Yesterday was the funeral for my maternal grandmother, who was my last surviving grandparent. This has prompted a few thoughts on death and dying.
First, an outline theology of death and dying from the Bible.
- The Bible presents death as an enemy, both of man and of God (1 Cor 15:26). Death was never part of God’s original plan for the human race; it came into the world as a punishment for Adam’s sin (Rom 5:12-21). Death is emotionally and psychologically difficult for us to deal with because it is something that God did not originally intend for us to have to deal with.
- Jesus Christ has conquered death (Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18).
- Satan uses the fear of death to enslave (Heb 2:14-15).
- Believers in God have passed out of death into life (John 5:24).
- The one who keeps Christ’s Word does not see death (John 8:51, referring to eternal or ultimate death).
- The one who is “in Christ” has shared in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Jesus tasted death for every man (Heb 2:9).
- God has written the last chapter to show how it all turns out. This brings us hope. One preacher said, “I read the back of the book, and we win.” No matter how much grief and suffering we may endure in this life, for those who have accepted God’s offer of salvation there will come a day when all grief, pain, and sorrow will be ended forever (Rev 21:4).
Another reflection: it is evident from the way most people treat death today that they do not believe in an afterlife. It used to be in America, that rich and prominent people sought to be remembered after they died by building great monuments at their planned gravesite—mausoleums, chapels, pillars, and so forth. They did this because they believed there is life after death, and they wanted to leave a continuing legacy and a remembrance of themselves. In fact, it was normal for people to visit cemeteries to remember the dead and pay their respects, with the understanding that the dead person’s soul was still in conscious existence, and that the dead body in the ground still belonged to that person and would someday be raised. (Side note: Bellefontaine Cemetery was the most-visited tourist attraction in St. Louis circa 1900.) Throughout the whole history of the world, it has been common for prominent men to build great grave markers for themselves, and for others to come and visit their gravesites. Today, however, the dominant attitude seems to be, “Death is eternal annihilation, so I’ll just live for the here and now, and I don’t care what they do with my corpse or how they will remember me after I’m dead.” There are few great tomb monuments these days, and many cemeteries and funeral parlors are struggling for business.
The great increase in cremation is another sign that most people no longer believe in an afterlife, resulting in a failure to view the body as sacred or spiritual. A dead body is viewed as nothing more than a clump of matter, to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner. But historically, and in the Bible, a proper burial was viewed as an honorable thing, while the burning or desecration of one’s corpse was a great dishonor (cf. 2 Kgs 9:35-37; Eccl 6:3; Jer 22:19; 36:30; Amos 2:1). While God is able to raise a cremated body back to life, Christians traditionally buried their dead, placing their bodies in the ground in hope of resurrection. The body was treated as a sacred thing, not as garbage, since it was recognized that it was made in the image of God, and that it will be used again in a new form.
Our society tries to sterilize death, and to avoid truly coming to grips with one’s eternal destiny. The death of a family member is a time when the subject cannot, and should not, be avoided.