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Death be Not Proud

There’s been a lot of death in the air around here over the last little while.  Our church is in the process of navigating the tragic death of a young father, husband, brother, son, colleague, and friend.  This past Sunday was the memorial service and it was, as are most memorial services, difficult.  

I also found myself performing a graveside ceremony for a family on Saturday which was difficult in a much different sort of way. The family were complete strangers to me (and to the church) and the woman for whom the graveside service was being held had died nine months ago.  I’m not sure how or why they decided to phone our church, but they needed some kind of closure and I was, it seems, to be a part of providing said closure.  Despite my nervousness and inexperience, the service went quite well.

So with death occupying a prominent role in my thinking over the last week or so, I was drawn to the title of this article in this morning’s New York Times.  The article is written by Theresa Brown, a nurse who narrates her involvement in a death (a cardiac arrest) and is called “Perhaps Death Is Proud; More Reason to Savor Life.”  After witnessing the death, the author reflects upon the famous words of John Donne:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

These words strike Brown as strange and incongruous with her experience:

But after my Condition A [the hospital’s term for quick, unanticipated deaths] I find his words empty. My patient died looking like one of the flesh-eating zombies from “28 Weeks Later,” and indeed in real life, even in the world of the hospital, a death like this is unsettling.

When faced with death, I think it is natural for the “now what?” question to occur to us.  How ought we to live, think, be in the world?  How do our periodic, painful encounters with death impact our everyday lives?  I think that one of the most human questions in the world is “How ought the knowledge and experience of death influence our living?”  Brown’s response is, I think, a good start:

What can one do? Go home, love your children, try not to bicker, eat well, walk in the rain, feel the sun on your face and laugh loud and often, as much as possible, and especially at yourself. Because the only antidote to death is not poetry, or drama, or miracle drugs, or a roomful of technical expertise and good intentions. The antidote to death is life.

From a Christian perspective, life—both in the present and in the age to come—certainly is properly conceived as the antidote to death.  But among the many more things that could be said on the matter, I would want the word “together” to come shortly on the heels of “life.”  The antidote to death is not just any kind of life, because many lives are lived poorly and in isolation.  The kind of life that is the antidote to death is a life where we give ourselves to others in love and trust (and receive the same in return, hopefully) and determine to walk together through the complexities and ambiguities that death’s shadow casts over our individual and collective experiences.  Such a life will not pretend death doesn’t exist, that it isn’t fearful, that it doesn’t hurt us (sometimes badly); but it will also not allow death to rob life of its vibrancy, colour, and joy.  Part of living life to the full—as an antidote to death—is learning that life is lived best when it is lived together, that we need one another, in all of the various seasons we will face.

Part of my role on Saturday was to help a family for whom death has been a divisive force face the difficult question of what (and how) dying has to do with living.  I closed the graveside ceremony with the following words

Times of death are confusing and difficult, and we must all chart our own path on the journey from the initial sorrow, shock, and anger, to a place of healing and restoration. We need to remember that no one walks through periods of mourning in the same way or at the same pace. And we must also remember that we need each other during the grieving process; we are not meant to walk through these seasons alone.

If we are gracious with one another, if we allow one another to grieve, to express shock and anger, to be confused, and if we resolve to do all of this together and to help each other through the grieving process, then we deny death the possibility of extending its reach. By facing grief honestly, openly, and together, we declare that life and relationships are stronger than death, and we create a space in which God’s faithfulness and compassion—new each morning—can be claimed as more real, more powerful than even death itself.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    The nurse’s stance towards death is modern. John Donne’s response expresses a view of life and death quite unlike hers. He had a confidence that death is not final that she does not have.

    There is no question that death is proud. My own father died of lung cancer. Death is powerful and mean and proud. I know, for I too have seen it.

    If Donne’s words are empty, then we have no hope and it does no good to huddle together.

    I doubt that the nurse could ever pray as Donne prayed, “Batter my heart three person’d God…” She understands life and death differently from the way Donne did. “Condition A!” is her cry, her prayer.

    It is these words of Donne that she ultimately believes are empty: “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

    It is her words that I find empty. They are no match for death.

    September 13, 2008
  2. I think you’re right Ken, there is a profoundly different understanding of death and hope evident in the nurse’s response in comparison to Donne’s. I think that’s part of her point in the article – based on our experience, it seems like death ought to be proud after all. There is a hopelessness and resignation evident in her counsel to embrace what life we have as the antidote to death.

    As you say, for those who have felt the pain of death up close and personal, this isn’t good enough. We don’t seem to be able to make our peace with death; we don’t seem to be able to see it as anything other than a bitter enemy to be defeated (even if we’re reticent to admit it sometimes). Perhaps this is borne out of delusional wishful thinking; or perhaps it is evidence that the horizons within which we evaluate matters of life and death were not meant to be as constricted as we have made them.

    September 15, 2008

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