August 28, 2019

The Remembrance of Death

Gary Thomas — 

An excerpt from Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey by Gary Thomas (Harvest House Publishers, 2011)

Living in a Dying World:
The Remembrance of Death

When sportscaster Glenn Brenner died at the age of 44 in Wash-
ington DC, the city was in shock for several days. Why? After all, the city had been dubbed the murder capital of the United States, and victims of violent crime die there virtually every day—sometimes a half-dozen a night. Yet radio talk-show hosts devoted entire mornings or afternoons to Brenner’s death. The newspaper covered it in every issue for a week. One television station ran a half-hour memorial program.

The city was stunned by the suddenness of the death. It forced people to remember that death doesn’t always wait until we’re 95. Sometimes it sneaks up on us in our forties. As people called talk shows to express their shock, they repeated a familiar refrain: “It was so sudden; so unexpected. He was so young, in such good health, and then all of a sudden…I just can’t believe it.”

Brenner had recently completed a marathon. He was young, healthy, humorous, and successful, but all of that became irrelevant when a brain tumor took his life. Death didn’t take into account his cardiovascular capability. It didn’t inquire about the number of children still depending on him or his vocational success or how beloved he was in the capital city. Death doesn’t ask questions; it doesn’t review résumés. It just comes.

The city was unsettled by death’s rude intrusion into its life. Denial was no longer possible, and people were forced to consider that maybe there’s more to life than we have been told. Maybe we need to make some inquiries and answer a few questions before death comes to knock on our door.

Every now and then we sneak a peek at the obituaries and look at the ages of those who have died. When we see somebody our own age or even younger, we involuntarily wince. We grope for the cause of death—please don’t let it be a heart attack or cancer, we hope. We want to be immune from that, at least for now.

Our denial means nothing to death because death doesn’t have to ask our permission. Death is coming. Every day is somebody’s last.

The Denial of Death

In spite of the prevalence of death, we prefer not to talk about it. In this we’re similar to previous generations. Fénelon wrote of this denial centuries ago:

We consider ourselves immortal, or at least as though going to live for centuries. Folly of the human spirit! Every day those who die soon follow those who are already dead. One about to leave on a journey ought not to think himself far from one who went only two days before. Life flows by like a flood.  1

Most of us recognize that we will eventually die—but decades from now, not today, not this week, not this month, not this year. Death is a foreigner, not a close neighbor.

We live our lives while clutching fiercely to this illusion. How else can we explain the fact that so many die without a will? We live without making a will, not because we believe we’ll never die, but because we don’t expect to die this week. Thus we have more important tasks to take care of, meetings to attend, things to buy, walls to paint.

Why do we deny death? Fénelon believed we avoid the thought of death so we are not saddened by it. But this, he said, is shortsighted. “It will only be sad for those who have not thought about it.”  2 William Law wrote that the living world’s brilliance blinds us from eternity and the reality of death. “The health of our bodies, the passions of our minds, the noise and hurry and pleasures and business of the world, lead us on with eyes that see not and ears that hear not.”  3

Part of this denial comes from the company we keep. During the seven years I studied in college and seminary, I attended a church with a congregation that was predominantly young. During those seven years, one person in the congregation died, and it was big news.

My first position after seminary was in a more historic church with a predominantly older congregation. The first church had required two rooms to break up the nursery, but this church couldn’t round up enough babies to fill more than two or three double strollers. During our first six months, we had three funerals.

Young people have a distorted view of life. They can forget that funerals are waiting on the other end of weddings and baby showers. When we segregate ourselves—when we don’t know anyone who is suffering from arthritis—we can be lulled to sleep.

Law insisted that most people will regret delaying the thought of death. When death approaches, it is often too late to make amends. Law demonstrated this by describing a symbolic character who, on his deathbed, bemoans his absentmindedness:

Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters that are passed away like a dream and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment as no heart can sufficiently conceive them!  4

One magazine writer told the story of a shopper who died from a massive heart attack in front of the frozen pizza section of a supermarket. The writer ruminated about the woman’s last thoughts. “Should I get pepperoni or vegetarian?” Or maybe, “How about triple cheese?” The shopper was seconds away from eternity, on the threshold of entering a new era, and she didn’t even know it. Her mind was occupied with the trivial.

This unexpectedness of death should encourage us to take a second look, to reconsider our pleasant denial, to admit that, yes, death might visit us as early as this week.

