Spirituality > Christian Thought > Death and Dying
When Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was suffering from the cancer he already knew would kill him, he drew on part of the Christian tradition which calls death a "friend". This puzzled a lot of people, including nearly all the reporters and even many Catholics, some of whom thought he was talking about how death would end his pain. But Bernardin had something else in mind.
In Christianity, talk of death as a "friend" is true to a point. But it is always conditional. Death is not what we were created for. It's a direct result of how our universe is out of order with God. It's caused by the same thing that sundered our relationships with God and with each other. Death is "natural", but it is also quite "natural" to fear it, and to hurt from the losses it causes. A few people seem fearless of death or at least fully accepting of it, but that only happens to those who are committed to something greater, to the point of overpowering even this most native of fears. Jesus didn't want to die; in Gethsemane He prayed passionately that it would not happen. But His death was the purpose of His being there; God's will be done. For a Christian, death can only be a "friend" through trusting that whatever death is, Jesus was there, has felt its icy clutches, has transcended it, and is there to take us through it. Death only becomes a "friend" to those who trust that their best Friend is with them in it all the way through.
How is it that we can talk of 'preparing for death'? There's always something left unsaid or undone. Our knowledge can only guess at what happens (if anything at all), so no amount of faith entirely gets rid of the doubt about what death is. And if there is a God to meet after death, are we really so sure we want such a meeting? Is this a God of righteous anger, or the God who cares too little about you to get angry? A god who acts like a machine, a cosmic electric chair or perhaps a grace-gumball dispenser?
Death is something we all take on trust. Perhaps it is just trusting that death is our total end, period. Perhaps we trust that there's a gracious God who bids us welcome when we die. Or perhaps we trust that there's a hell of cold isolation, or an endless Kingdom of brutality and treachery, or a loss of our identity into a blah blob of universal existence. We have ideas, but we're sure of none of them. We simply don't know and can't know from where we are now. None of us do. So we all take it on trust.
For a Christian, that trust is in a God who we've met while we were alive. We met God in the little graces, the big miracles, the ordinary days, the quizzical moments. This God is with us in life, leading us onward, kicking us in the rump to get us going, or sometimes just sharing our tears. This God was trustworthy in life, even when we ourselves were not. So, we trust this same God in death.
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"A Christian funeral is nothing less than a bold and
dramatic worship of the living God done attentive to and
in the face of an apparent victory at the hands of the
last enemy. Though the liturgy may be gently worded,
there is no hiding the fact that, in a funeral,
Christians raise a fist at death; recount the story of
the Christ who suffered death, battled death, and
triumphed over it; offer laments and thanksgivings to the
God who raised Jesus from the grave; sing hymns of
defiance; and honor the body and life of the saint who
has died. Thus, one measure of the veracity of a funeral
is its capacity to face, without euphemistic smoke and
mirrors, the reality of death."
When someone else dies, it pierces us through our heart. It takes from us anything new that could come from the dead person's gifts; we have only what they left us, and the traces they have left within the living. We get an empty seat at our table, an empty slot on our phone chains, an empty job in our corporate flow chart. But so much more: we lose the living presence that made for so much. The grief in the death of a loved one is that the loved one is no longer there. Wherever the loved one is in eternity, they're not here now, and will not be back. Thus, no talk of eternity and the loved one's place in it is able to really relieve the grief and loss.
When Christians tell stories about the dead person's life, we tell them not just because they're ripe for the telling or because it lets us get some of the grief off our chests (though those may be true, too). Christians mainly speak of the life of the dead person because God worked divine grace into our lives through that person. Also, notice how even the dead person's crabbiness, bad habits, and unloving actions are put into a more grace-full context at death. That's not just to be polite; it's to be aware that God's grace can come even through that which bites back.
death [< Old English < hypo. Indo-European dheu-, to become unable to sense]
Death is everywhere. True, the magazines and the Internet gab on endlessly about a future where life can go on for a very long time. But just as life finds a way, so does death. Just when we think we've got the best of it, the next AIDS comes along, or wars or natural or human catastrophes happen. And there will always be a large group of people who will not be allowed access to the life-lengthening benefits, for reasons of power. Death will still find a way to level the playing field and show how relative all human accomplishments are. Death reminds us that we're not in control. Christ reminds us that
death is not in control.
