Dancing with Death and the Meaning of Life

Kick the oxygen habit.  Baste the formaldehyde turkey.  Pay Charon’s fare and cross the river Styx.  Count worms or juggle halos.  The metaphors are many; the timing may vary; the outcome is dead sure.

When I was eight, a stroke felled my grandmother as she watered her garden.  After a life of sewing and baking and supporting others in need, my great aunt is chafing at her growing dependence.  Since my father’s recent heart scares, I can find toilets and towels and tea in the hospital’s emergency ward, and am disturbed at how tired Dad looks.  The Reaper’s shadow creeps closer.[1]

At around 40 years old, the final fact may stab us in the gut: we ourselves – not abstract humanity in general but I myself, this face I see in the mirror each morning – will die.  As a 34-year-old computer programmer who jogs every week, I’ve yet to tremble at the Pale Rider’s icy grasp.  But Socrates viewed philosophy as preparation for dying, and sages and saints from the Buddha to the Beatles teach that I’ll only grow wise when I face my end.  One day this web developer will click the bucket, be reformatted and go off-line 404ever.

If I could choose, would I rather bite the dust suddenly like my grandmother did or slowly fade away like my aunt is?  And before my last curtain, how much will I achieve, who will I become, what will be the significance of my life?  William James called death “the worm at the core of human happiness”.  How can I lead a rich and meaningful life when I know that it won’t last?  What can Christian faith offer as the sand runs out?

In what follows, I contrast popular attitudes towards death with existentialist philosophies, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, and the European Art of Dying tradition, looking for hints of an approach to death that might enhance the meaning of life.

Two 20th-century Death Classics

Two 20th-century Death Classics

Kicking the Bucket into the Closet

In 1900, 80% of English citizens died at home.  Novels and paintings sketched crowded deathbed scenes, while dead bodies, funeral processions and mourners draped in black were familiar sights.  Women often died in childbirth, and children were taught to prepare for death, as up to one third didn’t reach adulthood.  One Sunday school song contemplated the graveyard.

During World War I, traditional mourning was curtailed.  As individualism and life expectancy increased, death retreated from public life.  By the end of the 20th century Victorian reality was inverted: death not sex was the new taboo.

Naked flesh is everywhere, but corpses seldom seen.  Most people now pass away offstage, out of sight in hospitals – or “temples of death denial” (Byock), and we no longer walk through the local church graveyard every week.  Fast food has been joined by pick-and-mix fast funerals, with embalming or cremation to prevent natural decay.  Millionaires try to buy off the Grim Reaper through cryonics resuscitation, hoping for a nonreligious resurrection by future defrosting.

In the 1960s, Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) began to interview terminally ill patients in America, reporting her results in On Death and Dying (1969).  She met resistance and sometimes anger from medics: a “negative patient care outcome” when someone flatlines is seen as a professional and personal defeat.   In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning Denial of Death, philosophical psychologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) described human civilisation as an elaborate defence against the knowledge of our mortality.[2]  This seems especially true of the West: “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”

Has death now come out of the closet?  A 1999 report found the average American has seen 16,000 simulated murders by age 18.[3]  AIDS and terrorism stalk our streets.  But violent entertainment and media death can merely desensitise viewers.  Despite seeing tragedies on the news every day, I was more shocked by an unexpected demise in a Thomas Hardy novel – I nearly missed my bus stop.

We enjoy pretend death, but avoid real death and often still “plug the gap between truth and fear with euphemism” (Berridge).  Our loved ones have not “died” – how vulgar!  They have simply cashed in their chips and bought the farm; they are living in box city and lying in state; they have checked in to the Horizontal Hilton.[4]

Things may be changing.  Between 1982 and 1997 in Australia, the medical profession became more sensitive to the dying, and mourning rituals more valued (Griffin and Tobbin).  But public grief is still mostly concealed, much as artificial grass covers the raw soil at gravesides.

