Death

When I was of draftable age, during the last few years of the Vietnam War, some people were saying that draft avoiders were “cowards,” that is lacking in the manly courage needed to do the patriotic thing and go where they might get killed. This accusation roused a spirited rebuttal from some of those thus described, in which they pointed out the difficulties they were putting themselves to, such as education or prison. But I, a hearty and ultimately successful draft avoider, accepted the “coward” label, reasoning that fear was a normal  human response to the prospect of ducking bullets in a tropical swamp. Lack of that sort of cowardice seemed to me like a nonhuman response. So, right or wrong (and “right” and “wrong” were words used liberally by all sides), I wanted to be human and alive. Which I still am.

    Another piece of the rhetoric of the times, as of others, was the designation of some men (women didn’t go into combat back then) as “willing to (or ‘prepared to’) die for their country.” Obviously I was not one of those. I said rather a lot about that slogan “willing / prepared to die” back then, but I’ll cut around that now to something about that word “prepared.”

    A soldier is one who has been prepared, by a course of training, to kill. Becoming an American soldier does not include much training to die, though soldiers in other places and times have been and are trained for suicide missions. It would be difficult to teach a course on dying as part of American military training because such training would require acknowledgement of some particular idea of what death is or leads to, a Valhalla, heaven, absorption into the one, or cessation of existence. Nonsectarian training for death would have to be too vague to be worthwhile.

    Furthermore, training or preparation for death would run counter to the American spirit or way of thinking. We rather like life. Not to say people in cultures that produce suicide warriors don’t like life as much as we do. But it is certain that our way of liking life allows us no way to learn to die, either in military training or in civilian life.

    Even though a national government-imposed curriculum would be impossible, we should probably get some such preparation whether we’re soldiers or not. After all, we’ll all die. It’s amusing if, in a movie for instance, someone cries out “We’re all gonna die!” because, don’t you know, that’s true even if the dam hasn’t broke, the bad guys with lots of guns aren’t pulling in the driveway, and the flames or the zombies haven’t made a tight circle around the house. That outcry is just as appropriate though not as urgent when we’re all eating dinner or tossing a ball around or lazing on the beach.

    I heard a cheery radio ad for a real estate broker specializing in homes for “select buyers”: “It’s never too early to start planning for your next move.” The next time I move, I may well be in the box. My wife and I have invested in some small real estate that we refer to as “the FRP.” Think about it.

   So, the first lesson in preparing for death is that everybody dies. If what is said about Enoch (Genesis 5:22, 24) means that he managed to be an exception, he’s at least far enough back in time to escape scientific scrutiny. Besides, I assume that he left no evidence. Nowadays, everybody dies, and that will continue until Jesus comes back.

    The second lesson is that we have no idea what death is. (By the way, for people who have reportedly had “near-death experiences,” whether the reports are presented in Christian garb [e.g., Heaven Is For Real] or not, even with the most positive assessment of the reports, “near” still means “not.”)

    Death is one of the things Christians have claimed far too much certainty about. Many sets of beliefs about the experiences of dying and of dead people are available, some of them Christian, but, even if some of them are right as far as what can be communicated to people who haven’t died yet, we just don’t know what it‘s like to die.

        Anti-religious polemic has often claimed that religion is grounded on avoidance of admitting that death is what it appears to be to those of us who are not dead yet, that is, cessation of conscious existence. Many religious people have believed that, despite the disagreeable things that happen to human bodies just before and then during and after death, conscious existence is sufficiently distinguishable from the body that it continues. Or, and this is more biblical, that the body will somehow be reconstituted and live again (not from the same atoms, since no atoms are exclusive to any one body, but by a new creation). Some of these ideas about death may turn out to be true, but they are all to some degree statements of faith, in the weakest meaning of “faith.” We do not know what death is because we have not been there. And besides, such understandings might say what death is in the abstract, but cannot say what it is to experience death.

    Still, there is for Christians “A Gnawing Ache for Eternity.” We know enough about the place of death in the story of God’s creation to know that it has been turned from being the weapon by which evil seeks to destroy to that by which we are released from evil. Death is that which Jesus before us wept over and feared (John 11:35; Matthew 26:37-44), humbled himself to (Philippians 2:8), and endured for the sake of the joy beyond it (Hebrews 12:2). Some of his experience of death was tied to who he is, but, the deaths of those who follow him are like his death (Matthew 20:22-23). We, too, deliberately face and endure death because he has called us to it and because joy lies beyond it.


Here are some further quick curriculum suggestions for learning to die:

  • First, we can learn from people who seem to have been preparing for death. For instance, and others could be named,
    • George Harrison, with “Art of Dying” and the title track on All Things Must Pass.  And then he said some graceful things about his own early death as it approached.
    • Edna St. Vincent Millay, who may seem to have been death-obsessed, though everything she said about death was, if I can use the word again, graceful. At any rate, she knew: we all die. “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death” (“Conscientious Objector”).
    • Some representatives of the Christian martyr tradition — near the beginning (and rather enthusiastically) Ignatius of Antioch. See Michael L. Budde and Karen Scott, eds., Witness of the Body  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), and Tripp York, The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom  (Scottdale: Herald, 2007), for recent considerations of the tradition.
  • Second, briefly, from the New Testament:
    • Jesus predicts his death and then calls on his disciples to follow suit,
    • he also says that there are worse things than death, and
    • figurative uses of the word “death” (e.g., Galatians 2 and Romans 6) are useful because they teach that prolonging life is not the only value.
  • And, finally, there is an exception to our ignorance of the experience of death: we know that death is generally preceded by suffering. That has the great benefit of reminding us of the fundamental unity of the human person inasmuch as body, intelligence, imagination, and relationality are all muddled together, and increasingly so, in suffering. I have heard a preacher on TV refer to “the Christian way of death,” by which he meant without sickness, suffering, or debilitation.  Whatever else one might say about that ridiculous idea, it might encourage us to add this lesson to our education for death: don’t try to or even wish to die without suffering because that way you’re missing half the fun.