When I was in my twenties, a random adult Bible class ended up on a rabbit trail¹ about death. I commented that I was not afraid of death but was afraid of dying. An intelligent, hardened woman in her early 50s looked at me cross-ways across the table, apparently annoyed by the distinction I drew.
My thoughts were not changed by the woman’s glare, and they have not really been altered since. I still do not fear the death state, and I’m still afraid of dying . . . yet it depends on how the dying occurs and how long it lasts.
Will there be long-term pain? Morphine?
Will there be aloneness or memories shared with friends?
Will there be recovery through the miracles of modern medicine, followed by worsening conditions?
I hear about intense pain, and I have my own sporadic pain. When I see stories on Netflix that involve physical pain,² I sometimes wonder how I will die. Despite impressive storytelling and videographic techniques, though, a certain distance exists between TV/movies and real life. Last fall, when my father was hospitalized for a month and then died, I thought with new intensity about pain and “palliative care,” hospice care, dying, and death. I haven’t spent enough time with medical ethics and philosophy to gain the right to delve too deeply here, but I might just delve anyway.
Since the first humans, death has been a part of life on this terrestrial ball.
Both mystery and science are involved in death.
Some may fear (or be “spooked” by) death, whereas others may take death almost stoically in the course of medical duty.
Some may irrationally live as though death will never occur, and others may rationally long for it.
I take death as not-final, but, clearly, there is a final aspect to it.
Often, when I leaf through a local newspaper, I notice the death announcements. Is there anyone I know, or a relative or friend of someone I know? Whose funeral is going to take a coworker out of the office? Funerals and other memorial events help the living to acknowledge and process the passing of those they have known and loved. Here, in a brief post, I shared a thank-you note from a family acquaintance after my mother and I attended a funeral for his mother. This is but one indication of the meaning that funerals can have. Funerals, of course, are not for the dead but for the living. Funerals are a common feature of existence, but they do not always have the same “personality” or viable connection to God and the eternal.
I’ve been to some really good funerals in my days, and I’ve seen programs from others that were probably just as good. During my college days, significant funerals included Lou’s and my grandfather’s.³ Years later, a funeral in SE Tennessee honored Kathryn, who was something of a mentor to my parents; another memorialized the father of Carolyn, an even closer friend for more years. I distinctly remember the casketed bodies of good people like Sybil, Bob, and Henry. I’ve had the honor of contributing to funeral music in song (leading and/or singing) for probably three or four dozen funerals. All told, for three+ decades or so, I figure I gained a pretty good sense of one type of church funeral. Among the top ten funerals of my life (an odd phrase, I know) occurred last fall, effectively beginning a new focus on death for me. Among the best elements of this memorial time was the minister’s message.4 He apologized only briefly for reading the entire raising-Lazarus pericope (John 11), following that with “but it’s worth it” . . . and proceeding to show not only effective oral reading but also good insight.
The oh-so-human narrative of John 11 is quite provocative and “real.” The minister made mention of multiple, real-life aspects that might be ignored by the casual reader. For instance, the grave did stink, just as Martha predicted it would. (Such facts can escape those of us who are more comfortable with theology and/or churchianity than with living in the shadow of the Rabbi.) It was doubtless a horrible odor. It was death inside that tomb—a tomb I have supposedly seen personally, according to the tourist-targeted sign (but I don’t hang my hat on the sign’s veracity). Imagination and thoughts about the story run wild. This was a very special relationship, and it shows not only Jesus’ human connections but the Son of God’s divine power. For my money, the Lazarus5 story is more apropos of funerals and memorials than Psalm 23 or the notion of “many mansions.” In John 11 the reader finds a belief in resurrection and life that meets even the deepest, most personal grief where it sighs. Actually, such belief does better than meeting grief. It ascends from human grieving with hope.
I am always, always stimulated and enriched by spending even the tiniest amount of focused time in any one of the gospels. I know a good deal more about Mark and Matthew than Luke, but not nearly enough about any of the gospels. There will always be more riches to mine! John seems more philosophical to me than the others, even as it simply encourages belief in the incarnate One. It makes sense, then, that John’s thoughts of life and death would draw me in. I note that Mark’s gospel uses the word “life” 4x; Matthew, 7x, and Luke, 5x. By way of comparison, John’s gospel uses ζωή | zoe—the word typically translated “life”—36 times (spread throughout, in 11 different chapters, from 1 to 20). This word count alone suggest at least a motivic, if not thematic, focus within John’s particular gospel portrait. (The word “death” is used almost the same number of times in each of the four canonical gospels.) Surely, along with an appropriate consciousness of death can also come a deeper awareness of eternal life.
During the next few weeks, I want to offer various thoughts about death and dying. My thoughts range from the preeminence of the Kingdom of God to the Hippocratic oath, and from euthanasia to the Passion of Jesus, and from life insurance to music. I would be honored to hear from readers on this topic, as well.
¹ Such meanderings can be rewarding, instructive, and memorable, but they occur too often when the stated goal is “Bible study.”
² I do avoid “action” films built around gratuitous violence.
³ It was reported, in connection with my grandfather’s death, that his last words were “Lord Jesus, be merciful.” Such a statement strikes me as an entirely appropriate utterance. I imagine the words as something of a humble reflex born out of lifelong devotion, not a desperate prayer. If nothing else, an appeal to Jesus shows faith.
4 This is a remarkable statement me to make, really, given my general aversion to formalized ministerial roles.
5 Lazarus, by the way, is one very strong candidate for the title of “the one Jesus loved,” and also a candidate for having written at least portions of this gospel we know as “John.”