The Remembrance of Death Serves Life

William Nelson, a Union general in the Civil War, was consumed with the hostilities in Kentucky when a brawl erupted in his fort and he was shot in the chest. He had faced many battles, but the fatal blow came while he was relaxing with his men. He was caught fully unprepared. As men ran up the stairs to help, the general had just one request: “Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized.”

He never made time to be baptized as an adolescent or a young man, and he had too many pressing concerns while in command. In half a second, the general’s priorities had been turned upside down. The war raged on, but suddenly his interest had been captivated by another world. Who cared about Robert E. Lee now? And it was too late to bother with a doctor. Get me a clergyman! With only minutes left before he died, the one thing he cared about was preparing for eternity. He wanted to be baptized.

Thirty minutes later he was dead.

How was this general served by the remembrance of death? Hardly at all, because he remembered it too late. To help us avoid such a gross oversight, Thomas à Kempis urged, “Thou oughtest so to order thyself in all thy thoughts and actions, as if today thou were about to die.”  5 Law expounded on this:

I can’t see why every gentleman, merchant, or soldier should not put these questions seriously to himself: What is the best thing for me to intend and drive at in all my actions? How shall I do to make the most of human life? What ways shall I wish that I had taken when I am leaving this world?  6

When we find out we have only 30 minutes left to live, as General Nelson did, we can’t do much more than prepare our own souls. Even worse, the moment of death could prove that our whole life has been a lie.

As vice president, George H.W. Bush represented the United States at the funeral of former Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev. During the secular service, Bush witnessed a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed.

Brezhnev’s widow reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.

There, in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life and that that life was best represented by Jesus, who died on the cross. She hoped that same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.

The thought of death came too late for an American Civil War general and a Soviet head of state—will it come too late for us? When your body is lying in the coffin, when your life is being remembered, do you want your surviving spouse or kids or friends to think, “Everything he gave his life for was a fraud. It was wasted. But now, perhaps God will have mercy for him giving his life over to such useless aims, and still usher him into His eternal kingdom.”

Virtually every classic writer holds up the remembrance of death as an essential spiritual discipline. It will help us to live a life that is celebrated rather than mourned. “The man who is really concerned to live well must possess himself continually of the thought that he is not to live long.”  7

Making Death Our Servant

David is dead,” my wife said. “His parents want you to speak at the funeral. They’re burying him tomorrow.”

I had spent the day with my kids at a local fair. We had been riding kiddie roller coasters, braving gravity-busting wheels, and digesting cotton candy. We got home late at night, and the funeral—a three-hour drive away—was scheduled to take place in about 13 hours. It was difficult, as you might imagine, to shift gears so suddenly.

The funeral was a particularly sad one because David died in prison. He poked heroin into his veins once too often, and on one occasion, the HIV virus was clinging to the needle. David developed AIDS and slowly wasted away. He was in his early thirties.

I tried to comfort his parents: “God knows what it’s like to watch a son die in his early thirties,” I said.

Lisa and I decided to take our children to the funeral. On the way, we talked to them about what we could learn from this sad passing. “If somebody tells you what you’re missing out on when you refuse to take drugs, I want you to remember this,” I said. “Think of a young man giving up the rest of his life, dying without a wife, without kids, locked inside a prison cell. That’s where drugs will take you. That’s what you’re missing when you say no to drugs.”

I struggled through the service, trying to find words to reach out to those who had come to say good-bye. “David is gone now,” my talk began, and I searched for lessons we could learn. The classic Christian writers helped me by teaching me that even tragic deaths can provide valuable truths—if not positively, then negatively. In fact, these writers urge us to use death by extracting the message out of each one, thereby making death our servant. Let’s see how the remembrance of death can serve us today.

Pure Perspective

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is the image of the human condition.  1

In this quote, Blaise Pascal captured the reality of the human condition.

The remembrance of death acts like a filter, helping us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial. Climacus pointed out that a “man who has heard himself sentenced to death will not worry about the way theaters are run.”  2 His point, of course, is that all of us have been sentenced to death. It’s just a matter of time, so why let trivial matters captivate our hearts?

Eternity certainly does turn everything around. I’m reminded of this every year when I prepare my tax returns. During the year, I rejoice at the paychecks and extra income, and sometimes I wince when I write out the tithe and offering. I do my best to be a joyful giver, but I confess it’s not always easy, especially when I have other perceived needs and wants.

At the end of the year, however, all of that changes. As I’m figuring my tax liability, I wince at every source of income and rejoice with every tithe and offering check—more income means more taxes, but every offering and tithe means fewer taxes. Everything is turned upside down, or perhaps more appropriately, right-side up.