On this side of the Tasman, Schwass’ 1987 Last Words: approaches to death in New Zealand’s cultures and faiths was updated in 2005, showing a growing cultural and religious diversity of funeral services.  In 2005, over 65% of New Zealanders died in institutions.  Talk of death is still widely avoided by European New Zealanders; for Chinese, our largest Asian population, the word itself brings bad luck, and many resist making a will.  The Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand reports that 40% of funerals are pre-planned in the United States, and 15% in Australia, but only 5% are in New Zealand.[5]

Are Christians more open about death?  In my experience, churches proclaim eternal life in heaven through accepting Christ, but don’t preach on ageing and dying.  The body is often viewed as a mere shell of the immortal soul, which is called to its reward and promoted to glory at death.  Such religious comfort may hinder healthy grieving by downplaying the severity of death – and therefore diminish the significance of life.

The thought of a life after death can cheat us of the happiness and the pain of this life, so that we squander its treasures, selling them off cheap to heaven.  (Jürgen Moltmann)


Existential Philosophy and Ecclesiastes’ Futility

Although many of us live in denial, Sigmund Freud suggested that fear of death was a root of all human anxiety.  Ernest Becker described the dread of nothingness as “the rumble of panic underneath everything”, and these subterranean tremors shook the European existentialists.

For French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), since death could happen at any time, cancelling all possibilities and cutting off our plans, human life is useless and nauseating.  Death claims both drunkard and statesman, rendering their lives equally pointless.  Long before his pessimistic Parisian ponderings, the Old Testament author of Ecclesiastes “gave his heart up to despair” when he observed that “the wise die just like fools” (Eccl 2:16-20).

For Sartre’s compatriot Albert Camus (1913-1960), we are all death row prisoners on temporary reprieve, running a meaningless race without a final goal.  “Everyone lives as if no one ‘knew’”, but “at any street corner, the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face” and “the stage-sets collapse”.  Camus asks whether the logical answer is suicide, but rejects it as weak-minded escapism.  He finds a heroic response in the mythical Greek Sisyphus, condemned to keep pushing a boulder to the top of a hill, from where it rolled back down again.  It was a futile treadmill, round and round and never new, as wearisome as – in Ecclesiastes’ phrase – chasing after the wind (Eccl 1).

With 38 occurrences, hebel is Ecclesiastes’ most characteristic word.  It’s often translated as “vanity” – empty, meaningless, useless, futile.  Sartre might call it nausea, or Camus, simply absurd.  In Hebrew hebel literally means vapour, smog or mist, the faint breath of our life dispersed by a breeze or the morning sun.  In the prophets, the plural denotes idolatry.  For Ecclesiastes, work and wisdom and pleasure, building and planting and buying, all is hebel.  No wonder “vanity of vanities” frames the book (1:2, 12:8).

Another frequent word in Ecclesiastes is simha, or joy, highlighting a competing theme of “enjoy life”.  Ecclesiastes exhorts readers to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (2:24), to “be happy and enjoy themselves” (3:12).  While this appears life affirming, if death is certain then there is simply nothing better to do.  As a later Jewish sage said, our lives leave as much trace as a ship in the sea or a bird in the air, so “let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:8).

More religiously, Ecclesiastes also instructs us to “fear God and keep his commands” (12:13), remembering that “God will bring you into judgement” (11:9).  “It will be well with those who fear God… but it will not be well with the wicked” (8:12-13).  This “reap what you sow” attitude seems to contradict Ecclesiastes’ frustration that whether righteous or wicked, religious or not, “the same fate comes to all” (9:2-3).

How can we reconcile Ecclesiastes’ bleak emptiness with youthful enjoyment and divine moral order?  For some conservative believers, the author plays the role of an atheist to illustrate the vanity of living without God.  Others view him as a true pessimist or sceptic.  Perhaps, they argue, he parroted the party line before undermining it, or maybe stuffy editors tacked on respectable conclusions lest pious readers be led astray.

Or could these contradictions be the key to the book?  In Camus’ “subtle dance” between hope and death, “happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth”.  If we dissolve its tensions too quickly, we may blunt Ecclesiastes’ cutting edge.  The author himself laments that God’s work is unfathomable and our own future indiscoverable, and so he often cries “who knows?”

Indeed, who can grasp the contradictory human condition?  We die just like animals, going naked to the dust.  And yet we long for more: in the ambiguous phrase of Ecclesiastes 3:11, God put “eternity in our hearts”.

