Hello and welcome to Human Exceptionalism. Today we’re going to talk about the cheery topic of death.
Many years ago I was approached by a member of the Hemlock Society after a speech opposing assisted suicide. She asked me, “Mr. Smith, how do you envision your death?” I was a bit taken aback. Her whole approach seemed backwards to me, so I replied, “Ma’am, I’m still trying to envision my life.” We in the West are often accused of being a death-denying culture, but I think the contrary is true. As my long-ago encounter with the Hemlock member illustrates, we are actually and to an increasing degree becoming a death-obsessed culture.
Death obsession is corroding our society’s belief in the intrinsic value and inherent dignity of human life. Evidence of this cultural septicity is ubiquitous. For example, in the rise in hedonistic escapism, the violence of our popular entertainment, and in the media’s heated embrace of assisted suicide as the next great progressive cause. Death obsession is not without a darkly humorous side. Some get so caught up in the means of becoming dead they invent novel methods of shuffling off this mortal coil. Take as just one example the Euthanasia Rollercoaster as described by its creator:
The design for Euthanasia Rollercoaster ensures that riders stand no earthly chance of survival, yet the ride promises a lethal dose of g-force that suffocates the brain and delivers a thrill of orgasmic pleasure as death approaches, making the experience of dying more meaningful.
We can laugh at the rollercoaster, but not, I think, at the same dark connection, often presented in movies and television programs, between death and sexual pleasure.
Death obsession also produced the transhumanist movement which I have discussed here on Ancient Faith Radio. Transhumanism is a materialistic quasi-religion that seeks to overcome hopelessness in the face of death’s perceived oblivion by harnessing technology to help believers attain immortality, say, by uploading their minds into computers. Vividly illustrating the death obsession driving the movement, transhumanist popularizer Zoltan Istvan just completed a national speaking tour in a bus made to look like a coffin as part of his pseudo-campaign for president on the Transhumanist party ticket.
In reality, death obsession is a wail of despair that desperately strives to overcome the enveloping darkness by imposing human control over death. As a recent opinion article about the coming of euthanasia to Canada put it:
[S]ooner or later, death will become a civil servant. He will operate in the open, during business hours, with a budget and a boss. His work will be humanized and bureaucratized. Death will be licensed, regulated and empowered by law to solve a public policy problem—the unacceptability to certain people of certain types of dying. This marks a major shift in the meaning of death, from ineffable human destiny to legislated human right.
But death’s guaranteed visit need not lead to the desolation of obsession. There are far more positive ways of coming to terms with the grim reaper. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, endorses the teachings of pioneering Christian monastics known as the Desert Fathers, who placed great emphasis on living in continual “remembrance of death.” Unlike death obsession, which seeks to control or deflect death, remembrance of death is a metaphysical discipline that transforms the mourning stirred by our certain demise into a positive prayer discipline to help us to live a fuller and more holy life. As described several years ago by the Orthodox writer Constantine Malandrakis:
Death should be a constant dimension and quality of any Christian’s life, not just something that befalls him at the last moment. Awareness of death gives to life immediacy and depth, and makes life so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. As Christ claimed the victory over death by death, so a Christian defeats death and the fear of death with all of its tragic consequences through a mindfulness of death during his life.
Remembrance of death is so important that according to St. John of the Ladder, it is the sixth step of his “Ladder of Divine Assent.” He writes, “As of all foods bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works.” St. John advised that the “groaning and tears” of a continual remembrance of one’s own death and final judgment were crucial to experiencing true repentance and liberation from worldly cares, essential goals of the monk and nun.
Of course, most of us are not monastics, but in Eastern Orthodoxy, the separation [between] those called “to the desert” and we who live “in the world” is not as wide as it might seem. My friend, the author and preeminent American Orthodox apologist, Frederica Mathewes-Green, who of course has a podcast here on Ancient Faith Radio, considers the remembrance of death as one of the most helpful disciplines in living a healthy Christian life. She told me, “If you spend your life seeking entertainment and food, trying to keep your mind occupied and amused, you find yourself weary and depressed. Life can come to seem meaningless.” In contrast she adds, “Keeping in the back of your mind an awareness of the fact that you will die one day leads to a life lived deliberately, with forethought and gratitude, a life that is worthy and complete.” She further explained to me:
That awareness has the effect of casting into sharp relief everything you do and every choice you make. It helps you remember how fleeting life is, and how few our days are. It makes you want to spend them carefully, wisely, to live them with full awareness and gratitude. It is “life with dignity,” in the root sense of “dignity” meaning “worth.”
A podcast of this brevity is inadequate to exploring this most universal and consequential of subjects, but perhaps it can suggest that death obsession need not be our society’s default setting. Rather, in place of fixating on “controlling the time and manner of our death,” or escaping the fact of our death in frivolous or quixotic pursuits, we can instead let our sure end inspire us to live positive, worthy, and meaningful existences until that time when “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”