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The Dread of Dying

Can there be a beautiful death?

Alan Jacobs, quoting a Wesley Hill passage contrasting the serenity of Socrates’ death with the agony of Christ’s:

In sharp distinction from this portrait, for Cullmann, lies the stark horror of Jesus’ death. “In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day.” And yet the contrast between these two figures’ responses could not be greater. Whereas Socrates maintains his equilibrium, Jesus “trembles” and becomes distressed (Mark 14:33). “Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death,” says Cullmann. “Death for Him is not something divine: it is something dreadful.” It leads Jesus to offer up “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He utters the “cry of dereliction” from the cross (Mark 15:34), protesting death’s most pitiless feature — its insistence that each person must endure it alone, with no prospect of a reprieve or rescue. “Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus,” Cullmann concludes. We might well say about the four Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s final hours what Rowan Williams once said in a slightly different context: these stories “are about difficulty, unexpected outcomes, silences, errors, about what is not readily accessible or readily understood.” That’s what death means, even for the Lord himself.

This makes me wonder if, in describing my father’s death as “peaceful,” I have downplayed the ugliness of his struggle to die. I mean, you could call it “peaceful” in that it took place at home, in bed, with friends and family surrounding him, praying for him. Certainly the effect of the way he died on those who carried him to that precipice was one of peacefulness. But if I gave you the impression that he simply closed his eyes and went to sleep, I made a mistake.

Indeed, one of the things that most struck me about attending my father in the last week of his life was how much the life he had left in him, and how much his body, broken and battered as it was, resisted death. I will not be morbid in describing what he suffered there at the last, but there was nothing beautiful in his physical agony. On the last day or two, when he was comatose, every so often a fathomless groan would arise from the depths of his body, roll through it like a temblor, and emerge from his grimacing face. I have never heard a human being make that sound.

The beauty came in that he did not suffer alone. Only he could walk that path, but we went with him as far as we could go, holding him up, encouraging him, soothing his pain with words, touch, and medicine, petitioning God on his behalf. Nothing can ever make death on its own beautiful. What he suffered was dreadful, excruciating, as ferocious life wrung his rag-like body out again and again, until the end. But he died in faith, hope, and love, in the certainty of resurrection. That changes everything.

UPDATE: I was thinking in liturgy this morning (Dormition on the Old Calendar) that watching my father’s decline was like witnessing the fall of a once-great city. We in the South are big ones for ruins, and the “long defeat” of life (the phrase is Tolkien’s) is something that we are tempted to romanticize. I hope I am not romanticizing what Daddy went through at the end. For me, and for people who hold the Christian faith, the consolation is knowing, through faith, that the death of the body is not the end of our story. It is also to know the difference between what is precious but perishable, and what is imperishable. All we have this morning of my father’s body are ashes, but his soul lives on forever. That is my faith. That is my hope.

Two short passages from Dante’s Paradiso come to mind:

It is well that endless be his grief
who, for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies.

— Paradiso XV: 10-12

And this, from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, to the pilgrim:

‘Child of grace,’ he said, ‘you will not know
this joyful state if you maintain your gaze,
instead of upward, fixed down here. …’

— Paradiso XXXI: 112-114

With me, things could have gone the way of the first verses, or by the way of the second ones. Somehow, by some divine grace, I was able to look upward and beyond, I found the strength to gaze into my father’s face as he breathed his last, and not to grieve, but to rejoice. I have lived in this joyful state all week, by the power of the love that never dies. In the liturgy today, Father Matthew, preaching about the humility of the Virgin Mary, said we so often have to endure great suffering to prepare ourselves to be sufficiently humble to receive God’s grace. This, for me, was the meaning of the last three years: to drive me to my knees, and to draw my eyes upward, so that I would be able to stand later today a free man, receiving my father’s ashes and carrying them to his grave.

We are always dying. The question is, are we being reborn?



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