Man… is a creature with a name, a life history.  He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity…  Yet at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms.  This is the paradox… a terrifying dilemma.  (Ernest Becker)

Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Skeletal Tangos and Divine Dying

For the apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection conquered the last enemy: “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15).  In the midst of sickness and shipwrecks and stonings, Paul could rejoice, “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).  The first Christians shared this fearless confidence, celebrating the “birthdays” when their martyrs were slain.

The mood soon became more morbid.  By the Middle Ages, Ecclesiastes inspired contemptus mundi – contempt of this world – and memento mori, or remembrance of death.  When I was 21, I descended into the Capuchin Crypt in Rome.  Stacks of skulls and scapulas line the walls, lamp shades of knucklebones hang from the ceiling, and skeleton monks in black cowls bear placards: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you will be”.  One held a scythe.  Likewise, some Buddhist monks contemplate decaying graveyard corpses in order to realise their own impermanence.  They too would agree that:

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart.  (Eccl 7:2).

In the Renaissance, Vanitas painters took this advice, writing phrases from Ecclesiastes alongside skulls, rotting fruit, wilting flowers, clocks and hourglasses.  Such symbols of death recalled Ecclesiastes’ final chapter:

Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed,
Or the golden bowl is broken,
Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the well.  (Eccl 12:6)

The imagery became less lyrical in the 14th century, as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloped across Europe: famine, the Hundred Years War, the Black Death.  On every side was “the grim, primitive cacophony of rattling bones, deathbed screams, and the rustling of patient worms” (Beaty).  Italian author Boccaccio saw how suddenly the plague killed: you could eat a healthy breakfast with your family, he wrote, and by supper rest with your ancestors.

Some reacted with defiant worldliness, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron where aristocrats tell bawdy stories in a villa outside plague-ridden Florence.  Others despised this life and had nightmares of the Danse Macabre.  Like a gruesome Pied Piper, the Great Leveller summons all alike – from pope and prince to peasant and pauper – on a waltz to the grave.  In a German Totentanz text, Death exults:

Emperor, your sword won’t help you out;

Sceptre and crown are worthless here.

I’ve taken you by the hand,

For you must come to my dance.

Death was “right ferefull and horrible” (Beaty), and too frequent for priests to attend.  The 1415 Tract on the Art of Dying Well taught Everyman how to die well alone.  He should resist the five deathbed temptations – unbelief, despair, impatience, pride and avarice – by reciting the creed, pondering his sin and God’s mercy, and repeating the prayer, “Grant me, Lord, a clear end, that my soul fall never downward, but give me everlasting bliss, that is the reward of holy dying”.

Some editions were illustrated with woodcuts and the work was widely translated, sparking an early self-help craze for “Teach Yourself to Die” publications (“Dying for Dummies” anyone?).  These culminated in the 1651 Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), the “Shakespeare of Divines”.

But so have I seen a Rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and at first it was fair as the Morning, and full with the dew of Heaven, as a Lambs fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on a darknesse, and to decline its softnesse, and the symptomes of a sickly age; it bowed the head, and broke its stalk, and at night having lost some of its leaves, and all of its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces.

Taylor begins “A Man is a Bubble” – another image of Ecclesiastes’ hebel.  Moving beyond earlier literature, Taylor stresses that dying well means living well.  “It is a great art to dye well, and to be learnt by men in health.”  We should anticipate death daily and “sum up accounts at the foot of every page” by self-examination and confession and showing charity to neighbours.  All of life is a progressive dying, and every season prepares for our last:

The autumn with its fruits provides disorders for us, and the winter’s cold turns them into sharp diseases, and the spring brings flowers to strew our hearse, and the summer gives green turf and brambles to bind upon our graves.

The triumph of death, Brueghel, 1562 - section

The triumph of death, Brueghel, 1562 – section

Working Out with the Reaper

The human condition is a painful paradox.  We are conscious individuals, who long for beauty and truth and enduring importance, yet our achievements will rust and our bodies will rot.  How do we respond to this dilemma?  We may turn to scientific salvation or euphemistic entertainment or escapist spirituality.  We may panic like plague victims and flee from the dance.  We may despair like the French philosophers and call life meaningless, an absurd waste.  Or we can seek to face our death without denying life.

