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