Pastoral Perspectives

A Meditation on Death

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (7:2), wrote the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes. This is a peculiar statement, for we would rather feast than to mourn, to enjoy than to be sad. In order to better understand this statement, we would have to first inquire: in what manner is the former better than the latter? In the manner of wisdom acquisition. Because death is the end and the limits of human experience, and is immediately perceptible at a wake or funeral, the occasion becomes a stark sobering reminder to all, that the people you know and love will one day die, you will one day die and no one knows the time of anyone’s death, perhaps until the signs present themselves. In the houses of mourning, we are taught our finitude. This is wisdom.

On the other hand, when we make merry, we are separated from the reality of this finitude at the instances of ecstasy. Hedonistic pleasures contribute little to our wisdom and maturity. On the contrary, the more we indulge in material sensuality, the more we eschew any consciousness of death, for we yearn to experience pleasure forevermore. Yet death comes to all.

Death is the universal reality, as the Preacher writes two chapters later, “the same event happens to all” (9:3). It “happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice” (9:2). The sooner we realise this, the sooner we may start living our lives with the end in mind, which, according to the Preacher, is to enjoy and be appreciative of our lot in life, finding joy in our loved ones and the good things we possess.

The idea of meditating on death on the path of wisdom acquisition is not unique to the Bible. Since death is universal, such topics had been written by philosophers and religious thinkers like Camus and the Buddha. Just last month, an article entitled, To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death was published in the New York Times. Citing research articles, the author, Brooks, suggested that people should meditate more on their demise to live a fuller life.

However, merely thinking about death does not give us peace in the face of death. It might help one to prioritise affairs, order life properly, value loved ones more, and be funnier (according to the NYT article!), but death will still come. And if death is an interface between life and the afterlife, all that thinking only helps with the condition of one side to the neglect of the other. What happens on the other side? If thinking about death stops short of the afterlife, then the real point of the exercise would have been missed.

In some cultures however, topics like death and the afterlife are taboo. In the past, I have spoken to my mother about them, and was dismissed uncomfortably. It is no wonder many Chinese are uncomfortable at exploring these issues, because what is traditionally thought of  as happening after death is usually grotesque and bleak. The eighteen levels of hell dioramas in Haw Par Villa are good depictions of the traditional pagan Chinese beliefs about the afterlife, and they are the stuff of nightmares.

In a poem addressed to his dying father, the poet Dylan Thomas writes, as if sitting at his father’s bedside exhorting him:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

If death is a black hole and dying is a descent into oblivion, then Dylan Thomas is right and we ought to struggle for every moment of existence. Indeed, contemplating on the disquietude and helplessness experienced in the face of death should lead one to flounder spiritedly. But that is mere grasping for air. What else is good to struggle for if not for the hands of a saviour? But who can save another from the darkness in death? Who else can help us but One who has passed from death to life?

In history, Jesus Christ is the only person who had been resurrected to eternal life from death, and the gospels testify to this fact. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26). According to Jesus, everyone who dies will be resurrected for judgment. But those who put their faith in Him will be resurrected to be with Him for eternity.

What Jesus offers for those who believe in Him is the gift of eternal life which begins in this life. While death will still come, the peace we get knowing we are secure in Jesus Christ enables us to live life abundantly, more than what simply meditating on death can bring. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a modern day martyr executed by the Nazis for his resistance against the regime. His peace in Jesus Christ in the face of death was recounted for us by an eye witness:

On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Here was a man who went gentle into that good night. He lived cognisant of impending death as he worked against a murderous regime, but because he was assured of where he was heading to and who would be waiting for him on the other side of death, he had peace. He knew that in the afterlife, he would be spend eternity in presence of Jesus Christ, who provided him salvation, and whom he had come to love and adore.