Unlike his French counterparts, German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) took this last approach.  Most of us lead inauthentic lives, he said, cut off and alienated from our true selves, drifting in conformity to our society, forced into the mould of what the anonymous “they” expect.  We acknowledge that “one dies” in general, but we mask, with idle chatter or superficial curiosity, the knowledge that I myself will cease to exist.  Facing our own death frees us from being lost in the “they-self” to become our own unique selves.  Death shows us what is valuable and motivates us to live in meaningful and life-enriching ways, before our time runs out.

In a similar spirit, the Psalmist prayed “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Ps 90:12).  Death clocks do just this, counting down the seconds to the moment statistics predict you will die.[6]  In the limited time he has, Albert Camus’ rebel hero tries to seduce the most women, play the most roles, and achieve the most conquests he can, because he believes that “what counts is not the best living, but the most living”.

I beg to differ.  The value of life is measured not by its quantity, but by its quality.  To live 2000 years without enjoying good is still vanity (Eccl 6:6).  Kübler-Ross says her patients taught her not how to die, but how to live, as she watched them live more richly in their last months than in decades.

It is only when life has lost its sense that no standards remain to evaluate it except length.  But a superb short poem would not gain by being made longer and longer, and still longer and, if possible, endless.  A Rembrandt self-portrait would not become better by being made larger and ever larger.  Perfection lies in intensity.  (Walter Kaufmann)

Kaufmann observes that many great composers, painters, poets and writers died young, and recommends we each “make a rendezvous with death, pledging to be ready for it at the age of thirty”.  If we reach this decade, we can increase it to 40, 50, 60, receiving each extension as a gift.

If we did this, it might clarify what is important and clear out the clutter.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommended considering how you will view today’s decisions from your deathbed.  Samuel Johnson observed that the prospect of hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind.

We need to concentrate, because good deaths are seldom random.  When patients receive a deathly diagnosis, hospice doctors like Kübler-Ross and Byock have observed their struggles with anger and depression.  Some people arrive at tranquil acceptance; a few die with exceptional beauty and grace.  The latter have mostly developed “skills for dying” throughout life, such as ordering their lives without loose ends, reconciling relationships, mourning well, expressing and receiving forgiveness and gratitude.

Past Christians learnt to live and die well through spiritual disciplines like simplicity and silence and solitude, confession and meditation and prayer.  These can train us to be more mindful and prepare us to accept the stripping away of control that we will face in old age and death.[7]  Such spiritual exercises, however, are not the ascetic renunciation of mediaeval readers who grasped only the vanity of Ecclesiastes and missed its theme of joy.  They should not lead to “micro-suicide” – trying to pre-empt death by deadening ourselves in advance, reducing the fear of loss by rejecting life.

One must pay with life and consent daily to die, to give oneself up to the risks and dangers of the world…  Otherwise one ends up “as though dead” in trying to avoid life and death.  (Ernest Becker)

As Christ said, “those who try to make their life secure will lose it” (Luke 17:33).  For Ecclesiastes, life and death belong together, as the leaves of a tree flourish and then fall (Eccl 1:4-7, 3:1 ff).  Grief is “the tax we pay on the loves of our lives” (Lynch); pain is “the mirror writing of love’s delight” (Moltmann).

Jesus himself experienced this as his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow in Gethsemane (Matt 26: 36, John 12:27).  As a result, we need not face death alone or without hope.  Unlike the individualist existentialists, the Christian departs amid the communion of believers.  And he or she dies in Christ, who is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), and died to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:15).  And so, after being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20, Rom 6:3 ff), Paul knew he would rise with Christ.

