Posted by: Ken Brown | September 15, 2008

Is Death Proud?

It must be going around: I missed this post of Ryan Dueck’s from last week, which looks at death from a different angle. He points to an article in the New York Times by Theresa Brown, a nurse, which takes issue with John Donne’s famous line:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

Describing her first encounter with sudden death, Theresa wants to insist that death is proud, and deeply unsettling. Since most of the article is a story, I won’t try to summarize it, but it does remind me of a line from the pilot episode of House:

Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. I don’t care if you can walk, see, wipe your own butt. It’s always ugly. Always. You can live with dignity, we can’t die with it.

Though I can’t agree that there can be no dignity in death, death is always a tragedy no matter how old or young we are. There is no escaping it and there should be no downplaying its horror. Some ask how God can be good if he allows some “innocent” people to suffer terrible things, but the truth is we all face a terrible fate. Death is inherent to our existence, and this would be no less a tragedy if we all lived to a hundred years old. All we can ask is whether there is any hope in the midst of it. Here is Theresa’s conclusion:

What can one do? Go home, love your children, try not to bicker, eat well, walk in the rain, feel the sun on your face and laugh loud and often, as much as possible, and especially at yourself. Because the only antidote to death is not poetry, or drama, or miracle drugs, or a roomful of technical expertise and good intentions. The antidote to death is life.

This is, as Ryan says, a good start, but his own response is better:

From a Christian perspective, life—both in the present and in the age to come—certainly is properly conceived as the antidote to death. But among the many more things that could be said on the matter, I would want the word “together” to come shortly on the heels of “life.” The antidote to death is not just any kind of life, because many lives are lived poorly and in isolation. The kind of life that is the antidote to death is a life where we give ourselves to others in love and trust (and receive the same in return, hopefully) and determine to walk together through the complexities and ambiguities that death’s shadow casts over our individual and collective experiences.

But even this is only half the story. As one of Ryan’s commenters notes, if this life is all we have then death will still be the victor in the end, and there is no true antidote to its sting. But if love and community—with one another and with God—truly are the deeper reality, then perhaps death shall not have the last word, after all.

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