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 and declared it to be the enemy that it is. A woman who serves locally as a chaplain responded by castigating me and bringing up 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 in death. I responded to her that all of the things she described 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 discharged when the person died. I wondered if she had sat next to the body for a few days as it slowly decayed and as the awful stench of death filled her nostrils. Was death “dignified” then?
In our North American culture we romanticize death. We admire people who die “well,” whatever that might mean. We hide and distract ourselves from the ugliness of death. We exchange 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 smiling photographs taken in some distant better day. Instead of crying out in desperation for a Savior who can bring us to the comforting Father, we tout the glories of what a person did with the life they had.
Ugly and unkind
When my great Uncle Andrew died, our family piled into the ‘51 Ford and drove to their old farm 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, seeing the shell that had been Uncle Andrew and smelling the awful smells of death and decay. Those odors commingled with the cigar and cigarette smoke wafting above the grieving old men and women seated in various sundry chairs and couches around the room. It all blended with the smells rising from various casseroles and desserts that had been brought to serve to those who came to mourn and grieve and the stench made me ill. After a moment of awkward silence, shifting from foot to foot while peeking into the casket, I stood by my mother’s side and watched her sob. Then I was sent outside to play with cousins. We couldn’t actually 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. The whole experience was awful.
That singular event left a huge impression on me. It made me realize that death was the enemy. Death took away those we loved and it made Mom cry. The shell that had been my great uncle was devoid of anything attractive or dignified. It was ugly and unkind and no amount of creativity or positive thinking could undo its effect in this world. It literally stunk.
Undoing the power of death
That Jesus had defeated death 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 from it. 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 has come, is coming, and will surely come. If we don’t know it to be the enemy it is, and instead romanticize it, we might think we can avoid our need for a Saviour. We will 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. There is no downside either way. The gospel undoes the power of death and lets us rest in the goodness of God. It is in that realization that we can best celebrate those, like Uncle Andrew, whose trust was not in human skills and avoidance of disease and death, but in the power of the gospel and the power of the resurrection.
God’s hands that never let go
I recently underwent major surgery fusing my neck and rerouting nerves damaged by deteriorating discs. As I prepared for the surgery, I mentioned to many friends that even if the scalpel slipped, folks could rejoice that I would be with my Saviour. I was reminded often to “not talk that way” since it made people uncomfortable and, “knock on wood,” something that awful should never happen. At a time when I longed to be reminded that God holds me in hands that never let go, come scary surgeries or death itself, I was offered bumper sticker platitudes and trite aphorisms. I was saddened that some of the “good luck on your surgery” wishes came not from those who doubt Christ’s work, but from fellow Christians who ought to know it best.
Ultimate healing is to be with Christ through eternity. I’m thrilled to be one who has seen death close up and who knows that, despite its power, it has been defeated. I live in the time when death is still the enemy, but with the sure knowledge that death is defeated and will one day be no more. It is an exhilarating time, freeing me to seize life and to take joy in the journey, knowing that Christ’s resurrection is a reality. Death defeated is far superior to death romanticized.