In modern times, we have gone back to an ancient view which sees time as a circle or cycle. But perhaps it's better to think of the shape as that of the loopy spiral cord which went from the telephone to the receiver, back before cordless became so popular. Each time it loops around, it comes to a distinct place with its own character, just a bit different than all that has gone before, yet very much like the other such place on the other loops. Like that spiral cord, time comes from somewhere and goes to somewhere, yet has a pattern that repeats again and again.
Death and Birth frame a human life. Yet there is life before birth (pregnancy). There is also life after death (resurrection).
go ahead and jump
> Does the Bible teach that Jesus died spiritually as well as physically?<
Since I don't know what you meant here by 'spiritually', I can't say.
The Scriptural witness is that he died. This means nothing that is essentially different from what it means for the rest of us. That was the point of his dying. If it were essentially different, his death wouldn't have accomplished its task. Scripture makes this point clear in the episode with Thomas after the resurrection. Scripture doesn't stick an adjective in front of Jesus' death: it's just death. Whatever that is, his was.
It gets worse: we have to take seriously that God was being ripped apart when that happened, that Jesus was doing a lot more than reciting a psalm when he said, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me??" Jesus was actually living (or dying) it: abandonment from the Father.
Jesus did not physically die to 'spiritually' live. Jesus died, and overcame death in all its dimensions. So to think in terms of 'spiritual death' leads us away from what Christ was all about.
I myself suspect that the person of God which we call 'the Holy Spirit' made the resurrection possible -- for the Holy Spirit, no severed connection cannot be reconnected, not even that of death. But that's only a wild guess at the inner workings of God, nothing more. What we are told by Scripture is that Jesus didn't stay dead, and neither will those who believe in Him. That is no guess; that is what counts.
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Here are some thoughts on death and dying, from a volunteer chaplain at a hospice, Kathy Stewart. (Written for use on Spirithome.com.)
Yawning, I drove toward the nursing home, already depleted as I responded to a request to sit with a hospice patient who had been agitated and fearful since the previous night. Her daughter who herself was ill had been sent home to get some rest; the mother was afraid to be alone. I wasn't altogether happy about this; I had just returned after being gone all day, a day when nothing had gone particularly right. Yet it seemed I should go. When I prayed I felt no clear direction, only that I would be given what I needed. When I arrived I found a tiny woman sleeping peacefully beneath a picture window; outside gray clouds threatened rain. Though the nurses said they hadn't thought she'd make it through the previous night, she didn't look very near death to me. Not that I'm an expert by any means. I spent most of my hospice volunteer training with a wrenched back due entirely to fear: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of hospitals and particularly nursing homes, fear of anything having to do with medicine. Since that time I have learned that working with the dying is just about people. Sometimes I remember with a start that this amazing vibrant person before me may well be dead sometime soon: next week, next month, next year, and that makes our time together feel precious and poignant.
Nurses and caregivers stopped by to check on the patient. One told me she wheeled her around outside in the middle of the night for hours because she was afraid of the cramped room. I heard that she loved to garden and spent most of her time outdoors. I settled into a chair and took out my book; it was going to be a long night. I read a paragraph, then set it down. I'm not here to read; there's something more. I had just been to a workshop on working with coma patients. Though she was asleep, I told her that I was going to touch her wrist. As I lightly touched her, I began to match my breathing to hers; in, out, fast and shallow, the ventilator keeping time. Anxiety? Fear? I wondered.
When she became restless I called the nurses to move her to make her more comfortable; they had told me it would ease her pain. I moved my chair to the other side of the bed, positioning it between her and the window. She was frowning now, obviously in distress. She opened her eyes and looked right at me for the first time. "Help me", she pleaded. My heart went out to her as if she were a suffering child. Standing, I lay my hands on her, gently as I knew she suffered from arthritis, and I prayed. Out loud, at first and then, because it felt more natural, in silence. Jesus, I said, come for your child. Heal her, ease her suffering. She was in pain and with a start I realized that her pain was beyond physical; it was spiritual. With certainty I knew that my prayer had been heard and I thanked God with the confidence Jesus had praying outside Lazarus' tomb. After a time I removed my hands and sat back in my chair. She seemed at peace, perhaps she'd drifted back to sleep. Her breathing had slowed drastically, she was no longer restless. I literally felt as if I were sitting in the portal between heaven and earth. A deep abiding joy enveloped me and I thanked God for the privilege of being his servant; this is all that matters, all I want. I wasn't alone; all around me, just beyond the veil, angels waited. The ventilator continued to hum as her breathing became less regular, less frequent.
