Reflections on Death

My wife’s grandfather, Dave, died Saturday night after a long fight with a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. As opposed to the more common forms that start in the appendages and work their up, this started immediately at the head and worked its way down. In his last days, he could not feed himself, speak, bathe himself, or even write to communicate with others what he needed. It was a difficult time for everyone; for my wife’s grandmother, who has divorced once and buried a second husband already; and for the rest of the family, who have felt as though they were just marking time, especially as week by week the reports of his health bore increasingly bleak news.

In times like these, as Sara and her family grieve, I find myself not anguished—a touch saddened, yes—but contemplative. I’ve never lost anyone close to me, so perhaps I don’t fully appreciate just how terrible it is to say farewell forever, or at least for this life, to a loved one. My wife, on the other hand, has lost a number of family members in this past year, including a great-uncle, and a cousin who died in a car wreck at the age of 21. As of this writing, I’ve just learned that her great-aunt Stella has died of a malignant brain tumor. Needless to say, we’ve been busy offering prayers for the sick and deceased.

I’ve worked hard to comfort my wife, but as I said, I find myself more contemplative than grieved. I’m never entirely sure what I need to do. I try to be present for her, spend time with her, give her an outlet when needed, and provide distraction when she doesn’t wish to face the pain. However hard I try, though, I feel that my efforts are insufficient, and that might be because death is ultimately a challenge that we mere humans cannot alter or overcome. So I try to understand it.

Despite its inevitability, we struggle mightily against death. So many of our efforts are geared towards staving off death as long as possible. As a race, we face horrors on a massive scale: natural disasters, famines, plagues, terrorists, wars, and genocide. As individuals, we strive against poverty, sickness, accident, and murder. Consider some of the biggest issues facing our nation today: the war in Iraq, where thousands of American lives and many more thousands of Iraqi lives have been lost; abortion, where every year over a million unborn infants are murdered; and health care, where millions of people live without health insurance, and even those who have coverage might still face the decision between death and financial ruin.

Yet we do not simply fight against death. In recognition that our best efforts will eventually fall short, we tend to insulate ourselves against death. We fill every moment of every day with activities—work, business, recreation—that distract us from the end that awaits us all. We do this, perhaps, because we find the prospect of death too unpleasant, too final, too frightening to even contemplate.

While to some extent this is necessary to continue on with life, there are two dangers inherent in too much distraction, one societal and one personal. The first is that when we become overly preoccupied with hiding death from ourselves, the means we use become the foremost concerns in our lives. The end of this is what we have seen growing in the culture of death. We end up with a society that is not concerned with the fight against death, but instead carries as slogans such meaningless platitudes as “quality of life” or “I’d rather die than have to live through that.” We end up with a society that, because the unborn cannot recognize the quality of their brief lives, has no trouble murdering the unborn because rearing those children would interfere with those cherished distractions. We end up with a society that sees the sick and elderly as an unpleasant reminder of exactly what it is trying to forget, and would rather euthanize them for reasons of “quality of life” and “ending pointless suffering.”

It is ironic that the culture of death has its roots in the attempt to escape death, or at least the attempt to hide from the reality of death. For indeed, without all the distractions that life can offer, life itself must seem utterly futile to the culture of death. No matter how hard they try, no matter how loudly they cry against injustice, death ends all disputes with implacable finality. It doesn’t matter if you die rich or poor, criminal or law-abiding, Republican or Democrat, young or old, atheist or agnostic or religious. As the nihilistic saying goes, “He who dies with the most toys…still dies.”

This leads into the personal dilemma. As society as a whole fights to maintain the façade against death, the individual has to struggle with the meaning of his own existence. Or rather, he has to struggle against finding any meaning to his own existence, for to find meaning negates the message society advocates. The nihilist knows that, if he were correct, there cannot be any meaning to existence. We exist for a finite amount of time, and then we die. The memories of our lives fade within generations, and ultimately the memory of the human race will vanish in the far reaches of time. Thus life is just pointless futility, and only the drug of seamless pleasures and distractions will ever provide us with sufficient motivation to wake up the next morning and live through another day. Thus the individual rots as he tries to soak up as much pleasure as he can while he can; the motivation to help another person is based completely upon the reward derived from the assistance; actions are not tempered towards love of neighbor and justice, but are calculated against some utilitarian measure.

Compare that against the individual that believes, as most of us do, that our lives do have meaning, whether we can discern that meaning or not. This individual, in believing there is meaning, cannot accept a universe in which even the memory of man ceases to be. Thus there must be something beyond death.

