Whenever I find too many familiar names in the obituary section of the paper, I go to the dark corners of my closet and gingerly haul out Death once again to try on for size.
I’m sure most people my age at some time try on this certain future for size. We know the past. Sometimes it was a good fit, almost like a new Spandex girdle. Other times it was way too big, too small, too heavy, too light –and we wished what we were experiencing would go way.
One thing about the future is sure: Our lives as we knew them here on earth will be over. Our bodies will end up, possibly in a coffin, possibly cremated, but as dust, somewhere. And we have questions and concerns.
I think of my young uncle who with his family was lined up against the wall to be shot by the revolutionaries in the political upheavals in Russia in 1917-19. Decades later, he remembered thinking: “One of those bullets is meant for me. Will it hurt?”
That’s the question I ask as I think of death, exact time unknown: “Will it hurt?” “How long will it take to die?” “And after death, what happens?”
I listened to a gerontologist, whose specialty is end-of-life issues, lecture recently at LifeVentures, an enrichment program for older adults. He assured us that dying didn’t need to be a long, agonizing journey. Hospice has the means to alleviate pain. But, still, I feel like Woody Allen, who said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I prefer to live. I still have too much on my bucket list.
Unfortunately, there is no trial run for death like there is for childbirth. When our first daughter was born, the intense, gripping pains of end-stage labor took me by surprise. I felt I was being torn apart. Before the birth of our second daughter I told myself boldly that I was going to do this the natural way and experience this baby’s birth without anesthetic, at least not as much. Preparation helped me control the birthing process to a certain extent.
So here we are, this growing group of aging men and women, trying on a certain future for size. We read the daily obituaries as if religiously obligated. Which ones are younger, which ones older? When will our name be here? Who will care?
Our culture mixes sex with everything, some totally unrelated to it. Food, cars, vacations, toothpaste, whatever. I keep thinking we will soon get ads for coffins with a voluptuous, semi-clothed female draped over them like lounge singers over a grand piano.
Yet I doubt that because our society hesitates to talk freely about death or have a close association with the process unlike another age when poets wrote much and often about death. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.”
Dying now takes place in hospitals and hospices, away from daily life—too scary, too intimidating. Our society doesn’t want to think that there is a time when we have to leave this world, yet in Fanny J. Crosby’s (1820-1915) old, but familiar words, “Some day the silver cord will break. Some day my earthly house will fall.”
Yet a fast surf through TV stations will show shooting after shooting, bludgeoning after bludgeoning, by any and all means. People drop by the dozens, covered with fake blood.
I don’t have the urge to die. I still have too much I want to complete. Yet I know the future holds this step. So what is death? It’s another stage in the journey. It’s as much a part of life as birth. It separates me from my body, family, friends, but not from God.
Heaven is outmoded thinking, according to some people, like last year’s car models. Yet I think of my mother, who in her last years yearned for death and what it would bring, assured she would see my father once again. She thought of that as heaven.
Our society would like to dispense with both heaven and hell. I’ll admit I don’t see heaven in terms of wings, halos, and strumming golden harps while strolling down streets of gold. Yet when I think of how wonderfully intricate and amazing our bodies with their souls are, I find it hard to believe dust is the end. As a Christian I see death as a journey toward God into eternity. "I know that my Redeemer lives!" And it’s not up to me to judge who will get there.
And with that assurance, I can shove Death back in the closet corner once again.