I suspect judgment day will be like that. The things that bother us now and force us out of our schedules—taking time out to encourage or help someone, for instance—will be the very things we deem most important. Today, we may not be too happy about having to skip a movie so we could paint an invalid’s house, or we may regret missing a meeting so we could visit a prisoner or sick person. But in eternity, the movie and the meeting will seem much less important, and we will be glad we took the time to do those acts of kindness.

Perhaps this is why Fénelon writes, “We cannot too greatly deplore the blindness of men who do not want to think of death, and who turn away from an inevitable thing which we could be happy to think of often. Death only troubles carnal people.”  3

We can maintain a pure perspective on what truly matters by viewing life backward—through the lens of the reality of death.

The Passion Filter

The remembrance of death also serves us by filtering our passions. Pascal wrote, “To render passion harmless, let us behave as though we had only a week to live.”  4 Notice the practical element in Pascal’s teaching: Remembering death can take the heat out of sinful passions.

Climacus joined him in this counsel. “You cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.”  5 He called the thought of death the “most essential of all works” and a gift from God.  6 “The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”  7

Law suggested we make moral choices based on the way we’ll feel on our deathbeds. “The best way for anyone to know how much he ought to aspire after holiness is to consider not how much will make his present life easy, but to ask himself how much he thinks will make him easy at the hour of death.”  8

What man in his right mind would continue contemplating an affair if he really believed he might not wake up in the morning? What person would risk entering eternity in a drunken stupor? What fool would ignore his loved ones and his God for one last night so he could make another quick ten thousand dollars just before he died?

Thomas à Kempis took an even larger view, arguing that the remembrance of death is a powerful force for spiritual growth in general.

Didst thou oftener think of thy death than of thy living long, there is no question but thou wouldst be more zealous to improve. If also thou didst but consider within thyself the infernal pains in the other world, I believe thou wouldst willingly undergo any labor or sorrow in this world, and not be afraid of the greatest austerity. But because these things enter not to the heart, and we still love those things only that delight us, therefore we remain cold and very dull in religion.  9

When we schedule our priorities and follow our passions without regard to eternity, we are essentially looking into the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of seeing things more clearly, our vision becomes tunneled and distorted. We miss the big picture. Law described this skewed perspective:

Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business than the losing of a feast.  10

Only the denial of death allows us to continue rebelling against God. Only because we presume sometime in the future to set things right do we consider letting them go wrong now. Some of us will be surprised in our presumption; eventually our spirits will be dulled until we forget we are presuming, and like all the rest, death will catch us by surprise.

That’s why Thomas à Kempis urged us, “Labor now to live so, that at the hour of death thou mayest rather rejoice than fear.”  11 That hour is coming. If it comes tonight, will you be able to rejoice at your state? Or does the mere thought strike fear into your soul? More is involved than just our eternal destiny. God’s mercy may well pass us into His eternal presence, but do we want to enter heaven after faithfully serving God to the best of our ability, or after some desperate, last-minute confession, realizing we have wasted our lives?

I want to enter death tired. I want to have spent what energy God has apportioned me. The cross-country races that were most satisfying to me when I was young were not the ones I won most easily but the ones that took everything I had to win. Weariness produced by hard, diligent labor is a reward, not a curse. An eternal rest awaits all who know Christ, so why are we preoccupied with rest now?

Death’s Comfort

Death can be a consoling thought for those who face particularly difficult losses or trials in this world. Fénelon reminded us, “St. Paul recommends to all Christians that they console themselves together in the thought of death.”  12

Christians, above all people, have reason to be consoled through death. Although we are last on earth, we will be first in heaven. Those who mock our faith and have a sadistic pleasure in polluting our collective soul with their perversion won’t have a voice in heaven. The lost loved ones we miss so much are waiting for us on the other side of time. Our disabilities or broken-down bodies won’t torment us in heaven. Instead, we’ll rejoice as we meet new and improved versions of ourselves without the aches and pains and without the propensity to sin.

And even more importantly, death ushers us face-to-face into the fulfillment of the cry of our hearts—fellowship with the one true God—and this is our greatest consolation of all. All sincere Christians experience at least a bit of loneliness because we long for a more intimate walk with our God—a walk that we will realize beyond our dreams once we pass the threshold of eternity.

To experience the pain of death is normal and healthy. Jesus, after all, wept at the death of Lazarus. But death can also bring hope, not for what it is, but for what God promises us on the other side. The Christian life doesn’t make complete sense without the consoling thought of eternal life. Paul himself said we should be pitied above all others if the Christian faith is only for this temporal world (1 Corinthians 15:19). John Calvin said we haven’t matured spiritually at all if we don’t actively look forward to the day of our death.