As Catholics, we believe in one supreme, eternal Being: God. In this we already find some comfort against death, some lessening of the fear of futility. God, being eternal, will always remember us, even if the universe becomes a frozen, dead waste. Our efforts, good or bad, will persist through Him. But there’s more. We believes our souls are spiritual, and in turn will exist forever. Even when the body dies, our souls live on. But the good news does not cease there! On the final day, we will all be raised in the Resurrection, spirit reunited with flesh for eternity. How wondrous this is, how contrary to the pessimism of the nihilist and the culture of death!

There is a caveat, of course. Our eternal lives have two potential destinations. As Father Corapi reminds us every Saturday night on EWTN, “In the end, forever, you and I will be in Heaven or Hell, period.” The culture of death strives futilely for justice in this life, or at least what they think is justice. But the only way for true justice to exist is in this enormous disparity of destination, where the good and faithful are forever rewarded, and the wicked forever punished. And it is here that the second danger I mentioned fully manifests itself. The first danger, the danger of a corrupting society, can kill the body. The second danger, the danger of a corrupted individual, of a soul that places temporary pleasure above all else, is the loss of that soul to perdition. As Mark relates to us: for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

My own growth in regards to death occurred suddenly during a visit to the cemetery shortly after Sara and I were married this last May. While planning the wedding, we had fought through a tumultuous upheaval as it seemed that friends and relatives were dropping like flies. In the two weeks just prior to the ceremony, Sara lost her great-uncle; her step-father’s close friend died; her great-aunt suffered a stroke during operation to help with the brain tumor; and her grandfather (not the one suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease) was hospitalized with a fractured ankle and pneumonia. In light of other deaths in the months preceding, Sara joked morbidly, “I thought it was supposed to be four weddings and a funeral, not the other way around.”

Our visit to the cemetery had the purpose of laying one of the bridal bouquets near the headstone of Sara’s great-grandmother. Once we accomplished that task, we lingered for a while, reminiscing about deceased relatives and sharing memories of people the other would never meet. As we talked, I was struck out of the blue with an overwhelming sense of awe.

Normally a cemetery is considered a bleak place, depressing, and the source of endless horror stories. Practitioners of the occult seem to place great value on ceremonies conducted at night in cemeteries, as our local Wiccan chapter delights in reminding us by littering the grounds with profane relics, scrawled runes, and the ashes of small fires.

However, on that day, I saw the cemetery in a new light, and a fragment of the Liturgy of the Eucharist passed through my mind: Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters, and all who have left this world in your friendship. The cemetery wasn’t a place of sorrow, but a place of triumph. All the grave markers did not just mourn the deaths of so many people, but announced the victory of so many who came before us. I was not purveying a depressing catalogue of those who died, but a bold declaration of those who now live in the eternal realm. Rather than our mourning their passage, isn’t it rather the case that they mourn us for the struggle we must continue to fight, but that they have already finished!

And the awe I felt expanded as I considered the sheer history of the human race, of how many generations have lived and died since the time of Adam and Eve, of how many persons have gone on to face their eternal destination. I had this mental image of legions of people, from every age, massed in Heaven and rejoicing, waiting expectantly first to be reunited with their brethren still shackled on earth, and second for the Resurrection that restores us to the original destiny God intended for us.

Still, it is one thing to know that there is victory in death, quite another to face death armed only with that hope. Death still remains an unknown to us. What will it be like to be separated from our bodies? How will we exist as bodiless spirits? Have we lived in faith, hope, and love, so that we might be worth of the Beatific Vision, or have we somehow still chosen against God and merit eternal punishment? And no matter how strong our faith and our hope, surely there is still that tiny seed of doubt, that maybe the skeptics and nihilists might have been right? What strength must we have to brave the potential of oblivion at the close of our lives!

When I contemplate the struggles Dave endured in his last months in this world, I feel a great amount of empathy for the fear he faced and the battle he fought. I can only imagine how much fortitude it takes to live each day knowing that soon a new day will dawn with you, and that atop of the physical pain and mental anguish he bore until the end. But I know that Dave has the advantage over all us still in this world, in that all his fears have been laid to rest. He now knows the truth, by experience and not just by faith, that we will continue on in eternity.

It is my hope, for myself and for all us, especially our political and spiritual leaders, that this knowledge of the destination of each individual tempers our actions and guides us forward through troubled times.

I ask for prayers for the repose of the soul of David Bolinger, who died Saturday, October 18th, and of Estella Graham, who died Friday, October 17th.

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