I was helping a gentleman make funeral arrangements for himself in advance. As he perused our casket selection, he noticed a sign promising a 50-year guarantee on all burial containers. “I don’t think I’ll need that,” he joked. “The only guarantee you can give me is that I’ll need one of these caskets sooner or later.”
Not everyone is willing to be so blunt about death. Our mortality has become taboo. Today, speaking openly about sex is more likely socially acceptable than conversations about death. A terminal patient may candidly confess to his or her family, “I’m dying,” to which the family responds, “Don’t talk like that.” We are increasingly unwilling to confront the one inevitability of life.
We will die. We all know it. Yet, we don’t permit ourselves to mention it.
Ironically enough, popular culture is saturated with death. Entire genres of music are devoted to the subject. Grocery stores sell artisan water called Liquid Death. The company’s tagline is “Murder Your Thirst.” “I’ll kill you” is a common refrain in our modern vernacular. The primary objective of many video games is to destroy as many lives as possible, often gruesomely. One can hardly watch TV or movies without seeing death portrayed on the screen. Some people don’t think twice about permanently tattooing symbols of death, such as skulls, on their bodies. The rest of us aren’t phased when we see them.
On the one hand, death is everywhere. On the other hand, we’ve distanced ourselves from its tragic reality by fictionalizing it. We’ve turned it into morbid entertainment, effectively desensitizing ourselves. Meanwhile, we’ve moved genuine cases of death into sanitized facilities behind closed doors—hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice care centers. We expose ourselves to death daily while hiding the real thing from public view.
Granted, we still know we’re dying, but medical and technological innovations provide just enough false hope to keep us humming along without dwelling on that fact. In modern times, we can keep people alive long enough for them to disappear from public life and be forgotten. By the time they breathe their last breath, we’ve already learned to carry on without them. Unlike ninety-eight percent of human history, parents burying their own children seems unthinkable. Most people plan for life as though they’ll live forever. Who knows, they think. Maybe the technology is almost here. I’ve known some to be irate at doctors for not finding a way to keep their 90-year-old mother alive. As a whole, we refuse, sometimes blatantly, even laughably, to accept the inevitable.
A shrewd businessman may avoid paying taxes, but he will not escape death. Whether we believe the Bible or not, it teaches at least one undeniable truth. Psalm 89 states it in the form of a rhetorical question. “What man can live and never see death?” (Ps 89:48). The obvious answer is no one.
Even so, we may carry our denial all the way to the funeral of a loved one, assuming we have a funeral at all. Cremation grows in popularity year over year. Funerals with a body present are quickly becoming an archaic ritual. We’re replacing them with so-called celebrations of life, where we neither see death nor speak of it. Cremation provides the illusion that our family and friends have merely vanished into the afterlife, so mentioning death is unnecessary. They didn’t die, per se. They passed away.
In cremation memorial services, mortality is removed from the equation—intentionally or unintentionally. Death is apparent in places where traditional funerals still occur, but embalming techniques and heavy cosmetics mask its ugliness. A deceased person doesn’t quite look the same, but at least they appear to be resting comfortably on a soft pillow and clean sheets. Morticians try to do the honorable thing for us and our loved ones, but the unintended consequences include presenting us with a sterilized perception of death.
Grandma died at home, surrounded by her family, in the not-so-distant past. Everyone, including the youngest children, might gather for days as her body decomposes. They all witnessed firsthand the horrors of even the most peaceful deaths—mouth agape, fluids leaking, strange and unpleasant smells. No one called the local funeral home because it didn’t exist. Instead, men of the family dug the grave themselves, carried Grandma’s body to it, offered a committal prayer, and covered it with dirt.
While I have little interest in returning to those days when relatively few lived long enough to meet their grandchildren, people of that bygone era had a distinct advantage over us. They couldn’t ignore what the book of Ecclesiastes succinctly refers to as “the end of all mankind” (Ecc 7:2). Furthermore, they couldn’t pretend that death is an elegant event where someone serenely passes into another existence. As they saw with their own eyes, death is hideous, undesirable, and even unnatural.
Today, many of us reach well into adulthood before having an up-close, intimate encounter with death. Recently, I met with a woman whose mother was in the active stages of dying. The doctors warned she had only days to live. As I spoke with this woman, she struggled to accept their prognosis. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she repeated five or six times during our conversation. To my surprise, her mother was ninety-six years old.
Our constant exposure to pop culture’s version of death doesn’t prepare us for the real thing. From an early age, people of the past were well-acquainted with mortality and, consequently, equipped to handle it, not to mention resilient in its face.
Most importantly, though, they learned to live accordingly. If you know your employer intends to fire you on Friday, your week may be anything but typical. Perhaps you show up late or steal office supplies. Maybe you refuse to go at all or do as little work as possible. Perhaps you carry on, as usual, job-hunting in your off-hours. Regardless, you’ll not only think about your fate, but it will affect every moment of Monday through Friday. It will color every action and decision you make.
To be clear, firmly embracing the certainty of death doesn’t determine how we may live. Like the employee facing termination, we all respond differently, but it’s the most logical starting point. It’s hard to pack for vacation before you know your destination. In this case, we don’t have a choice between a sunny beach or snow-covered mountains. The road ends the same for each of us. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return (Ecc 3:20).
If, however, we’re willing to acknowledge and openly discuss our glaring problem, we’ll have an opportunity to prepare ourselves and perhaps discover whatever meaning life may hold.