Teach us to remember death
Today, we begin a study based on this book, Remember Death by Matthew McCullough. In case you decide to get yourself a copy, please know that I will follow this book for the most part, but I also intend to take some liberty.
If you will, go with me to Psalm 90. You’ll see this psalm is referred to as a prayer of Moses. You can imagine him praying these words as the Israelites reach the border of the Promised Land. This is a prayer of reflection. While Moses looks ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises, he can’t help but reflect on the past. It’s been a long, hard road to get to where they were.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:1-17)
Teach us to number our days
Notice the stark contrast in this psalm. On the one hand, we have God, who is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps 90:2). Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, he was God. For a thousand years in his sight are but as yesterday when it is past (Ps 90:4). As Peter would later write, “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pe 3:8). God is greater than time itself. He’s the Creator of time, so he has dominion over time, not the other way around.
On the other hand, we have humanity, whom God returns to dust and says, “Return, O children of man!” (Ps 90:3). Moses says to God, “You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Ps 90:5, 6). Isaiah seems to allude to this psalm when he says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Isa 40:7).
God is from everlasting to everlasting while humanity is like grass that fades and withers after a relatively short span of time (Ps 90:2, 5, 6). If this comparison makes you feel small and helpless, I believe that’s the point. Moses is clearly stamping an expiration date on us. At best, “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10).
“So,” Moses says in verse 12, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). That’s a euphemistic way of saying, “Teach us to remember death. Help us to never forget that our lives are short.” As James says, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14). Remember you will die.
How’s that for a cheerful start to your Sunday morning? Out of necessity, I’m afraid it gets worse before it gets better, but please understand I’m not trying to do anything the Bible doesn’t, which is directly and boldly confront us with our mortality.
“You will die,” the Bible reminds us over and over again. In fact, it’s on nearly every page. Directly or indirectly, from Genesis to Revelation, Scripture confronts us with our mortality on nearly every page. It will not let us forget that we will die. And you can’t unsee it either. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll notice it every time you read your Bible. Why does Scripture confront us with our inevitable deaths so often? “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).
We’ll eventually talk more about what that means, but for now, let’s focus on that “teach us to number our days” part (Ps 90:12). Evidently, getting a heart of wisdom can come only after we’ve truly numbered our days. In other words, this wisdom comes only after we’ve learned to accept death for what it is.
Three surprises regarding death
As most of you know, I work for a funeral home. I’m a chaplain, which means I preach funerals for families who don’t have their own pastor. I’m also a preneed advisor, which means I sit down with people who want to make their arrangements in advance. But that’s not how I started in this line of work. I was originally hired by a funeral home in North Carolina to retrieve bodies outside of normal business hours. So, if someone died at night, it was my job to pick up the body and bring it back to the funeral home.
Prior to this job, I really didn’t have much experience with death. I had been to a handful of funerals, including the funerals of my grandparents, but that was pretty much it. I remember my soon-to-be employer asking me, “Do you think you can handle it?” to which I replied, “I guess we’ll find out.”
I’d like to share with you some of the surprises I faced in those early days.
The volume of deaths
First, I was surprised by the volume of deaths. I had entered into a world that is completely foreign to most of us. Thankfully, most of us don’t frequently encounter death, but all of a sudden, I was thrust into an unseen world where people die every day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be retrieving a body when a second call would come in. As soon as I dropped off one body at the funeral home, I was out to get another. There were nights when I would pick up three, four, even five bodies in a single night. While most people were comfortably asleep in their beds, I was driving all over Raleigh to pick up dead people.
The funeral home in North Carolina averaged something like 650 deaths a year. My current employer averages about 450 deaths a year. You can do the math. That’s more than one death a day for a single funeral home. Keep in mind, there are approximately 20,000 funeral homes in the United States alone. I believe the average daily death count in the United States is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000.
