As anyone with half-a-brain knows, success in the publishing world is measured by the number of books sold. What many do not know, of course, is that there are only two categories that perennially produce best sellers. Cookbooks and diet books. How wonderfully self-cancelling they are, too. While the one will tell you what to make, the other will catechize you on why you shouldn’t eat it.
Books about death do not sell nearly so well. How do I know this? Because a few years back I wrote such a book and I’m still waiting to see it take the literary world by storm. Of course there is always the possibility that the book was so wretchedly written that no one wants to read it. Not surprisingly, of course, I do not share this glum assessment, which is why I incline to the view that since most people are frightened to death by the subject, not even a treatment as fascinating as my own is likely to get them to go out and actually buy the book.
In fact, just after my book came out, I was able to put the theory to the test by simply leaving several copies in the hands of a most enterprising bookseller, whose place of business happens to be in an up-scale neighborhood. Where, amid the fleshpots of high-end affluence, the thing languished unsold for months and months. Until, finally, the poor woman called me to ask if I’d please come round and take them back. “It’s just too depressing for my customers having them around,” she confessed sheepishly.
And certainly she had a point. Even if you can’t take it with you, who wants to be reminded of the Old Guy coming along to fetch both you and your possessions? Surely not the very rich, for whom death is the ultimate impoverishment. And my book, well, it was a kind of Sneak Preview, wasn’t it? An unwelcome memento mori, as it were.
Such a strange and perverse silence fills the air the moment the subject of death comes up. And while our pagan ancestors often reflected on the nature of the next world, having wisely intuited the impermanence of this passing one, hardly any self-respecting modern appears the least bit interested in the “hereafter.” Respice finem, which means, “look to the end,” is an ancient exhortation early on embraced by Christian wisdom. Jesus himself frequently enjoined his disciples to watch and wait, mindful of the End. “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). But for most self-styled enlightened folk, it is hardly the thing to which they care to look at the moment.
Ah, but the irony is that by the time they finally do turn their minds to the end, it could very well be the end. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” says T.S. Eliot.
I am reminded of that splendid Edwardian saga of the Forsyte family, the details of whose stolid middle-class complacence are recounted by John Galsworthy. “When a Forsyte dies—but no Forsyte has as yet died; they did not die, death being contrary to their principles, they took precautions against it, the instinctive precautions of highly vitalized persons who resent encroachments on their property.”
Here one really has to ask, given the extent of modern man’s flight from death, from the “hereafter,” whether the human hunger for Heaven has become a sort of vestigial organ. Is it possible that the wings of the human spirit could atrophy for want of use? Nowadays to speak of man’s pilgrim status, of his promised homeland in Heaven, of the travail of the world and hope for life beyond the grave, is to invite a blank stare of stupefaction among many of our fellow citizens for whom eternity has lost all attraction.
Yet silence about the end exacts a heavy price. We instinctively know the last act will prove bloody, however pleasant the intervening play. None of us, including the most fatuous of the Forsytes, is exempt from that final nightfall, through the silence of which we shall all someday pass. Alone. We must all walk through the Door of Death, which admits only one at a time and, yes, we’ve all been scheduled to go through it.
“Some day,” Karl Barth writes, “a company of men will process out to a churchyard and lower a coffin and everyone will go home; but one will not come back, and that will be me. The seal of death will be that they bury me as a thing that is superfluous and disturbing in the land of the living.”
Asked once by an interviewer what bothered him most about life, the poet Robert Lowell answered bitterly, “That people die.”
“It is the blight man was born for,” says the narrator of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ haunting poem “Spring and Fall,” to the young child who has wandered disconsolately into the late autumn woods where, weeping but not knowing why, she watches all the fallen leaves die. He asks, “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? / Leaves, like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for…”
And then—with brutal, crushing finality—he tells her: “It is Margaret you mourn for.” We must all die and so, like young Margaret, we are given over to grief at the loss even of the leaves since, in nature’s passing, we glimpse the clearest foreshadowing of our own. But we are not resigned to die—nor to suffer, nor to remain always alone—and so we rage against the dying of the light. Death, solitude, suffering. These things are a problem to us, an outrage even, against the heart of what it means to be human. If the nature of the human condition requires that one should be alive and open to the God who is Life itself, then Death, to the degree it negates that possibility, can only be an outrage. A wrenching of the fabric which, from the beginning of creation, God never intended to inflict.
How to escape this Thing that rudely intrudes upon and destroys those we love—that is the trick. It is the smirking skull beneath the skin whose first appearance stains the opening pages of Genesis. Who will unmask it? Strip it of its malevolent leer? Only the One who himself suffered to enter such a world as fallen and bloodied by sin as ours is, in order to deliver and redeem us from it.
Isn’t this the deepest meaning of the deliverance wrought by the Event of Easter? Because when Christ died, only to rise again in three days, something extraordinary happened to death, something so transformative as to alter the entre dismal equation of sin equals death. Death itself, as St. Paul reminds us in a stirring passage, is swallowed up in victory. “Where then, death, is thy victory; where, death, in thy sting” (1 Cor 15:55-56)?
In death, God calls each of us home to himself. Indeed, we can almost imagine a kind of desire for death, a longing like the one Paul himself records: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ.” And so for the Christian whose life is an effort to cleave to Christ, to anchor all hope in him who came to vanquish sin and death, the “victory” of death is only apparent, the reign of the Evil One never the last word.
“So death will come to fetch you?” asks St. Therese of Lisieux, whose own was a model of holy submission. “No, not death, but God himself. Death is not the horrible specter we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me forever with God.”
One short sleep past, we wake eternally;
And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.
— John Donne, Sonnet X
Editor’s note: The above image is entitled “The Resurrection of Christ” painted by Pietro Perugino in 1496-98.