Death is so disturbing a prospect that modern man pushes it down out of sight for as long as he can.… Ours is a death-denying age.

Death is not discussed in polite society today. It is a forbidden subject, to be snickered at in jokes (as another generation snickered at sex) but too shocking for ordinary conversation. To modern man, the attitudes toward death evident in the Bible are utterly incomprehensible. Paul, for example, discusses dying much as a New Yorker might discuss moving to California. It is an important step, but hardly a frightening one. He considers the advantages of living and dying and muses, “Which then am I to choose? I cannot tell” (Phil. 1:22, NEB). Today, if someone said something like this, we should probably change the subject as soon as we could.

This is a death-denying age. Death is so disturbing a prospect that we push it down out of sight for as long as we can. Man, the one creature that knows he must die, is trying desperately to forget it. That is why people are so poorly equipped to handle death. No matter how the idea of it is repressed, death eventually presents itself as an inescapable fact, and often as an overwhelming one.

The rejection of death is seen in countless ways. One is our great emphasis on youth, both in common behavior and in the advertising techniques that play so effectively on the public longings. Middle-aged men join clubs to indulge in teen-age horseplay, relive their youth through spectator sports, buy impractical sports cars. Women support gigantic industries whose sole purpose is to make them seem younger than they are. Advertisers try to induce people to buy beverages, foods, and cars by picturing young people engaged in athletic activities that would be physically impossible for the middle-aged potential buyer.

Other generations buried their dead with great ceremony and raised monuments, large and small, to their memory. Today few attend funerals, and the cemetery is likely to be a park-like swath of grass, with the tablets marking graves so artfully hidden that it is easy to forget they are there. When someone dies, it is hoped that final arrangements can be made as quietly as possible, so as not to attract the attention of anyone not immediately involved.

The denial of death is also shown in the way we treat grief. We act as if sadness were immoral and unworthy. Everyone wants to “cheer up” the bereaved. A widow or widower soon learns that after the first few days no one wants to talk about the dead spouse; people quickly change the subject whenever it is mentioned. Although this is thought to be kindness to the bereaved, it is equally likely that the idea of death itself is so upsetting that great numbers of people want to deny not only that it has taken place but also that the one who died has ever lived.

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In his book The Meaning of Death, psychologist Herman Feifel points out that our attitudes toward death may be partly a result of our changed manner of dying. In earlier times most people died in their own beds, without the benefit of drugs and life-extending devices. Their family and friends were around them. Even children knew the reality of death at an early age. Death came, not imperceptibly at the end of a long, drug-induced coma, but close on the heels of consciousness. Today death is quite another matter. The dying are in hospitals, isolated from us by oxygen tents, intravenous tubes, and sedating drugs. Visiting them is a journey to a strange world. Often people die alone except for the attending professionals. Many adults have never seen anyone die, and so they can forget that death happens. Feifel says, “It is as if death’s reality were being obscured by making it a public event, something which befalls everyone, yet no one in particular.”

It is not surprising, then, that the most common statement of bereaved persons is, “You never think that it will happen to you.” Our ways of living and dying make it quite possible to deny that death exists—until it proves its existence near at hand.

Ministers sometimes unwittingly conspire in death denial by conducting the anonymous funeral that is prevalent today. A decade or more ago, ministers and laymen alike revolted against the crudities of the Victorian funeral. Funerals had been an occasion for ornate display. They were often cruelly emotional, marked by fulsome and insincere eulogies. There has been a commendable trend toward briefer and more dignified services that offer comfort instead of a performance. Yet sometimes the funeral becomes so impersonal that it is nearly impossible to tell from listening who has died, or indeed whether anyone has died at all. The service seems to say, “Something called death has occurred, but no one in particular has died. Not anyone’s father, not anyone’s friend, not anyone that we talked with on the street last week.”

No wonder, then, that death is deeply disturbing. It is kept hidden, in the realm of the unspeakable. When it does break through the conspiracy of silence, it comes as a shocking fact for which we are not prepared. Denying the existence of death is essentially self-defeating, because the time always comes when the lie must be given up. For every one the truth of death must be faced at last.

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What can we do, then? What was that New Testament response to death that robbed it of its terror? The biblical faith has something to say to our generation about death that is better—both more comforting and more honest—than the common evasions.

The first tiling that needs to be said is that grief is normal and not shameful. One of the most understanding descriptions of Jesus is a line borrowed from Isaiah: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” No words could better convey the impression of a man who has looked deeply into life and understood it. No one can be called profound who is not acquainted with grief. The description is a portrayal not of a weak man but of a strong one who has looked beneath the surface of life.

There is real sorrow over the death of loved ones, and it is neither honest nor fair to pretend that there is not. We cannot ask the bereaved to act as if nothing serious has happened. Something very serious has happened. Death means separation, and even if the separation is recognized as not permanent, it will last through the foreseeable future and through all the important events of earthly life. Bereavement means loss, the loss of the gift of life with someone important to us. At its best, this is the finest earthly gift we have. The more the person brought to enrich our lives, the greater the pain in our separation. The more we were given in them, the more we had to lose.