I didn’t need to work for a funeral home to know those statistics, of course, but it certainly helped put those numbers into perspective. When you see the bodies, one after another after another, it becomes pretty hard to ignore the harsh reality of death. For most of us, it’s not something we encounter too often, but someone does. Every minute in this country alone more than 130 people will die. Every minute more than 130 families will be devastated because someone they love just died. Death may not impact you this very moment, but it’s wreaking havoc on people all around us.
More to the point, none of us can escape it forever. We will lose people we’re close to, and we ourselves will die. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27). Again, James writes:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
Not only will every last one of us die, but it may also come much sooner than we think. It may come tomorrow. It may come today. Only God knows. I may not walk out of this sanctuary, and according to James, if I am under any illusion that I have control over it, I am an evil, arrogant man (Jas 4:16).
If you think that sounds depressing, let me read to you from the 17th-century philosopher, Blaise Pascal, as he describes the human condition as he sees it. He writes:
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 an image of the human condition.
He tells us to imagine we’re all standing in a row, bound by chains so we can’t escape. We have no choice but to watch one of our fellow prisoners be executed just down the line from us. Then, they execute the next and the next as they move ever closer to us. Eventually, we know, it’ll be our turn.
That sounds pretty dark, doesn’t it? Even so, there’s truth to it. Pascal’s perspective may be a little cynical and lacking hope, but it’s true nonetheless. Unless Christ returns first, we will all die.
This is what the Bible tells us over and over again. Remember how I said you won’t be able to unsee it now that I’ve mentioned it. For example, you’ve likely read the genealogies in the Bible. So-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, who lived 900 years and begat so-and-so. How long did so-and-so live? He lived for a fixed period of time and no longer. As much as biblical genealogies are a record of families and lifespans, they are also a record of deaths.
The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.
When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died. (Genesis 5:4-8)
You understand my point.
We all know death is inevitable. We know it happens all around us all the time. That was made quite clear throughout 2020 whenever we turned on the news. Yet, that doesn’t mean we’ve truly learned to number our days, which leads to the second surprise of my work with the funeral home (Ps 90:12).
The variety of deaths
Second, I was surprised by the variety of deaths. Believe it or not, not every call I received was for a 90-year-old person who died peacefully in their sleep of old age. Sometimes it was a 90-year-old who died in his sleep, and sometimes it was a 45-year-old mother who died while making breakfast in the kitchen while her children played in the living room. Sometimes it was a cancer patient in a hospice facility. Sometimes it was a teenager who flipped his car and didn’t quite make it to the emergency room. Sometimes it was a baby I had to pry from his mother’s arms, and sometimes it was an elderly person who seemed to die with a smile on his face.
I’ve seen every age. I’ve seen many causes. I’ve seen people die while surrounded by family, and I’ve seen people die all alone. No one even realized they were gone for nearly a month.
Thinking back to Blaise Pascal, the thing that strikes me most about the passage I read is his empathy. As he hears others being executed down the row from him, he doesn’t think to himself, Well, I’m sorry for that guy. Instead, he immediately realizes he’s no better or worse. Sooner or later, he’ll come to the exact same end.
Moses shared the same kind of empathy. “You sweep them away as with a flood,” he says (Ps 90:5). But the thought of the deaths of others only leads him to pray, “So teach us, myself included, to number our days” (Ps 90:12). Like Pascal, as Moses thinks about the deaths of others, he doesn’t detach himself from their circumstances. He personalizes it. He recognizes, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 7, “This is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc 7:2).
As a preneed advisor, I often ask people whether they’d like to preplan their funeral arrangements. Would you like to guess how many decline because they say they’re not old enough for that? I’ve had people in their eighties say they’re not old enough for that. Some will say they’re too healthy or, “I’ve always got time.” If working at a funeral home has taught me anything, it’s that no one is too young or too healthy.
