Why Death Is Like It Is

I think about death a lot. I figure anyone alive does, but I could be wrong about. I think I’m more impatient than most people. I’m always abnormally interested in how things are going to end.

Anyway, death is horrible. It’s an unthinkable affront to everything that’s dear to us. We all know that.

So it makes me wonder: Why do we have to do it? And why is it so final? And how come people who die are sooooooo totally gone? All this time, and no one’s come back from the dead to tell us anything about it? How can it possibly be that after eight zillion years of humanhood, we still have no idea what actually happens to us after we die? We can think  we know, we can believe  we know, we can hope we know — but the bottom line is that we can’t know  know. We just can’t see from here to there.

So my question is always: Why is our system the way it is? What purpose can there be in constructing a system designed in such a way that when humans stare into the great yawning abyss at the edge of life, all  they can see is nothing? If God (or nature) is good, then why or how is that  good?

The biggest fact about life is that it ends, right? So to me it just stands to reason that that means there must be something about the fact of death that’s meant to teach us something huge about life.

And I think that something is that just like we can’t define death, we’re not supposed to define life. I think we’re supposed to take the ever-present fact that we don’t know what death is, and then turn around, and use that same not-knowing, that same mysterious wonderment, to inform and shape the way we live.

When you define something, you kill it, insofar as you rob it of its potential to ever be anything else. If I say that I utterly know you, that I know everything about you, then I have denied you the very nature of your personhood, which is to change, to respond, to grow. I’ve closed off what I should see as ever open. I’m saying there’s no more mystery to you. That denies both you and me what amounts to the very essence of life.

All of us are infinitely mysterious, and infinitely complex. And so is everything else in the world. That’s what makes the world and our experience in it so deeply, insanely fascinating. If we go through our lives acting like we already know everything there is to know about life, then we ruin the experience of it. Then all  we can be is bored and angry and restless — because then we’re telling life what it should be, instead of letting life tell us what it is. Then we’ve closed ourselves off to the only thing that makes life fascinating, which is our lack of comprehensively, or absolutely, understanding what in the heck is really going on out here.

As awful as death is, I don’t think we’d want it any other way. I think the fact that death remains such a constant and immediate mystery to us is exactly what we need in order to make sure that we never forget that every moment of life is meant to be — and is certainly most richly appreciated as — a constant and immediate mystery of the exact same sort. Just like we can’t define death, we should never be too quick to define any aspect of life. I think death is there the way it’s there to constantly remind us of this critical living tool, this ever-liberating perceptive construct that we are meant to employ.

(Okay, for the record: I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the Christian version of what happens after death. I’m saying that even though we Christians have an idea  of what that experience is, the fact remains that we have zero information about what the reality  of that experience is. And we should use that not-knowing to inform our living. Same as everyone else.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think the message is in the grace…the grace with which we live and the grace with which we die. As for what is on the other side of death I am happy not defining it.

    Just a funny about my dad…He is now at a time in his life where all of his peers seem to groan about getting older. His reply to them is always the same…"Well, it beats the alternative."

  • Winey: No, no one's happy with not having the after-death experience known and defined: surely, one of THE great things about Christianity is that it gives us a schema for after life which is very comforting indeed. I just think it's interesting–and more than interesting, actually instructive–what the sheer FACT of death can teach anyone about life.

  • Born4Battle

    The Bible tells us that the other side of death is either everlasting life or everlasting torment – there is no mystery in the bible, and there should be no mystery for any believer in Christ.

    that's my story and I'm sticking to it……:)

  • Death isn't horrible. How we get there, maybe. But death itself? No. Death is what makes us human. Death is what makes life worth living.

    One day I will look forward to death.

    Not of my own choosing, and not any time soon, of course. 🙂

  • I can only guess you've never had anyone you love die. Lucky you.

  • No, I have. I just recognize that it isn't the actual death that's the bad thing. It's any suffering leading up to it, or any regret that the death came to soon.

    This is only my opinion, of course. I don't pretend to speak for anyone but myself.

  • Ann

    Every cell in our bodies fights to survive. Its actually one of the reasons we DO survive, and come up with marvelous ways of doing so.

    The fact that we are doomed to fail, and know it every minute, makes everything precious, even in the midst of horror and fear.

