Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 1, 1999
Come, Sweet Death
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In the little-known but wonderfully well acted and directed 1977 film, The Disappearance, the central character, Jay Mallory, played by Donald Sutherland, delivers a short but eloquent philosophical commentary on death to a young-looking John Hurt.
Mallory relates how a mentor once told him that before the age of 33, a man rarely thinks about his own death; after the age of 33 he thinks about it every day.
And sure enough, Mallory/Sutherland muses, since he turned 33 not a day has passed that he hasn't ruminated on his imminent mortality. He doesn't know for sure whether it was the older man's latent suggestion or something else, but the prediction proved true for him.
It's a great scene, masterfully played by Sutherland. - certainly the highlight of the film in my estimation. Such forthright discussion of our common destiny is all too rare in post-Christian culture.
Two certainties in life, the aphorism goes, are death and taxes. We complain about one, but don't talk much about the other these days. To say our culture doesn't deal well with the problem of death is an understatement.
Death has become a greater philosophical problem now that a much smaller proportion of people possess a firm conviction about an after-life. Today many still hope, but few believe with conviction, that heaven is real.
There has been a desacrali-zation of the rituals accompanying death. Nowadays, priests and ministers are often relegated to conducting perfunctory religious services, with doctors, undertakers and lawyers performing most of the "pastoral" functions related to death.
I believe inadequate and unhealthy non-acknowledgment of death in our society largely derives from this desacralization. A culture that systematically trivializes the life of the soul cannot hope to cope well with death. Attempting to do so without reference to religion and metaphysics is futile.
The classical Christian paradigm is that man's primary need is to work toward perfection of his spiritual being and prepare for immortality.
However, the ascendancy of materialism has made the theme of death being a welcome release from the travails of this earth, expressed in the Bach chorale prelude from which I borrowed the title for this column, a remote and even incomprehensible consideration to most - including a substantial proportion of modern Christians.
The notion that our education and efforts should be primarily oriented toward living successfully in this world has attained nearly unassailable dominance in the post-Christian ethos, the irony being that people nowadays seem far less satisfied and at peace existentially than their Christian forbears, despite their preoccupation with gratification in the here and now.
Mortality still lurks in the basement of our psyches, becoming more difficult to repress as we age, as Jay Mallory observed.
One problem is that secular science - the quasi-religion of our time - can't adequately explain death. Material differences between a living person and a corpse are that the former has an electromagnetic field, movement and blood pH maintained within a narrow range around 7.4 (near neutral), while the latter has no EM field, no movement, and a highly acidic blood pH. The biochemical composition of a healthy young person is essentially the same as that of someone about to die of old age.
So what changes when a person dies? Orthodox Christians and Jews believe that the living soul separates from the body. Oriental philosophers say that bioenergy or "ch'i" runs out.
Modern Western science doesn't attempt to address the metaphysics of death, and merely describes measurable physical changes. Prior to the so-called Enlightenment (especially Rene Descartes' radical dualism), Western philosophy and science regarded human beings as a unity of body and soul.
But post-Cartesians acknowledge only the physical and material as "real," with the soul a speculative hypothesis at best. This analysis is profoundly unsatisfying to soul and psyche, both of which must cope with death on a non-material and personal plane.
Christianity, with its doctrine of the resurrection of the body, maintains that we won't spend eternity floating ethereally about as disembodied spirits, but rather that our souls will be re-united with resurrected, transformed and glorified bodies - changed from material mortality to eternal life.
That is the central point of the Christian Gospel. As St. Paul put it: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."
That conviction surely results in a more hopeful and positive outlook. As Blaise Pascal's famous wager backing eternal survival over eternal extinction affirms: "If you win, you win everything; If you lose, you lose nothing."
It follows that when the dominant cultural consensus reflected a Christian view of death and the afterlife, a much more healthy attitude toward death obtained generally in society.
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