The Art of Death: Dulce et Decorum

A Good Death Is Its Own Reward, Faora-Ul, Man of SteelI remember the first time I stood in front of a Civil War memorial and puzzled out the Latin words that ran across its top: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

That’s the stupidest thing ever written, I thought. Sweet and right it is to die for one’s country? It might be the right thing to do. It might be patriotic. But death in war is most assuredly not sweet.

(I was 15. I’ve read stupider things since then. I’m pretty sure I’ve written stupider things since then.)

I’ve never killed a combatant. Or a civilian. That I know of.

I did grow up in the middle of a civil war. When the ratio of doctors to people is 1:300,000 and the ratio of landmines to people is 1:2, the surgeon’s daughter can assist in emergency surgery.

I did. So I can tell you first-hand that death in war is not dulce. That line from Horace’s Odes (III.2.13) is, at best, a sweet lie we tell soldiers when they ship out and ourselves when they come back in pieces.

Dulcissimum Bibere

Apparently I’m not the first one to call the lie. University students rewrote it into a drinking chant in the 19th century:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori      Sweet and fitting it is for the fatherland to die
Sed dulcius pro patria vivere                       But sweeter for the fatherland to live
Et dulcissimum pro patria bibere               And sweetest to the fatherland to drink
Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae.             So, let us drink to the health of the fatherland.

Booze is one response to the draft. If you can’t beat death, you can numb its sting.

Southern charm is another. One friend reframed the chiseled granite at the front of our historic Boston church as a “monument to Confederate marksmanship.”

Inflicting death on someone else is a third option.

“A good death is its own reward,” drones Faora-Ul, ex-Kryptonian warrior. She pauses in an endless sequence of smashing things to lay this one on Colonel Hardy, her human counterpart (Man of Steel). Another stupid sentence. If she’d just got on with killing Hardy, Superman would have landed too late to stop her. As it is, Hardy lives to repeat her words back to her another day.

Deny, Depress, Destroy

Every Kryptonian dies. Every human dies. We can deny the power of our mortality. Ignore it. Reframe it as a positive thing. But as Jesus pointed out in the Parable of the Rich Fool, your soul will be required of you, irrespective of how successful you are at living life to the fullest (Luke 12:19–20).

Humans do not have power to stop death altogether. We can wallow in it, shifting Jesus’ words to the more popular “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” We can sink into addiction or depression. But the warriors among us know that being subject to death is not the same as yielding our integrity to it.

So we fight. Humans do have the power to cause death, to use it on others before someone else uses it on us. But here we overreach. A good aim doesn’t save us from our own vulnerability. Lashing out only fills us with rage. This is the (second) oldest story in the book. Cain kills Abel (Gen 4:3–8). You remember how that turned out.

There is no death good enough to be its own reward.

A Good Death Is Its Own Reward

Except Christ’s. His death is the only human death that can, in any way, be construed as good (1 Pet 3:18).

Receive Christ’s death and you’re able to leave yours alone. You let it be (2 Cor 12:9). You let others be. You forgive (Eph 4:31–32).

Locate your own mortality outside yourself, in Christ’s mortality, and you find meaning in your suffering (Matt 17:22–23; John 13:16).

Focus on Christ’s death and you’re able to face your own vulnerability without shame (Phil 1:20). You become authentic.

That is the bitter-sweet work of taking up your cross and following him (Matt 16:24). That is an exquisite pain worth carving into stone.

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