Vanitas, Philippe de Champaigne, 1671

Vanitas, Philippe de Champaigne, 1671

Last Words: High Five before the Deep Six

We need an art of dying for today, because suppressing the awareness of death can bury us alive.  “Lives are spoiled and made rotten by the sense that death is distant and irrelevant” (Kaufmann).  Facing death, secure in the knowledge that our times are in His hands, can help us to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (Thoreau).  One year after being diagnosed with incurable oesophageal cancer, Dr Bill Bartholome wrote,

There is a kind of spontaneity and joyfulness in my life that I had rarely known before…  To live in the bright light of death is to live a life in which colours and sounds and smells are all more intense, in which smiles and laughs are irresistibly infectious, in which touches and hugs are warm and tender almost beyond belief…  I wish that the final chapter in all your stories can have… the gift of some time to live with your fatal illness.  (in Byock, 2002)

Here in Auckland, Elim Christian College lost seven pupils in a drowning accident in 2008.  Their classmates now sport badges reading “Jump in Puddles ­– Ephesians 5:16”.  Because life is short, cries this verse, “make good use of every opportunity you have”; spend your few days on earth wisely by “making the most of the time”.

It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do… It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.  (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross)

What would be left undone if I died next year, or next week, or tonight?  What do I need to do to get ready?  Can I sing with grace when the music brings joy or when it seems absurd?  Can I dance with my destruction to the rhythm of creation?  Can I date my own death and give birth to Christ’s bright life?

Death is the opposite of what we think.  Death is not a taker-away but rather a giver of meaning…  Death is a magnificent lover.  If you are suffering from a sense of meaninglessness or ennui, there is nothing better I can suggest than that you strike up a serious relationship with the end of your existence…  Because as you struggle with the mystery of your death, you will discover the meaning of your life.  (M. Scott Peck)

Selected Bibliography

Beaty, N. L. (1970). The Craft of Dying: a study in the literary tradition of the Ars Moriendi in England.

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death.

Berridge, K. (2002). Vigor Mortis: the end of the death taboo.

Byock, I. (1997). Dying Well: the prospect for growth at the end of life.

Byock, I. (2002). The Meaning and Value of Death. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 5(2), 279-288.

Camus, A. (1955). The Myth of Sisyphus (J. O’Brien, Trans.).

Christianson, E. S. (2007). Ecclesiastes through the Centuries.

DeSpelder, L. A., & Strickland, A. L. (2002). The Last Dance: encountering death and dying (6th ed.).

Ellul, J. (1990). Reason for Being: a meditation on Ecclesiastes.

Griffin, G. M., & Tobin, D. (1997). In the Midst of Life …: the Australian response to death (Revd. ed.).

Hick, J. (1976). Death and Eternal Life.

Imhof, A. E. (1994). An Ars Moriendi for our time: to live a fulfilled life; to die a peaceful death. Colloquium at Yale University.

Kaufmann, W. (1976). Existentialism, religion, and death: Thirteen essays.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: the final stage of growth.

Lynch, T. (2003). Good Grief: an undertaker’s reflections.

Macquarrie, J. (1994). Heidegger and Christianity.

Moltmann, J. (1996). The Coming of God: Christian eschatology (M. Kohl, Trans.).

Murphy, R. E. (1990). The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature.

Murphy, R. E. (1992). Ecclesiastes.

Neuhaus, R. J. (Ed.). (2000). The Eternal Pity: reflections on dying.

Peck, M. S.  (1993). Further along the Road Less Travelled: the unending journey toward spiritual growth.

Schwass, M. (2005). Last Words: approaches to death in New Zealand’s cultures and faiths.

Wicks, R. (2003). Modern French Philosophy: from existentialism to postmodernism.

[1] This essay was originally written in October 2008 for a postgraduate contextual theology course.  Since then, death has become a more intimate acquaintance, taking both my great aunt and my father.

[2] Learn more about his thought at The Ernest Becker Foundation.

[3] Based on an earlier American Psychiatric Association study.  See “Children, violence, and the media: a report for parents and policy makers”.  In 1971, an average American 14-year-old had witnessed 18,000 deaths on TV (Hick).

[4] See hundreds of expressions for death here and here, or watch Monty Python’s euphemistic denial “Dead Parrot” sketch on YouTube.

[5] Anglo-Saxons may be especially death-shy: 3% of UK funerals are “pre-need” sales, versus 50% in Spain, and 70% in Belgium and the Netherlands (Berridge).

[6] See www.deathclock.com – “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away” or www.death-clock.org – “predicting the demise of others since 2006”.

[7] Authors like Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline, 1980) and Dallas Willard (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 1988) interpret these classic practices for today.  See my reflection, “Holy Hiking: Tramping the Path of Disciplined Grace”.