Right before I graduated college, an older woman in my church died of cancer.
Rather than hold her viewing at the funeral home, as was typical, her family opted to hold the viewing at our church. When my mother and I went, I found the entire event strangely disconcerting: I’d never seen a dead body outside the funeral home before. The presence of death in an environment normally reserved for the living felt alien and uncomfortable to me.
“That was sort of different,” I remarked to my mom as we left.
She glanced at me. “Not really. People used to do it that way all the time. Or they had the viewings at home.” I knew her words were true; I’d read about it. But that reality seemed faraway. Our culture rarely handles death in such a way any more: we have cordoned it off, confined it to funeral homes and hospitals, done everything to keep it separate from us as we try to think up ways and means to evade the inevitable ourselves.
But it wasn’t always that way. And I suspect that in the interim, something has been lost.
Medieval people knew that death was close; the concept of memento mori (“remember you must die”) hung over life like a cloud. In the time of the Black Death, especially, death seemed more prevalent than life. Even now, reminders of the fleeting nature of life and the inevitably of death, along with macabre dancing skeletons, decorate cathedrals and clocks in Europe.
And that philosophy remained, especially for Christians, as time went by. During my recent visit to Ireland, I was struck by a poem written on a grave marker that was, as it turns out, particularly common in the 1700s and 1800s:
Remember me as you pass by;
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember death and pray for me.
Yet this focus on death wasn’t of a particularly macabre or grim nature, though it might seem so to our modern sensibility. There was an understanding, especially among Christians, that this life was meant to be short, and its end not mourned as untimely or wrong. This understanding is reflected throughout the Bible, too, from the “seasons pass and seasons end” mindset of Ecclesiastes to Paul’s practical acceptance of life as a fleeting opportunity to glorify Christ.
One of my favorite verses is Ecclesiastes 3:11b: “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” There is some linguistic debate over the nature of the verse; in my understanding, the word translated as eternity here (eth-haolam) is up for some debate and has evolved over time. Some commentators initially read the verse as something like, “God has set the world in the hearts of men,” implying that man is a microcosm of everything in the heavenly realm. But other commenters relocated the word in its original context rather than its later, evolved definition, and translated it as “eternity” instead. Thus, the definition commonly agreed upon, and that I also lean to, is that God has placed in us some small yearning for what we cannot understand: that within our hearts we have some small and meager understanding of what timelessness means and what infinity might mean. We cannot grasp it, and yet it is there, in us – I suspect it is what produces a hunger somewhat like C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
Our culture betrays a longing for eternity. But, unlike our predecessors, we have turned that longing for eternity to earthly things. We take photos and post them online in hopes of capturing a moment forever. We memorialize our loved ones in an effort to “keep their spirits alive.” We invest in creams and procedures and vitamins and exercise meant not only to prolong life, but to prolong it at a certain stage, almost to pause it. That’s not necessarily worthy of condemnation – I love my makeup and my face cream – but it should make each of us question where exactly our focus tends to be.
Death is inevitable. And yes, sometimes it comes too soon, or comes cruelly. Our experience of it is not always pleasant. Certainly we should do what we can to avoid it and to care for ourselves and our families. God has set us a span of time here; it is up to us to make the most of it. And yet for believers, the presence of death ought not to be feared in the end, ought not to be something that we slam away behind closed doors or windows or save for solemn funeral homes and sterile hospitals. It is a pause, a brief breath; the gap between the now and the then. It is a reminder to those of us here to live deeply, and fully, and with as much love as we can muster with these fragile and temporary bodies; for those of us going, or gone, it is a simple passage.
In looking to the past, what we can see is that death, too, serves a purpose. And rather than deny it, we should accept that purpose into our lives, acknowledge it, and honor it for what it is.