Whitney Houston’s sudden and untimely death has drawn a great deal of understandable attention. She was only forty-eight, beautiful, and a very talented singer.
A few days ago, a relative of a relative of mine also died, very suddenly and without any forewarning, at the age of forty-nine. She wasn’t famous, but she was a mother and an accomplished person, and she leaves a massive void in her immediate and extended family.
But these two departures are startling only because they came so unexpectedly early. As John Updike once wrote, death “in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us the wide light of day.” We will all die, sooner or later.
“Therefore,” wrote John Donne, “send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Yet, by and large, we don’t think about it. We sometimes even try to pretend that it won’t happen to us, and that it won’t and doesn’t happen to those we care about. And if it does chance to happen, we regard it almost as some sort of medical failure, possibly actionable in court. It very often occurs in a sterile hospital, safely distant from our daily lives.
In a sense, we’re like a herd of deer grazing in a meadow. The hunter’s rifle cracks sharply, and one of our neighbors abruptly drops to the ground. We look up, startled for a few seconds. Perhaps we even bolt a yard or two. And then we return to grazing.
But, in humans, this is pretense. It’s self-deception.
“All men know that they must die,” taught the Prophet Joseph Smith. “And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. What is the object of our coming into existence, then dying and falling away, to be here no more? It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:50).