I recently wrote a letter to the editor in response to an article where a local doctor had advocated for ‘death with dignity’ for people suffering from the various forms of dementia. In it I suggested there was nothing dignified about death, I declared it to be the enemy that it is. A woman who served as a chaplain responded by castigating me and talking about all the beautiful things that can happen as people near death. They can reach out to family and friends, restore broken relationships, say sweet goodbyes, and offer blessings to those they love. She talked about gently holding the hands of those ‘passing over’ and seeing the peace that overwhelms them as they slowly close their eyes. I responded to her that all of those things are pre-death and, while lovely to observe, still don’t reflect what death itself looks like. I wondered if she continued to sit while medical folks and coroners came in and stripped the body bare and washed away the body fluids that were expended when the person died. I wondered if she had sat next to the body for a few days as it decayed and as the awful stench of death filled her nostrils. Was death ‘dignified’ then?
In our North American culture we romanticize death. We have exchanged open casket funerals for a jar of ashes and a ‘memorial service’. Instead of powerful sermons on death and resurrection, we share nice memories of the deceased, as their cremated remains are surrounded by flowers and beautiful photographs of the recently deceased in better days. Instead of crying out in desperation for a Savior who can bring us to the Father, we tout the glories of what a person did with the life they had.
When great Uncle Andrew died, our family piled into the ’51 Ford and drove to their house. Uncle Andrew’s body was laid out in a wooden casket on a table in the living room. It had not been embalmed and I remember filing by and seeing the shell that had been Uncle Andrew and smelling the smells of decay and death and the cigar and cigarette smoke wafting up above the old men and women seated in various and sundry chairs and couches around the room. I took in the smells of various foods that had been brought to serve to those who came to mourn and grieve. After a moment of silence and seeing my mother cry, I was sent outside to play with cousins, although we couldn’t really play because we were dressed in our Sunday best and had been given strict warnings about grass stains and grease and other things we could get into that would result in severe punishment.
That event left a huge impression on me and made me realize that death was the enemy. It took away those we loved and made Mom cry. It was ugly and unkind and no amount of creativity could undo its effect in this world. It literally stunk. That Jesus had defeated it later became a cornerstone in my understanding of the power of Christ’s redemptive work. When we fail to see death, we fail to see our desperate need for salvation. If we don’t taste the realities of the age of death and decay, we can hardly touch the triumph of the day of grace that will surely come. If we don’t know it to be the enemy it is and romanticize it we avoid our need for a Savior. We trade a romanticized sanitized falsity for the presence of the One who came to seek and to save and to give life to the dead.
Being empowered by the gospel we can identify with Paul’s fearlessness with respect to death. If he lives, it is with Christ, and if he dies it is with Christ. The gospel undoes the power of death and lets us rest in the goodness of God. In those moments we can best celebrate those like Uncle Andrew whose trust was not in human skills and avoidance of death, but in the power of the gospel and the power of the resurrection. As I prepared for surgery I mentioned to many that even if the scalpel slipped, folks could rejoice that I would be with my Savior. I was reminded often to ‘not talk that way’ since it made folks uncomfortable and, knock on wood, something that awful should never happen. I was saddened that some of the ‘good luck on your surgery’ wishes came not from my unbelieving friends, but from my Christian friends.
Ultimate healing is to be with Christ through eternity. I’m thrilled to be one who has seen death close up and who also knows that despite its power, it has been defeated. We are so afraid to die that we make up romantic tales about it. We do all in our power to avoid looking at it. I live in the glorious time between when death is a hated enemy and when death will simply be no more. It is an exhilarating time to seize life and take joy in the journey knowing that the resurrection is everything. I look forward to that great day when I will see the Victor face to face.