Most of the funerals I preach are for people I’ve never met, so—and I hope this won’t sound callous—I’m not overly emotional when I preach these funerals. There was one time, however, I didn’t know whether I could finish. The guy in the casket was my age. He died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed heart condition he didn’t even know he had. His two young children sat in the first row directly in front of me, and every time they glanced toward the casket, they sobbed like I’ve never seen a child sob before. I frequently had to pause because I couldn’t get the next words to come out of my mouth. To be candid, I was afraid of losing it in front of everyone.
I thought to myself, That could be me in that casket. Worse yet, I thought, Those could be my children.
The shame and horror of death
The third thing that surprised me when I went to work for the funeral home was the shame and horror of death.
One of the first removals I went on was for a fairly prominent woman in the community. She lived in a nice home. She died peacefully surrounded by family at a relatively old age. I remember she was wearing a very nice, recently purchased set of pajamas.
I also remember taking this woman back to the funeral home, wheeling her into the embalming room, and sliding her cold, lifeless body onto a steel table. Then, as the job required, I had to remove those nice pajamas and lay a sheet over her. I remember thinking, So, this is what it comes down to. Even the most affluent among us will eventually find themselves lying on a steel table with nothing but a thin sheet to cover them, stripped of all pretense and modesty.
This is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart (Ecc 7:2). Teach us to number our days (Ps 90:12).
That’s an example of the shame I’ve witnessed. As for the horrors, I think I’ll spare you the details. I’ve been on death calls where police officers were vomiting into trash cans. More than once, I’ve had a nurse on scene say to me, “I don’t know how you do this every day.” I’ve been on calls when I’ve thought, I don’t know how I do this every day.
Death is violent. It is destructive. It causes tremendous pain. Furthermore, it begins wreaking its havoc long before someone dies. The apostle Paul says, “Our outer self is wasting away,” and that’s an accurate assessment of the human condition (2Co 4:16). We like to think of ourselves as climbing a ladder throughout our lives. Rung by rung, we get higher and higher. But the truth is, we’re not climbing higher. We’re wasting away as perishable, mortal beings, and we have ever-increasing aches, pains, and gray hairs to prove it. (1Co 15:53).
Whenever I see the lifeless body of an image-bearer of God laying on a steel table or walk into a room full of sobbing, heartbroken people, I think, This is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not what God intended for his creation, and it’s not. God gave us life. He gave us abundant life, but we chose to take it all for granted. We chose to sin, and the just wages of sin is death (Ro 6:23). God warned Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Ge 2:16, 17). If not for the horrors of sin, we would never know the horrors of death.
Where is the sting of death?
As you know, though, we live in a fallen world where sin exists and death is inevitable. Yet, we don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like to think about it. In recent years, Western culture has gotten very good at pushing death as far out of sight and out of mind as possible. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world has tried to remove the sting of death apart from Christ, but it isn’t possible (1Co 15:56).
It’s a bit ironic because our culture is obsessed with death, but only a detached, fictionalized version of it. For example, we see death every time we watch TV or see a movie. Some character always dies. There are entire genres of music built upon a strange fixation on death. People get symbols of death tattooed on their bodies. But none of it truly represents death. That’s why I’ve seen grown men with skulls and bones tattooed on their arms, men who are obsessed with horror movies and death metal music, attend the funeral of a family member or friend and completely fall apart. They weep and wail because their fascination with death up to that point was detached and impersonal. They had never truly confronted the real horrors of death.
There was a time when family members would die, and their bodies would lay in the living room for two or three days as everyone gathered. Then, the family would be responsible for digging a grave on the property and burying the body. Even the youngest children would be present. Today, people die in hospitals and nursing homes. Then, the funeral home takes it from there. Increasingly with the popularity of cremation, many families never see their loved one’s body. They never witness death at all.
There was a time when life expectancy was much shorter. Parents could very well bury half of their children. In his book, Matthew McCullough gives an example of a man who had fourteen children and only one outlived him. In the past, people accepted death in a way that we don’t because they confronted it so often. Today, we have the crutch of modern medicine. While I’m thankful to God for medical advancements, I fear that people are under the illusion that we’re just one breakthrough away from conquering death. I often hear people who are angry at doctors or a hospital because their loved one died. It’s as though all their hope was in medicine.
