Vanité, Philippe de Champaigne, 1641
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. As I imagine most of us have been. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in The New Yorker this week about how the coronavirus pandemic has jolted our attention to our own deaths. Of course, we have always known that we will die eventually. In spite of this universal knowledge we humans are prone to forgetting our deaths. This is especially true for younger people for whom life seems to be nothing but endless possibilities. But the pandemic has shattered this forgetting by reminding us of the nearness of death, which understandably brings with it a sense of panic, “we’re all going to die, yes, always true, but now perhaps this month!”
But my preoccupation with death recently has more to do with my teaching schedule than the pandemic. I’ve been teaching a seminar entitled Death and Eternal Life (you can read the syllabus here). We’ve spent the semester contemplating the nature of our deaths and what kinds of theological topics pertain to the issues of life, death, and eternal life (basically all of them). We’ve had deep discussions in conversation with Gregory of Nyssa on the nature of the soul and the resurrection, with Augustine on the nature of time, with George MacDonald on the nature of God’s judgment.
I’ve been thinking about death so much lately that when my wife just asked me what I was writing about and I said, “death,” she rolled her eyes and said, “You’re just the death guy.”
One of the students in the class told a friend that she was taking a course on death and the friend asked, “Is that really a healthy thing to do? To think about death all the time?” When the student told me this I thought it indicative of our culture’s general attitude toward death: to ignore it and remove it from our lived experience.
This attitude toward death is strikingly different from previous generations. If you ask most people today how they would like to die, whether they are Christian or not, they are likely to answer, “quick, painless, and in my sleep.” Now, perhaps this attitude toward death is understandable. No one wants thinks of having a prolonged period of extreme pain as desirable.
And yet, for centuries Christians have practiced a very different attitude toward death. In the Great Litany of The Book of Common Prayer (the book that has shaped the worship and practice of Anglicans since the 16th century) people ask God to deliver them from “dying suddenly and unprepared.” And this attitude toward death goes much further back in the history of the church. Medieval monks appropriated the ancient injunction memento mori for their own spiritual contemplation. Memento mori is usually translated as “remember that you are mortal,” but its literal meaning is “remember to die.” Whereas most of us spend much of our lives forgetting our own inevitable deaths, these monks sought to live their lives with the constant reminder that life is fleeting.
In the 15th century an anonymous Dominican friar wrote a guide for how to die a Christian death. This text, called the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying), was incredibly popular. It was translated into dozens of languages and it spurred many other people to write similar texts. These texts instructed people about how to prepare themselves spiritually for the struggles and temptations that come to one who is dying. The goal of all of these texts was to help people die a good death, one in which they are focused on Christ and confident of God’s caring provision (here is a good short article on the Ars moriendi that I’d recommend).
The Ars moriendi shaped how Europeans and Americans thought about death for nearly four hundred years. In her remarkable book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust argues that the enormity of death in that conflict (more Americans died in the Civil War than died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined), coupled with the inability to die a “good death” fundamentally changed how Americans thought about death. The Ars moriendi tradition, with its commendation of patient prayer, endurance, and humble acceptance of care from others was not possible when sudden death was everywhere and few people died in the presence of their loved ones.
In the twentieth century the Western world has seen an increasing medicalization of death. Most people no longer die at home surrounded by loved ones and ministers or priests. Most people die in hospitals or nursing homes surrounded by expensive beeping technology that monitors their biology. We’ve seen this tragedy in greater focus with the current pandemic as family members are not even able to touch and talk to their loved ones dying in ICUs.
It is important for us to think about our deaths. How do we want to die? When those we love are dying how can help them prepare spiritually for their deaths? How might our deaths witness to our faith and hope in the love of God? It might not be a pleasant conversation topic to bring up on a date night, but it is a crucially important topic that we need to discuss in our families and churches. If we have not thought carefully about these questions, then we will treat death as our secular society does: something to be avoided at all costs and gotten over as quickly as possible when inevitable. We Christians have so much more to say. Our deaths can testify to the God that we proclaim, who has already conquered the grave.