Sunday, July 03, 2005

Visiting Death

Visited Death again recently…in a dusty childhood collection of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Gaiman portrays death anthropomorphically as a hot Goth chick with a silver ankh around her neck, an agreeable practical perky elder-sisterish personality and an eccentric collection of floppy hats. She is kindly, encouraging and loving to those whom she goes out to greet.

The anthropomorphism of death in all cultures throughout the history of mankind is rarely questioned. The ancient Greeks had Thanatos (reincarnated as Thanos in the Marvel comics universe; a comely young lady wearing a diaphanous purple robe), the Roman copycats had Mors and the cat-worshipping Egyptians, Anubis. The Hindus have Yama. Popular Western culture personifies death as the Grim Reaper, an intimidating skeleton wearing a black hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

Terry Prachett's parody of the Grim Reaper is a curious seven-footer who is intrigued by humans and attempts to live like them: he has a horse named Binky who is a normal living horse (originally, Death tried the more traditional skeletal horse, but it kept falling apart; and a flaming horse, but it kept burning down the stables), he lives in an upper-middle class house (although he has no need of one), has a bedroom (although he doesn't need to sleep) and doesn't realise that pipes have to be hollow. he loves curry (although he doesn't need to eat). He doesn't like chess though, because he cannot remember "how the little horse-shaped ones move" (a cheeky allusion to The Seventh Seal, where Death has a Swedish accent and plays chess with a medieval knight).

The Death who stopped politely for Emily Dickinson is a genteel citizen; the very figure of a gentleman taking a lady for a carriage (one that "swings low" perhaps?) ride.

What do we think of death?

Do we attempt to downplay our fear of it by constructing a fictional welcoming Goth chick or an ally of humanity and an efficient but maligned worker just performing a public service (and who is replaced by a combine harvester when he goes on holiday)?

But we are right to fear death, no matter how 'natural' and certain it is. For there will be a time when we will all lie in a coffin, cold and still. A fly will alight on our nose and no one will flick it away. Perhaps we may not even make it to the obituary page. Maybe no one will come to our wake. Tall or short, fat, buff or rake-thin, rich or poor, head-turningly good-looking or scream-worthily ugly, we will be burned or buried (or if we were caught in a terrorist blast, have our DNA spread over a 1m radius). Possibly we will be mourned for, for a while and then soon forgotten. Our hopes and dreams will be burned or buried with us, and our writings and works which we held precious thrown out with the garbage. Our graffiti on school walls will be painted over and the foundations and trust-funds we established dissipated to nothingness. Our blood-line will die out. And there is nothing we can do about it.

We want to control our lives:
  • our education by studying hard and having good examination strategies;
  • our career by proper presentation at job interviews, impressing the boss and doing the right things to beef up the CV;
  • our family by marrying the right person and having proper marriage and parenting skills and techniques;
  • our money by savvy investing and prudent wealth management; and
  • even our colleagues and friends by politicking, emotional blackmail and psychological horseplay.
Yet, we cannot plan for death; we cannot control when we die (suicide excepted but even then, there are always those bunglers who don't quite make it out of life).

I've heard cancer patients die unwillingly, braying loudly like mad donkeys, struggling to keep breathing and keep living. Others describe the painful gasping for breath and flailing of arms as some are dragged towards death, their eyes wide with fear and terror of the unknown.

As a young child, I was sickly and in and out of hospitals. One strong memory I have is of lying on an operating table, sleepy but conscious of my surroundings. The surgeon switches off the operating lights and my parents hover just within sight. The surgeon is talking to my parents. I try to call out to them but my mouth won't open and no sound comes out. The surgeon's voice is thick and muffled but I make out that he is telling them that there is nothing more he can do, he is sorry. What is he talking about? I'm alive and fine! I try to protest with my arms. Nothing moves. I try kicking. My feet are still. I can't even blink. They move away and out of sight. I sink back into oblivion.

Would death be like that, I've always wondered: the lonely separation from the ones we know and love, the impenetrable wall between the living and the dead; friendless, still, stiff; 'wrecked, solitary and alone'?

Who can accompany us as we take our last breath? We may have an adoring crowd around our bed as we die, but not even our closest friend holding our fading hand will be able go with us. We leave the life we've lived and the world we knew and the people we've treasured and travel the journey alone. It is our rightful penalty for sin (Genesis 3, Romans 5).

But death is not the end and death is certainly not the most frightening thing to ever happen to us. There will come a day when all the dead from all the ages past, present and to come will rise again. Great and small, they will all stand before the throne of God and he will judge them according to what they had done while they lived (Revelation 20:12). Words cannot describe how much more terrible than death that day will be for those who do not know God, for they remain his enemies and will be condemned to everlasting death.

Yet for those who knew God and acknowledged his kingship while in the flesh, that day will be a most glorious day. From then on, the dwelling of God will be with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:3-4).

With that certain hope and future, as we who believe take our last breath, we can say, not with silly bravado but with solid confidence,
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55)
For in the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross in place of our sins, death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).

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