What’s so terrible about death?

My casual browse through the Metro newspaper was interrupted on my commute one morning, when I came across one of those facts that changes the tone of your day: approximately 156,600 people die every 24 hours. The usual flurry of thoughts which pass through my mind at this time — my daily to do list, my unchecked emails, what to have for breakfast — all halted for at least a minute. Many of these individuals we will know nothing about. Some will have naturally come to the final rhythms of their existence, while others would have had their lives ended in more tragic circumstances.

As someone in my early 20s, thoughts of death don’t naturally spring to mind. Apart from the air of invincibility which naively resides with somebody of my age, the pace of life (filled with the legitimate tasks at hand, as well as the more frustrating habits of our procrastinations) distracts us for sometimes decades before we properly meditate on the fact which levels all of us: this life will end.

It’s actually funny. Not death itself, but how times change. It’s been said that the great taboo for Victorians was sex. They were great at keeping it well and truly out of the public eye. Death, however, was everywhere, from the elaborate funeral rituals and grotesque mausoleums, to the great works of art and literature. Sex was lowered as a dirty taboo, and death elevated to a righteous obsession. 

Fast forward over 100 years, and things have taken a slight turn. I step off the tube and sex is pretty much everywhere. Death, on the other hand, is something most of us try to avoid and delay, or at least misrepresent so as to relieve it of its weightiness. We sometimes reflect more thoughtfully on its implications, but we are adept at presenting it as something distant, or approaching it in such a way that it can be addressed briefly and then forgotten about quickly. The news often focuses on the unusual deaths of people in troubled contexts or unfamiliar circumstances, enabling us to distance ourselves from the reality that those are lives that have ended. For others, fatalism takes root — we stop engaging with the issue altogether, and try to accept whatever happens — after all, ‘you only live once’!  But even before ‘YOLO’ there was the aphorism ‘Carpe diem’, telling us to ignore the unforeseen future, and to grab hold of today. It’s meant that we’ve kept ourselves busy trying to avoid contemplating death. 

Yet we have to admit that this empty approach doesn’t deal with the problem, and we find ourselves fighting against the clock. We see this in the booming anti-ageing industry, where a range of products are aimed at erasing the physical reminders of our frail bodies. When we finally realise that we can’t deny our own mortality, we even sometimes try to gain control. Our continued push for the option of assisted dying to be provided in hospitals indicates this. If we cannot prevent the inevitable failure of our human bodies, we will try to at least determine for ourselves the time and circumstances of our own deaths. 

But why these reactions? Why try to avoid and evade death for as long as possible and, with a final throw of the dice, attempt to control it? After all, as unpleasant as it may be to witness or experience, isn’t it part of the natural process? Isn’t the death of anyone just the rearranging of chemicals in the universe? As a society we have largely accepted the materialist viewpoint that death is the end, and there is nothing more to come. Or, as Richard Dawkins put it, ‘Don’t imagine for one second you’re going to paradise… You’re going to rot in the ground’ [1]. 

Instead of helping to allay our fears of death, however, this perspective has actually caused much of the fear. Christopher Hitchens, before his death from cancer, said that the sadness around death was like being told that ‘not just is the party over, but slightly worse, the party’s going on but you’re going to have to leave’ [2]. We don’t want to face oblivion, and as much as we may try to tell ourselves that this is all there is, we don’t want death to be the end.

When finally settling down to think about the daunting prospect which I am to face, I remember an astonishing claim that Jesus made about himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live’ [3]. No one had ever spoken like this before. How could a mere man make such a claim? The religious leaders of the day knew that only God had power over death. When Jesus later was executed by Roman crucifixion, and then physically rose from the dead, he proved that he had the power to fulfil that promise. He showed humanity that the last enemy, death, would be one he would defeat himself. That’s why for centuries followers of Jesus have viewed the deaths of their loved ones with hope amidst the grief, and approached their own end with anticipation. Those who trust in the eternal God can confidently exclaim, ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ [4].

[1] Interview, beliefnet.com, 2005
[2] Panel discussion, ‘Is there an afterlife?’, 2011
[3] The Gospel of John, chapter 11
[4] Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15

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