Talking about death and dying

Talking openly about death is a rare thing. We don’t like talking about it. We prefer it go away and stay away, like rain: “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.”

When someone dies, it’s often said they’ve passed, passed away, or passed on, a sentiment dating back to a Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. It was/is assumed the soul at death is set free from its mortal cage to live forevermore.

The likes of Barbara Brown Taylor, of whom I consider myself one, have different idea. “Matter matters,” she says. Flesh and blood matter. Flesh, blood, and matter matter. Christians, following the older view of the Hebrew Bible, do not share the belief in a part of us – a soul – that survives our mortal frame. Instead, we profess a curious hope that affirms the essential goodness of corporal existence. Belief or hope in the resurrection of the body may seem even stranger than the immortality of the soul.

I have no more reason to believe in the resurrection of the body than I do to believe in an immortal soul. Watching the life go out of my dogs, I did not imagine some invulnerable part of them leaving their bodies to pass on to some other state of being. They were dead. I cried. I grieved. I mourned their loss. I never thought I would see them again. If they, or we, had a future, it seems more natural, so to speak, to think of them in their bodies all over again.

But which body would it be? Would Maggie, our West Highland White Terrier-Bichon Frise, be the playful pup or the one with the tumor on her hip? Would I be the 73 year-old me, the new-born me, or the teenager with the raging hormones?

Passing away has always made more sense to me than passing or passing on. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” makes better sense to me. The Earth will go on, as will those I love … for a time … but not forever, so far as any of us really knows. I say the Nicene creed on Sundays and ponder what it means to say “I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” The world to come, so far as I can tell, is the Earth where Cecil the lion doesn’t get killed by a dentist, and the lion and the lamb…and the dentist…lie down together in peace and hurt one other no more.

My friend Steve talks openly about death and dying. “I’m dying,” he says, not with a morose or maudlin sensibility but as a fact. It’s not a great surprise to him. Would he and we prefer the rain to go way and come back some later day? You bet. But it won’t, and even it if would, it would be back some other day. There’s great grace in the acceptance of death and the maturity to speak of it aloud, enjoy old friends when one can, laugh and cry and hug and kiss those one loves.

That we would want something more or fear death as the end is part of being human. The time of death is not time to debate philosophy or theology. It’s time for compassion, and for grace and courage to recognize our creatureliness – the distinction between every creature and the Creator, mortal life and the Immortality, the finite and the Eternal.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 29, 2015

4 thoughts on “Talking about death and dying

  1. I like one of the Jewish, and Christian ideas about death (there are several): Abraham’s bosom. A compassionate male image, from one who faced death of an only child, yet accepted, instead, laughter. And old Abe was married to the much-lusted for, beautiful Sara, who was renamed by God “Sarah” and then she laughed, when long past menopause, she gave life miraculously. I like that any “life in the world to come” is absurd and incomprehensible: anything less would be trite.


  2. Have you, by chance, read The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright? I staggered through it last year or the year before (or both). It was the kind of book in which I, on average, needed to look up a word on every page (about a thousand pages), and furthermore sometimes needed to look up a word or two in the definition. Very difficult, and on many fronts. I’m pretty sure that he believes in the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body, though changed in a way I no longer remember, and eventual resurrection of all the faithful similarly changed, and on this planet, and around Jerusalem — though I am not certain about this last bit about Jerusalem. He is incredibly erudite and his book reminds me of a doctoral dissertation — a work of intense, thorough scholarship. The difficulty is that no one other than Jesus (if one accepts His resurrection) has suffered death and risen to immortality. There have been people who have died medically speaking, but with doctors still working to resuscitate, have returned, and a number of them retain memories of life, or at least awareness, after medical death and before resuscitation. And the experience seems to have changed many of them, but not, *obviously*, in becoming immortal.

    The big difficulty, for this non-abstract thinking person, is how will all those people from every generation since Jesus fit on the whole earth, much less on the land promised to the descendants of Moses.


    • Good Morning, Carolyn,

      I have not read N.T. Wright’s book and commend you for wading through it. The best I can do with any of this is the non-specific prayer for the living that concludes the burial in the The Book of Common Worship. “Support us, O Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.” The Gospel accounts of an earthquake and the opening of the tombs at Jesus’s last breath are metaphorical ways of stating the universal significance of the Christ-event, before, during, and after the crucifixion. The genre is more like fiction than historical fact. As Fred Buechner says of such things as the Cain and Abel story, for example, they are of another order of truth. They never happened but are always happening. That’s the nature of theological language. It’s like music in that way. It takes you to places inside yourself you can’t go any other way. For myself, I imagine no existence beyond my last breath and that’s fine. The gospel is for this life – good news within the limits of birth and death. Sin in the Adam and Eve story is not that they ate of the fruit, it was that they wanted be be like the Immortal One. At the point where they did eat, they became aware, for the first time, of their creatureliness (that they were naked). The greatest of all human tasks, perhaps, is to recognized our nakedness (our mortality) and not hide from it.


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