Today, we’re prone to think we can always prolong the inevitable. We can always get another year out of life and another and perhaps one more.
Today, death may happen all around us, but we don’t see it. It occurs behind closed doors in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities.
The closest most of us come to witnessing death is at a funeral home and only after morticians have taken great efforts to make the deceased person look as much alive as possible. They use many tricks of the trade to reconstruct the face. They dress the body in nice clothing. They add color to the skin with cosmetics. Behind the scenes, they do several other things I won’t mention because, frankly, it’s probably too graphic. Then, they lay the body in what appears to be a very comfortable casket with soft lining and a pillow to give the appearance that that person is merely resting. The end result is that no one who attends the viewing or funeral will really see death as it is.
In fact, many people don’t attend funerals anymore. Assuming a body is even present, we don’t refer to the service as a funeral. We call it a celebration of life. Listen closely, and you’ll also discover no one died. Instead, he or she passed. Even at a funeral home, we avoid confronting death.
In his book, Matthew McCullough elaborates on the reasons why we avoid death, but I don’t think it’s a great mystery. Specifically, he cites the culture’s obsession with happiness and our natural tendency to avoid all things terrible. If the world feels they have no hope of deliverance, death is just too unpleasant and horrible to acknowledge.
Even Christians avoid death
Here’s the thing, though. Believers in Christ are prone to treat death as taboo as everyone else. As McCullough points out, we seek medical miracles as aggressively as anyone. We, too, pursue happiness on the same material terms. How else could the prosperity gospel gain such prominence?
Lastly, McCullough points out something I’ve seen through my own experience. Even at a Christian funeral, we avoid talking about death. We say, “He or she is in a better place. He or she is free. He or she is in heaven.” While all of that may be true, Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:2). Why? “Because this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” We benefit spiritually from confronting death.
At a Christian funeral, you will sometimes hear someone say, “So-and-so isn’t here any longer. That’s not him or her in the casket. The real him or her is in heaven.” I understand what they’re trying to say, but I don’t entirely agree. God created Adam to be body and soul. In fact, our bodies are significant enough parts of our identities that Jesus intends to raise and restore them when he returns. When Lazarus died, Christ didn’t say, “Don’t worry, folks. He’s in a better. He escaped that old useless body.” No, according to John 11, Jesus wept at the death of his friend, not to mention the pain it clearly spread through his family and friends (Jn 11:35).
I’m afraid we in the church are often guilty of an over-realized eschatology. For instance, Paul writes, “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1Co 15:25, 26). The apostle John writes, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). These promises have not yet been realized. Even so, we may find ourselves using them as an excuse to minimize the harsh realities of death.
This posture is no tribute to God’s promises. Just the opposite in fact. When we act like death is no problem, we are not just being dishonest about the world as it is. We not only join our culture in denial and enable our collective self-deception. We also diminish what Jesus came to offer us and rob ourselves of the perspective from which his promises come alive.
Think about that. The secular world wants to pretend death doesn’t exist or, at the very least, can be eradicated apart from Christ. In the church, we tend to minimize it. We say, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. What do we have to lose?” (2Co 5:8).
Well, let me ask you this. What’s so great about eternal life? Why do we rejoice to think of Christ rising from the grave and conquering death? If death is no big deal, why should we be excited to see the return of Christ, the resurrection of our bodies, the ultimate defeat of death, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth? (Rev 21:1).
Quoting McCullough once more:
If death is not a problem, Jesus won’t be much of a solution. The more deeply we feel death’s sting, the more consciously we will feel the gospel’s healing power. The more carefully we number our days, the more joyfully we’ll hear that death’s days are numbered too. And the more we allow ourselves to grieve the separations death brings to our lives, the more fully we will long for the world in which “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.”
And that’s why we’re studying the subject of death. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).