During one of my favorite classes in college, the professor asked us our attitudes toward death. (The course was Appalachian literature, and most of the characters in the books we read were living brief, brutal, passionate lives).
A classmate announced to us that she was terrified of death. Most of the others agreed they avoided letting death enter their minds.
“But there’s no reason to fear death,” I said, giving my unsolicited opinion. “It’s like breathing and eating. Everybody’s going to die.”
Silence. Disquieted looks. “Thanks for reminding us,” the professor said with an unsettled laugh.
You might think a reaction like that would convince somebody his view of death is eccentric, even cold. But it didn’t have that effect for me. I still don’t cry at funerals. I still don’t feel an urge to reform my morals when reading the obituaries (though I have resolved to leave my eventual obit writer more material than my favorite sports teams and things to eat).
For the Christian, death is the planting of a seed. Jesus told his disciples, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24 NAB). The ultimate seed to which he referred was his own earthly body, which was buried in his tomb and blossomed at his resurrection into a new and exalted form. That transformation prefigures and makes possible the same for us when we die hoping confidently in him. It is as if Jesus stepped into death ahead of us, and his return as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20) proves we can be a part of that harvest: that “we will all be changed, in an instant” (15:51) into the people God has always willed us to be.
With that assurance, St. Paul asks, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55; cf. Hosea 13:14).
Elsewhere, Paul speaks of life and death as comprising the same adventure. “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain,” he tells the Philippians (1:21). In other words, “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” among God’s people, while death means, simply, going to be with Jesus (1:22-23) in the house where he promised us a room (John 14:2-3).
For me this view on death is not sentimental or abstract, but an honest way to look at the human person. I have seen an elderly relative less than an hour after she died in a nursing home, without benefit of the preparations and polish that funeral homes apply. At first I worried the experience would make me fear death for myself and those I loved, but the opposite was true. I saw that more had happened than her body ceasing to work—that something essential about her had released its grasp. Probably many of you reading this have also noticed at loved ones’ funerals that deceased people no longer look like “themselves.” That experience impressed on me the view that death separates material body from immaterial soul, the life which animates us from conception to our last moment.
So you see, it is harder to fear death when “what you sow is not brought to life unless it dies” (1 Cor. 15:36). “That which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality” (15:53).
I will never tell you that the suffering someone might face before death is negligible. Neither do I believe that this life is some kind of dirty sheet we should be eager to dispose of. I only believe that life and death together form God’s plan to draw us closer to himself. That’s why we grieve differently—with expectation, not like “the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). If that’s eccentric, at least it is no less true for it.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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