah wills it.” In both cases, there is an acknowledgement that the future is not in our hands.
In the 1982 film, Blade Runner, one of the more poignant scenes comes when Roy Batty, a world-weary android who does not want to die, confronts his creator, Dr. Tyrell, to ask for more life. Roy observes, with a tinge of awe, “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.” Dr. Tyrell asks, “What seems to be the problem?” Roy offers the pithy response, “Death.” You see, Roy Batty, a well-traveled and sophisticated android, is experiencing an existential crisis; one we humans encounter with great frequency. He is looking at his imminent demise and wants more time to live. The quandary we find ourselves in is learning to overcome the fear of death, not death itself.
The inevitability of death is a specter that hangs over us and we cannot easily ignore its looming. We go to great lengths, however, to anesthetize ourselves from our fear of dying. As a hospital chaplain, I have come to see my weekly encounters with death as a sacred gift. To be with a person as they make the transition from life to the unknown realm of death is a holy moment; a moment pregnant with divine mercy and grace. I must accept that it is not fair to ask the person on the street to plunge themselves into this kind of regular encounter with death. Yet, I believe that it is important for everyone to acknowledge that death is natural and a part of the human experience.
A multi-billion dollar industry has grown up around attempting to defy mortality. I saw a pop-up advertisement on my web browser just today referring to a vitamin supplement as “The Fountain of Youth.” The back pages of a recent Motor Trend magazine include several ads telling me about how I can reinvigorate my sex life. We highly value youth and vigor and all of the things that keep us as far from death as humanly possible. Denying the inevitable is madness. I have heard well-meaning clergy tell the family of a dying man to hold out for a miracle and not to “give up on him.” Ushering a loved one to the threshold of life and death is not giving up. It is an acknowledgement of the finitude that characterizes the human life. It is the ministration of grace to help a fellow human to transition from life to death. To deny the inevitability of death in ourselves and others is a sacred neurosis. I call it sacred because we foolishly enshrine the denial in religious and spiritual terms that, like the minister above, insists that death is an unnatural part of the human life. We say, “Certainly, God doesn’t want my spouse to die. He brought us together. Why would He tear us apart?” God is indifferent to death. It is safe to say that God cares greatly about our sorrow and grief, but to assume that God considers bodily death an aberration is projecting far too much of ourselves onto God. But ancient Christian voices have encouraged the faithful thus: “If you do not fear death but regard it as a dream and even long for your release – then you… carry the kingdom of heaven within you.”
Neurosis is marked by palpable distress. It is a response to external stressors and presents as depression and/or anxiety. The fact that we classify something as “neurotic” is an artifact of primarily Western psychological and clinical criteria. In fact, there was no such word as “neurosis” before the 18th century. The gospel writers used their own term to describe this kind of preoccupation with the business of living life. The term they used is a form of the word merimna, which means, simply, care. Matthew recorded Jesus’ teaching about worry and anxiety in chapter six of his gospel. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “And can any of you by worrying [merimnon] add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) This kind of worry becomes something of a fixation. It isn’t paralyzing but it is ever-present. Paul encourages, “…that there may be no dissention within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” (1 Cor 12:25) Our concern (worry) should not be about death but, instead, for those in our community.
And if all else fails, consider that our word “cemetery” comes from the Greek term koimeterion meaning sleeping place. Matthew 27:52 refers to the graves being opened and the bodies of the saints who were sleeping arose. Jesus also assures Lazarus’ sisters that, “our friend is sleeping.” (John 11:11) The place we bury our dead is simply a resting place where our loved ones go to sleep. Take courage and be hopeful. “Walk while you have the light so that the darkness may not overtake you.” (John 12:36).