I have been reflecting on the meaning of death in recent days. I pastor two Catholic parishes where there are always individuals who are on hospice, recently diagnosed with serious illness, or who have died. This past summer I have also suffered a personal loss of my mother, Anna, who died under hospice care in a nursing home. Therefore, I thought God might be asking me to look at the fragility of life and the dignity of a good death.
I think either we tend to think of death as the outcome of sickness or accident, or we try romanticizing it. For so many people, even good, faithful Christians, the reality of death is surrounded by the reality of disease and illness. We associate death with the ravages of sickness and we disassociate it from life. The two, for many of us, are contraries and we think they cannot co-exist. This seems to be solidly supported by common sense and experience, yet we know as followers of Christ and members of the Body of Christ that it is only in death that we truly receive life, and it is in this life that we will experience death. It is at the moment of physical death that the fullness of life is unleashed for those in a state of grace and purified from all attachments to sin. Life abounds because death has been defeated, not victorious.
St. Paul says in his epistle, “Where O death is your sting?” He writes, “I carry in me the death of the Lord.” St. Paul knows that in his flesh the death of Christ was lived, and through that death, life abounded.
A death well lived is a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A death not sought, but accepted, is a breaking forth of glory for all eternity.
There is in each of us a natural desire for life, a natural desire to live eternally. There is an attraction for that which is true, good and beautiful. In other words, there is the pull toward the divine. Death, which has entered the world through our freedom to choose sin, has been reformed through Jesus’ freedom to save us by His salvific action on the cross. Death, which is the result of an evil choice made by a man at the beginning of human history. A choice that continues to be chosen today. Death has been transformed into the gateway through which we walk and through which we see face-to-face the God who has made us, and who originally intended for us to see him as he is from our conception.
In addition, many have romanticized death. One needs only view some war movies, or perhaps love stories to see death in this way. Our contemporary society is moving toward sanitization of death. The messiness of death is something people want to be rid of now days. Look at the “right to death” movements (which are only veiled attempts to rename euthanasia) because they would rather the death be chosen before its time, that be denied its course, its transformative opportunity. They would rather that someone die cleanly, with a lethal medical intervention, than for that person to fully enter the passage way to eternal life. They would rather spare someone the temporal discomforts and pain than allow them the eternal joys that a truly human and humane death would provide.
Blessed Pope St. John Paul II gave us a vivid reminder of the dignity of a death well lived. He died so that we might know that death never has the last say in any person’s life.
St. Francis of Assisi called death, “Brother Death.” He embraced it as fully as he embraced life, light, joy, and mirth. As we have prayed so often,
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The writer is the pastor at St. Michael Parish, Fort Loramie and Ss. Peter & Paul Parish, Newport.