Silently I prayed the Lord's Prayer, realizing for the first time the great spiritual power this prayer has, not only in our realm but in all realms of consciousness. It was as if this prayer was bridging every layer of reality between heaven and earth, God and man, until all was one. Forgive us our debts, I prayed, as she drew a last breath. Joy, I felt, great rejoicing, as her spirit lifted. Gratitude, love and peace. . .
An hour later, her son-in-law told me that since they got the call from the nursing home that their mother had died, a vivid rainbow swept the horizon, staying just ahead of them as they drove to town.
I have been changed by this encounter, this journey I was asked to take to accompany God's beloved child to the brink of eternity. It is the closest I have been to death and I know it is nothing to fear. It seems to me that dying can be hard work, a time when we are asked to trust in a very great way. To trust that when we let go, someone will be there to catch us.
I have learned something from every dying person I've had the privilege to accompany on their journey, whether it is for minutes, hours or months. I have learned how to live; I have learned how to die. If I live well, if I live a life of love, if I truly live, embracing each moment, each person who comes before me as the precious gift they are, then I will die well. If I love, I will not die alone. Every gracious gesture, every act of generosity, is repaid a hundredfold. There is something special and sacred about the spirit of a dying person; I've heard it said that as the body is cast off, the spirit grows and I believe I've seen the truth of this with my own eyes. If I love God and love my neighbor as I love myself, there is nothing in this world or the next to be afraid of. Love is the key; love is what matters. Love is what we take with us and love is what awaits us when we have at long last arrived.
Some Bible passages on death and being
close to death :
1 Corinthians 15:20-56
1 Corinthians 11:26
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
> My mother recently passed on Pentecost
Sunday at the age of
> 50. She died in her sleep for no apparent reason. The coroner's
> office has yet to determine the cause of death. Does this have
> any meaning?
The fact that she died on Pentecost has no meaning, except if it was perhaps a fitting day given her life, which I wouldn't know. That is an early death, and none of us know if there is a 'reason' behind the physical causes. That is not usually given to us, probably because there usually isn't a reason behind the physical causes. In a damaged created world, we die, and few of us ever get to know when (and those few know they are about to die -- so I for one would rather not know). Death happens. It happens on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and every other day, holiday or not. The Christian believes that someday it won't, but as for right now it still does. For those who believe in Christ, death is the big step into a new life. Death's not what we were made for. It still is a horrible thing. But it is relativized, limited, and ultimately burned away in God's light. So we remember that person's life, knowing that we bear that person's mark, trusting that God was at work in it, and trusting that this work will be completed someday.
Death is an unfathomable mystery, you can't measure its depth. So is life. God is even bigger, and is by our side. Past that I don't really know, I can only guess.
It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be
there when it happens.
------- Woody Allen, *Death*
I do not want Your paradise. I do not want your
coming world. I want You, and You only.
-------- Rabbi Zalman, Hasidic rabbi
Out of the chill and the shadow
Into the thrill and shine
Out of the dearth and famine
Into the fulness divine
------- Margaret Sangster, *Going Home*
When I hear somebody sigh, "Life is hard," I am always
tempted to ask, "Compared to what?"
------- Sydney Harris
Those who welcome death have only tried it from the ears
------- Wilson Mizner
One does not learn how to die by killing others.
------- François-Renè Chateaubriand, *Memoirs*
He who lacks time to mourn lacks time to mend.
------- William Shakespeare
I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
------- Mark Twain
Humans, after losing their immortality, have conquered death
by submitting to death in faith.
His maker kissed his soul away,
and laid his flesh to rest.
------- Isaac Watts, *The Presence Of God*
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms, can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.
------- John Donne
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|ver.: 30 August 2011.
Death and Dying. Copyright © 2006-11 by Robert Longman, except © 2002 Kathy Stewart, admin. by Robert Longman.