    I believe the fact of death is why we have art, love, faith and everything that makes life so exquisite. And then, of course, without death we really wouldn't have room for birth, or reason or means for evolution (in an intellectual, physical or emotional sense).

    I no longer wonder what will happen 'after' death, because I don't think thats the point. I do, however, think christianity is the only religion that gives one a tolerable solution.

    And people aren't gone after they die. You know that, of course. I just thought of my dad just now. See? There he is. Not gone.

  • John,

    In my worldview death is a door to the other side – but despite everything I’ve read what lies on the other side remains a mystery, as you say.

    My own opinion joins that of many that death is a sleep until Jesus gets up from his seat at God’s right hand and comes to get us.

    My father died with me holding his hand. I tell people that I literally saw an angel in the room and they accuse me of, at best, hallucination due to grief.

    Actually, at the time I filled with happiness for him. Watching his long, slow death from colon cancer convinced me death is a release in one sense.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking blog entry.


  • Like you John, I think about death a lot. One thing I've learned from death is separation. I know what separation is and I know its definition and I have read about being separated from someone you love. However, knowing about separation as opposed to actually experiencing the complete, final, emptiness of separation are two different things. What separation IS has to be the biggest life lesson I've learned from death.

  • This is really elegant, and touching, Ann. Thanks for writing it. Just beautiful.

  • John 11:25-26 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

  • What differentiates human beings from lower animal forms (as far as we can tell) is that we not only experience life as it is and remember life as it was, but we also anticipate how things might be in the future. We anticipate death. We are confronted by the notion of non-existence, and it horrifies us. We live in hope of an afterworld, and we try to conduct our lives and our beliefs in a manner that might be deserving of a GOOD afterworld. But really we should not be frightened by simple non-existence, if that's what it ultimately comes down to. By definition it simply will not matter to us. It will be as simple as going to sleep.

    One of my favorite authors, Arthur C. Clarke, died recently. He was an atheist. For him there was no Heaven to look forward to or Hell to be frightened away from, just a simple transition from existence to non-existance, the simple passing of one life. Nothing more, nothing less. I have no doubts that he came to his end with supreme dignity and acceptance.

    I don't know what animals like dolphins and elephants and orangutans think of death. But my kittycat, BooBoo, doesn't anticipate death, she doesn't worry about it even though she's almost 15 years old and not quite as agile as she used to be. When she is in the final minutes of her life (and it brings tears to my eyes just to contemplate this), I doubt if she'll be thinking, "What's happening to me?" She will simply stop, and I'll be left with photos and perhaps an inscribed slate in the backyard.

    I'm going on 49 years old, and I find that the older I get, the less afraid of death I am. The concept of Hell makes no sense to me. And the concept of Heaven, at least the way it is often described, doesn't make all that much sense either. Living in an eternal state of spiritual bliss? I suppose that might be attractive if pizza were involved. But really, it doesn't sound remotely human.

    If lifeforms manifest spiritual components that survive physical death, wonderful. But if death is simply THE END, I can deal with that.

  • Whenever people started talking about death, I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems: “The Heaven of Animals” by James Dickey.

    Here they are. The soft eyes open.

    If they have lived in a wood

    It is a wood.

    If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling

    Under their feet forever.

    Having no souls, they have come,

    Anyway, beyond their knowing.

    Their instincts wholly bloom

    And they rise.

    The soft eyes open.

    To match them, the landscape flowers,

    Outdoing, desperately

    Outdoing what is required:

    The richest wood,

    The deepest field.

    For some of these, it could not be the place

    It is, without blood.

    These hunt, as they have done,

    But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

    More deadly than they can believe.

    They stalk more silently,

    And crouch on the limbs of trees,

    And their descent

    Upon the bright backs of their prey

    May take years

    In a sovereign floating of joy.

    And those that are hunted

    Know this as their life,

    Their reward: to walk

    Under such trees in full knowledge

    Of what is in glory above them,

    And to feel no fear,

    But acceptance, compliance.

    Fulfilling themselves without pain

    At the cycle’s center,

    They tremble, they walk

    Under the tree,

    They fall, they are torn,

    They rise, they walk again.