18 February 2013

The ugliness of death has been defeated

(Monday musings)
Death is always ugly, no matter how or when it comes. As a young hospital doctor one of my tasks was to examine patients who had recently died in order to confirm their death. It was usually quite evident that the person was dead, even before I felt for a pulse and listened for breathing. Death robs the body of colour and personality and leaves it waxy and inert.

In the course of my work I saw bodies of people who had begun the day with no expectation of dying, and those who had longed for death. I saw young bodies and bodies wizened with age, shrivelled by cancer, bloated by disease. I saw corpses laid out neatly in hospital beds and corpses strapped hastily to ambulance stretchers. I never saw a beautiful corpse.

Death is always cruel. Sometimes people speak of death as if it were a friend, bringing relief from suffering. But death often only ends the suffering that the process of dying began. Death takes a warm, living being and leaves it with the cold, peaceful stillness of a stone or a block of wood. Then it initiates a new wave of suffering in those who grieve.

Death is always tragic. We usually think of the death of a child as the most tragic of events, since it robs the world and the individual of all the potential that a young life held. Yet I would say the longer a person has lived, the more tragic their death. In the passing of an elderly person is lost the knowledge, wisdom, memories and experience acquired over a lifetime, often at the cost of immense struggles and pain.

Even if the person has taught others and written books, only a fraction of their real life’s work remains behind when they go. The rest perishes with them, sometimes even before their body finally gives in to death. And while a child’s loss is deeply mourned by their immediate family, the death of an older person often leaves a unfillable void in the lives of countless friends, relatives and associates.

Death is unnatural. It was never meant to be, and Dylan Thomas was right when he said we should “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In our western society we try to pretend that death doesn’t exist, until it happens. Then we try to pretend that it’s all very natural and a blessing really. It’s not. Death is our enemy.

Yet death is a defeated enemy. One man has done what no other could do – walked into death’s jaws and left death behind him with broken teeth. Death’s greatest, most prized victim, the son of God himself, has rendered death powerless to hold it’s prey. As one of my favourite songs says “Death could not hold him down, for he is risen!”.

Christ has destroyed the sting of death. Death is still ugly, cruel, tragic and unnatural, but it is no longer final. The fear of death need no longer rule our lives. What death destroys, Christ will restore. What death steals, Christ will redeem.

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