"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Sunday, May 1, 2011

O, death

"It's a hell of a thing to have a doctor tell you, 'your wife is deceased."  A man said this to me recently in my role as hospital chaplain.  I was with him as the doctor said it and held his hand as he heard it.  And as hard as it is to hear, I know it is also hard to say.  Often at deaths, for reasons a little obscure to me, I reflect on the medieval paintings of the danse macabre, especially one by Bernt Notke.
There is a sense in the painting of an intimate familiarity with death that seems alien and strange to our modern culture.  I think that part of our growing reluctance to face death as a culture is our growing reluctance to embrace the faith of the risen Jesus.  I think this true even amongst those who profess faith, because often their language is about their loved one "being in heaven," "being in a better place," "looking down at us."  Even in our shrunken faith we are unwilling to face the lifelessness of death.  The biblical tradition seems to me to suggest theat when we die, we're dead, winked out and that it is on the 'Last Day,' that the dead will once again rise to life.

Frankly, it's not an especially comforting doctrine in a time of grief.  At death, we don't want to acknowledge or accept the actual loss.  We want to think that, in some way, the dead are still participating in our lives, still accessible to us in some way.  I know that when my loved ones have died, that's how I felt.  Increasingly though, I am coming to peace with a death that awaits the final day and an acceptance, at least intellectually, that I won't be looking down from heaven, beatifically, on those I will leave behind.  But I also think that that man was right, it's a hell of a thing to hear.


  1. I don't really know how I approach death. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to suggest the "winking out" you mention, the end of existence until the last day. On the other hand, other cultures have very real, different beliefs. And we all know of stories of people who have had near death experiences or seen ghosts. The Bible seems to approach the matter in a roundabout way, almost as if it is assumed by the culture. I wonder, then, if the Hebrew understanding of death is cultural.

    So I try to stick with the very point you were making: the resurrection. I may not know what happens to any of us when we die, but I have faith in the resurrection. Whether we cease to exist until then or linger on as spirits in waiting, we'll all end up in the same place.

  2. You're right, the Bible isn't really clear (surprise, surprise) on this point. Christian tradition holds that at least some people, when they die, do have a spiritual existence with God that we recognize as sainthood. The Reformers were against this, but seem more motivated by how the ecclesial authorities abused the belief for their own enrichment than anything else.

    You are right though that such beliefs are culturally prevalent around the world. I would tend to give some weight to Hebrew cultural practices because they are the people most closely drawn to God. But I wouldn't suggest that such cultural beliefs are authomatically to be assumed as from God - Jesus himself points out several disconnects between Judean culture and God's desire.

    At the same time, widespread acceptance of th eidea that everyone who dies is immediately whisked to heaven (or hell) seems to me to minimize the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, as though nothing was really at risk in his acceptance of his death.