That is why the death we fear most is not our own. Many people face the certainty of their own death (when they know they are suffering from a fatal illness, for example) with great composure. The fear they do feel is often not for death itself but for the effects it has. They wonder what will happen to the people they love and dread being apart from them. People who ask about life after death are usually asking not about themselves but about someone they care for very much. The hardest thought we have to bear is not that we will die but that someone we love will, and possibly before we do.

But the grief of loss is not a hopeless grief. The Christian knows with Tennyson that “ ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” He counts himself fortunate to have had what he now must give up for a time. He remembers that God gave this rich gift of fellowship that lies behind his grief. He knows that the God who has blessed him this way has not abandoned him. He is confident that the person he loves is safe in the hands of the God who gave him. And the Christian knows that he himself has not seen the last signs of God’s love.

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There is an even stronger resource that makes grief bearable. The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl tells in The Doctor and the Soul of an elderly physician who came to him as a patient. The doctor had lost his wife some months before. They had been very close, and the whole meaning of his life had been bound up in happiness with her. Now he felt useless, shattered. He could find no interest in going on.

Dr. Frankl did not try to tell his patient that things were not so bad as they seemed, for indeed they were. Nor did he exhort him to bear his grief bravely. Instead, he asked him a question: “Tell me, what would have happened if you had died first and your wife survived you?” The doctor thought a moment. “That would have been terrible,” he said. “How she would have suffered.” He saw then that his own suffering served to spare his wife. There was a meaning to it. By bearing his grief courageously he was doing something for her.

Although men are crushed by irrational, meaningless blows, they can carry incredible burdens when they do it for a reason—and with a hope. When men face the fact of death honestly, they are more likely to see a meaning in their sorrow. When they see a meaning in their sorrow, it is easier for them to be honest in facing death.

But what of the fear of death itself? Death represents the greatest uncertainty. It is underlain by what Dr. Gardner Murphy, director of research at the Menninger Foundation, calls “fear of the unknown in the broad sense—the Hamlet soliloquy or unknown country kind of thing.” Whatever is unknown is frightening, and nothing is further beyond our investigations and experiments than the far side of death. How can men help being afraid of this great blackness?

It is not fruitful today to answer the fear of the unknown by trying to make it known. Literal descriptions of a life of heavenly bliss or eternal punishment cannot be understood by modern men. Brimstone and harps and wings—all meaningless. This is not only because we are less naïve but also because we are so relentlessly literal-minded. Men of another day could think like poets. Today we think like engineers. We see blueprints, not paintings, and the best painting may be dismissed as being a poor blueprint. A short time ago men could read and understand Marc Connelly’s description of heaven as a kind of endless catfish fry. Today his picture would be smiled at as too literal, the one thing it was never taken to be by the people Connelly portrayed.

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There is, however, a better answer to fear of the unknownness of death, and it is the one evident in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The unknown need not become known to lose its terrors. Every child faces hundreds of unknown events. The first day at school is as uncharted for him as death is for an adult. The first ride in an automobile, the first night away from home, the first visit to a department store: for a child, life is a succession of ventures into the unknown. Yet children are not normally frightened by these experiences. A child who has learned to love and trust his parents faces the unknown with confidence. He counts on the people he knows, not on knowledge of what he will face. He feels safe with the people he trusts in the midst of the most surprising novelties.

This is exactly the train of Paul’s thought. He does not discuss life after death as if he knew the names of the streets. In death or life, he says, he will be with God. The one stabilizing companionship in his life was the only one that death could not touch. In his faith he had found something invulnerable. The one thing he knew for sure about death was that he would not be left alone, and that was the only thing he needed to know.

Admittedly, this is meaningless to anyone who thinks of God as a vague abstraction, or thinks of him seldom at all. It is of no help to the ordinary limited-commitment kind of Christian. But Paul did not think that way. He knew nothing of religionless Christianity. For him, Christ was a present reality: present in life, present in death.

This way of thinking gives a new definition to eternal life. It is common to think that eternal life is something that begins when a man dies. But if eternal life is the continuation of a lasting fellowship with God, it begins far earlier. It begins when a man makes the commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour that is not interrupted by death. From the time that he made that commitment, Paul knew that he had begun something that could not be broken. The unknownness of death did not trouble him. The most important thing in his life would go on: and since that was known, there was no fear attached to the things he did not know.

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This is the only understandable answer to man’s fear of the unknown in death. We cannot give him an accurate literal description, and he cannot understand a poetic one. If I tell him that the Lord is my shepherd, he sees only sheep. But he can understand what love means, and he can find confidence before the unknown in knowing the Lord who is there as well as here.

Man need not hide from death as the ultimate, unmentionable tragedy. Neither need he pretend that it is less serious than he knows it to be. He may even come to know death as the New Testament does: as a fact we cannot afford to obscure but not an unbearable one. The Bible insists that men must not deny the facts of sin and death. Modern man has found both almost too much to bear, and has obscured them. He pays a heavy price for the deception. The Christian, of all people should be able to face the fact of death without denial or stoic acceptance, and with hope.

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