death & life

I have often quoted the High School principal who when asked to name the specific reason for the existence of her school responded: “We exist to prepare our students for death.”

It was a shocking response, especially in a politically correct world. Polite people do not talk about death and work hard to avoid death even at the time of a funeral. Instead of the traditional days of being together to grieve in the presence of the body, we now pop into a funeral service for an hour where the focus is celebrating the earthly life instead of facing death and anticipating eternal life.

Every person who has ever lived has died or will die, and for most of us death will come unexpectedly, as the scripture says “like a thief in the night.”

If this fact fills us with fear then we are ready for some positive growth.

The healthy person is not afraid of facts accepting the things that cannot be changed and courageously changing the things that need to be changed.

Death is an unchangeable fact. We can eat healthily, keep fit and drive safely, but we all know fit, healthy and safe people who have died in their prime, and even while actively being healthy, fit and safe.

We all experience a fear of death. We don’t understand it in the same way that Adam and Eve in Eden would have been puzzled by the apparent death of the trees in the first autumn. But when their children were toddlers Adam and Eve explained autumn to them in the context of spring. As a result Cain & Abel would have been curious not fearful when at their next autumn they thought the trees were dying because they now anticipated the signs of spring which their parents had explained to them.

This reflection is prompted by hearing of several sudden deaths of young people in recent weeks. As the often-chosen first reading at funerals reflects the experience of death is  “like a disaster, their leaving us, like annihilation”.

But even the one who ridicules any form of religion chooses to quote reflections that focus on a bright future for the one who has died – you have gone to a better place and we will all meet again.

I was with some children over the weekend who told me of one of their teachers who had died recently aged mid-20’s. Children are so natural around death, perhaps because the memory of their birth is still fresh, and birth and death are really the same thing from different perspectives. For the twins in the womb it can only seem like death when one twin is torn from the other in the event that we (from our adult perspective) call birth. The second twin surely grieves, until they too are born and join the party where family and friends are waiting to celebrate.

Perhaps this memory, along with the patterns of life-following-death in the seasons of nature provide good starters for teaching children about the beauty of death?

2 Responses to "death & life"
  1. Thank you Father John. I have been noticing for some time that there is almost no teaching in the church on death and dying. As you say this is something we are all going to experience and it is so good to see your reflection on it. Thank you.

  2. Daniel O’Leary talks about a ‘liberating transformation before others can catch hope from us.’ It’s helpful to come to grips with ‘presence’ after death as much as during our walk through this life. As you say John, with children, a close observation of the natural world through for example, the life cycles of cicadas shedding their skeletons and Monarch caterpillars violently spinning themselves into silken chrysalises only to be transformed with quivering orange wings, are positive signs of life after death. I do wonder at the term – Prayers for the Dead. What other language might better express the Total picture of human life through our faith? A Prayer for one whose life has changed?

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