Keeping Death Alive

When I lived in Virginia, I occasionally attended a Wednesday Communion service at an Episcopal church that dates back to the eighteenth century. As is common with many older churches, the building is surrounded by a graveyard. Every week I walked past the grave markers on my way in and out.

That short walk did almost as much for me as the service itself. I was reminded as I faced the second half of the week that one day, my body, my bones, would be lying in the ground. My work on earth will be done. What will matter then? What should matter now in light of that?

I am fond of old graveyards—not in a morbid way, but in a way that inspires me like nothing else. I want to use death the way Thomas à Kempis used it.

Happy is he that always hath the hour of his death before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die…When it is morning, think thou mayest die before night; and when evening comes, dare not to promise thyself the next morning. Be thou therefore always in a readiness, and so lead thy life that death may never take thee unprepared.  13

William Law urged that we make the subject of death the focus of our prayers every evening.

The subject that is most proper for your [evening] prayers is death. Let your prayers therefore then be wholly upon it, reckoning up all the dangers, uncertainties, and terrors of death; let them contain everything that can affect and awaken your mind into just apprehensions of it. Let your petitions be all for right sentiments of the approach and importance of death, and beg of God that your mind may be possessed with such a sense of its nearness that you may have it always in your thoughts, do everything as in sight of it, and make every day a day for preparation for it.

Represent to your imagination that your bed is your grave…Such a solemn resignation of yourself into the hands of God every evening and parting with all the world as if you were never to see it anymore, and all this in the silence and darkness of the night, is a practice that will soon have excellent effects upon your spirit.  14

Scupoli urged the remembrance of death by using one of the most common aspects of living: “When walking, think how each step brings you one step nearer to death.”  15

Another way I keep death alive is by living in the communion of saints. I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me as a reminder that work has an end. If the world can get by without a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or a Blaise Pascal (both died in their thirties), it can get by without me—and one day it will. I have a limited time to use, and it may be much shorter than I realize.

When contemporary saints die, let’s benefit from their deaths as much as we benefitted from their lives. The passing of Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl, who mentored me in seminary, gave me great pause and still touches me today, two decades later. Wise shoppers clip coupons. Wise Christians clip obituaries.

But the supreme way for a Christian to keep the thought of death alive is, of course, to remember the crucifixion of our Lord. Jesus died proclaiming, “It is finished.” What a wonderful and triumphant way to die—knowing that you’ve completed the task you were sent here for. What is your “it”? Determine what you must accomplish so that at the hour of your death you can look up to heaven and echo the apostle Paul’s words: “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Just before my family moved from one state to another, Gordon Dunn, a dear missionary in his eighties, invited Lisa and me over for a good-bye dinner. As the night wore on, Gordon pulled me aside and opened up his well-worn Bible to Acts 26:19, where Paul tells Agrippa, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”

“Gary,” Gordon said as he looked me in the eye, “at the end of your life, will you be able to say, as Paul did, that you were not disobedient to the vision given you from heaven?”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I particularly try to remember it—as well as Christ’s words on the cross—every time I participate in the Lord’s Supper. Every time we take Communion, we should do so with the awareness that, just as Christ’s work on earth had a beginning and an end (as He ministered in a human body), so the mission He has given us has a beginning and an end.

One of my editors told me of a fellow writer, not well known in the United States, who died at a relatively young age. He had worked tirelessly to get Christians more actively involved in the arts. His life was a testimony to God’s grace and creativity. By all accounts, this man had been a faithful husband, a good father, and an earnest servant of the gospel.

Many tears were shed at the funeral for a man most thought should have had several more decades to live. Yet as his casket was picked up by the pall bearers and carried down the church aisle, something curious happened: Mourners turned into celebrators. The crowd erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation. This was a life well lived; a life in which death revealed a victory, not a defeat; a life marked by faithfulness and service. It deserved a raucous cheer.

May we all live in such a way that our passing evokes a standing ovation, not only by believers on earth but also by the saints and inhabitants of heaven.

Keeping death alive is one of the most fruitful spiritual disciplines we can ever practice. “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

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2 responses to The Remembrance of Death

  1. Excellent article as usual. I was a hospice volunteer when hospice was quite controversial as many things tend to be when people don’t want to talk about them. Death is probably first on the list. So thank you for not only bringing it up, but for shining THE clarifying light on it.

  2. Thank you, Gary, for using your gifts to speak so well to a difficult but essential topic.