The 17th Century French Philosopher Francois de La Rochefoucauld once said “Death, like the sun, should not be stared at”.1
The topic of death is one of the most difficult and awkward conversation topics in almost all spheres of interaction. Even in places such as hospitals where death is a daily topic of discussion and churches which regularly host funerals, death is still a far more difficult issue to raise than virtually any other. I’m currently writing this having spent a morning on a hospital ward round that covered about half a dozen patients on the Intensive Care Unit, some of whom are fearfully close to dying. The consultants and house officers were clearly and unsurprisingly solemn and uneasy when discussing these patients, despite the routine nature of these clinical discussions.
Of course, unease surrounding the topic of death is very understandable. For many, death is the final, painful, incomprehensible nothingness that ends all that life offers- a chilling unknown at best, and unthinkable non-existence at worst. Even for religious folk like me, the thought of death is usually immensely difficult swallow. For people who believe in a spiritual or transformed post-mortem existence, death is the painful end of the known and loved, and a forced push into the previously only imagined. And for those who believe in some sort of moral judgement day, death marks an impending deadline for the individual to clean up the entirety of their life, and/or desperately cling onto relationships that judgement may sever.
However, this taboo surrounding death, although understandable, is also tragically destructive. Because death is so socially awkward to talk about, experience says that those facing bereavement or struggling with their own mortality often have nowhere to easily turn. Questions seem unanswerable, previous emotional pillars now seem fragile, and many people find themselves being hit with a second whack of aloneness, at what is often already the loneliest experience of life.
Staring at Death
In this article, my aim is to explore the ways people deal with the dark reality of death. And for that, I am going to disobey Mr de La Rochefoucauld and have a long stare at death. I believe that death does not need to be tabooed and certainly does not need to be faced alone. Rather I think talking about death and exploring ways of dealing with death can, in a small way, help us deal with death together as mortal human beings.
There seems to be two mainstream lines of reasoning when it comes to emotionally grappling with death: ignoring the known, and imagining the unknown.
1. Ignoring the Known
In this post-enlightenment, individualistic, consumerist, scientific age, society and the media seems to expound a resonantly simple message on dealing with death: live for the present, and don’t think about the future. The sociological climate seems to be universally geared towards trying to wipe away the idea of death from public thought. An interesting example of this occurred in 2002, when a 60-second commercial for X-Box1 was banned from UK television. The advert depicted the birth, youth, adulthood and death of one individual in one high-speed life timeline, ending on the slogan “Life is short. Play More”. The Independent Television Commission described it as “offensive, shocking and in bad taste”, and had it immediately removed from the mainstream public media.
This powerful notion that we can and should simply ignore death, and concentrate on other, more immediate things, has made its way into the minds of many individuals. Conversations about death usually turn awkward and uncomfortable very quickly, as people aim to move the topic onto something (probably anything) else. I have found this even in places such as hospitals, where mortality is an hourly issue of discussion.
However, this mind-set of self-administered obliviousness to death too often proves frighteningly fragile, when the reality of death forces its way into our attention. When faced with bereavement, terminal illness, or even the idea of one’s own mortality, this “ignoring the known” way of dealing with death often proves inoperable. How does one live for the present and ignore the future, when the thing one wants to ignore exists in the present?
2. Imagining the Unknown
One possible answer many people adopt is to imagine the unknown. Bereaved individuals often find a small amount of emotional counsel from speaking to the deceased at the graveside, emboldening them to “rest in peace”, or picturing a spiritual element of their being looking down from Heaven at the world they left.
These mourning acts all seem to find their foothold in the imagining of the unknown. Death is often seen as the end of life as we know it, but not necessarily of life in its completeness. In bereavement, many people turn seek opportunities for spiritual experiences, religious faith, or philosophical speculation, perhaps in an endeavouring to find a way of knowing the otherwise unknowable about life after death.
However, the heart-breaking reality of death is that this way of thinking often also fails to give answers and assurances. We as post-enlightenment individuals often need solid rational reasons on which to base our thinking. And of course, theorising about life after death finds little foundation in rational, experientially testable reasoning. After all, lack of a rational explanation to death is often why people turned to the spiritual and religious in the first place.
A Third Alternative: Knowing the Known
So where does this leave us? For me, both of the above options are upsettingly dissatisfactory. Ignoring the known leaves people helpless when death enters the present, and imagining the unknown give little foundation on which to build emotional stability.
However, I think there is a third alternative: knowing the known.
A couple of years ago, my family and I visited Genting in Malaysia- a place we had previously never visited. In the run up to the trip, the internet provided lots of useful information and advice about what to do and how to explore the resort. However, the most useful and valuable pre-trip information came unsurprisingly from my aunts and uncles who had been to Genting on multiple past occasions. Facts from holiday companies and commercial brochures became of insignificant value, when we had relations who had been there and come back.
Many philosophical, religious and spiritual leaders down the ages have claimed knowledge about the after-life (or lack thereof). However, in my opinion, they all share a common logical flaw- they were all still alive when they made the claims. When someone exhorts others to listen while they declare their knowledge of the afterlife, it is unsurprising that they are usually met with scepticism at best and ridicule at worst. How could anyone have anything of value to say about the after-life if they have never been there themselves?
And this is where I show my hand. The way I deal with the pain of death, in my work, social and family life, is by listening intently, deeply but ever critically to a man whom I believe paid a visit to the afterlife and subsequently returned to Earth. In chapter 5 of my book Evidence for the Existence of God, I look at the evidence behind the central empirical claim of Christianity- the resurrection of Jesus. I think there is compelling historical evidence that c.2000 years ago, a man named Jesus was murdered my crucifixion, buried in a tomb, and 3 days later, rose from the dead. These claims are fantastical and audacious. However, my personal research into the historical evidence persuaded me that they are also true.
And if Jesus really did rise from the dead, making the return trip to the afterlife, it follows that his words about the afterlife and dealing with death ought to have significant value.
In John 11:25-26 it is recorded that Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus’ message about life after death is simple- eternal life can be found exclusively and completely in faith in Him. Death, according to the man who went there and returned back, does not mean the end of existence and need not be a source of helpless despair for those left behind. For those who accept Jesus- the embodiment of eternal resurrection life, death can be and is a gateway to an eternal life of joy, peace and glory.
I deal with the grim reality of death not by ignoring the known or imagining the unknown. Rather, I throw my emotional weight onto the hope that is found in the resurrection of Jesus. When I meet dying patients and friends, I see them not as people who will soon cease to exist, but rather as people who, by God’s grace and in a relatively short time, I may see again in Heaven. And I wrestle with my own mortality in knowledge of the evidence that Jesus defeated death, I have the opportunity to link up with Him.
This is why the Christian hymn writers Stuart Townend and Keith Getty could write:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.3
- Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Maxim 26
- In Christ Alone, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Thankyou Music, 2001