As the Covid pandemic gradually recedes into endemicity, it is time—actually long past time—to reflect on some of the lessons of the last two years. One element that would have been most shocking to previous generations is how drastically we rearranged our society—school closures, business closures, mandate piled on mandate—over our fear of death.
In nearly every human culture, death has always had an element of the uncanny to it. On one hand, it is a normal part of our experience; every one of us will experience it at some point. According to Christian belief, even God Himself did so. Yet, for something so normal, it remains, in a sense, unnatural, uncanny, and even dreadful. This sense of dread is even worse when a people have no hope for what comes after.
The Greeks felt this especially strongly; their view of death and the afterlife was reflected in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus is forced to travel to the Underworld to seek guidance for his journey home. There, he finds Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, who asks Odysseus why he ventures among “us silly dead.” Odysseus tries to comfort Achilles about his fate, lauding him as ruler over all the dead. But Achilles tells Odysseus in reply that he, “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house…than be king of kings among the dead.” Jewish Scripture is similar. Psalm 88 speaks of the dead as mere “shades,” cut off from God, and the underworld as the “land of oblivion.”
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This view of death was common throughout the ancient world, not only in literature, but in fact. Roman custom and law exiled burial of the dead from the cities, possibly from fear of death and the dead. This fear was seen most strongly in the plague that struck Rome during the second and third centuries A.D. But it also contrasted with the attitude of a new group: the early Christians. According to Rodney Stark, the deadly and widespread plague wiped out between 25 to 33 percent of the Roman Empire. Roman society struggled to deal with this plague: their priests could not explain it, their philosophers had no answers, everyone fled from and abandoned the sick, and their doctors were helpless. Even the great Roman physician Galen fled Rome to a country estate until the danger was past.
Not so the early Christians, who nursed the sick, even at risk to themselves, and cared not only for their own poor and sick but for the pagan poor and sick as well. The early bishop Dionysius of Alexandria commended Christians who cared for the sick, praising their piety and faith even unto death, calling it a form of martyrdom. This early Christian bravery and charity in the face of death was a wonder to Romans of the time. Galen marveled at the Christians: “[T]heir contempt for death is apparent to us everyday.” What was a marvel to Galen was simple to St. Paul, who said: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). The Christian hope provides reasons not to fear death, while the Christian morality provides the duty to care for the sick and dying.
This continued through the Middle Ages. Christian cemeteries were increasingly within city or town limits, often in the yards of parish churches or other religious buildings. While Romans banished their dead, burying them outside city limits, Christians buried their own dead within cities. The dead were gone, but they were beyond neither hope nor help. Prayers, fasts, and indulgences were all ways the living could help the dead. In a world where death was all around, medieval art and spirituality seemed almost to delight in reminders of death; memento mori imagery was ubiquitous. Death was a part of life; there was no point avoiding it, but Christianity provided hope for it.
At some point, this changed. Exactly when and why is unclear, but the Enlightenment in the later 18th and early 19th centuries has been proposed as a plausible dividing point, albeit with some qualification. Cemeteries again began to be built outside of cities; the community of living and dead was sundered; the dead became a cause of fear. Voltaire himself wrote of the “war of the dead against the living,” something the Christian of an earlier age would have found absurd.
A new, secular view of death began to develop, leading us to our own 21st-century society. Unlike medieval Christian societies, our modern society has largely banished death and dying from view. Death has largely been relegated to hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, the better to remain invisible to us. The old practice of dying at home surrounded by praying family members and even the family priest has become a quaint relic of a bygone age.
To think about death today is considered morbid. And so it is, to a people who lack Christian hope. Better not to think of death; better to be entertained or distracted by technology, popular culture, and celebrities. Better to keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind.
Yet, this is precisely what Covid no longer let us do. For two years, death was no longer banished to the nursing homes and hospitals, out of our sight. Instead, we could no longer escape seeing it or hearing about it. And this was shocking to us. We thought we had banished death from our modern society; instead, we had only ignored it. And having ignored it, we no longer knew how to handle it.
Msgr. Charles Pope, a priest in Washington, D.C., marveled at the “gripping fear” that crippled society and a people who seemed to be “in slavery through their fear of death.” The fear of death has become so intense that, for two long years, we have been willing to sacrifice anything and everything in the hope of holding death at bay. We shuttered schools, deprived children of meaningful education, important milestones, friendships, and human contact. We’ve left people to die alone in hospitals and nursing homes, sometimes even without the comfort and help of family and priests.
Like in the plague of Ancient Rome, the Church today has the answer to this fear, if only it would dare proclaim it. In the darkness of plague and fear of death, a fear that has enslaved our society, Christian hope, as it did 1800 years ago, shines the brightest. The crown follows the cross; Easter Sunday follows Good Friday; and if we must walk the road to the cross, we know that God walked it first. When the Church proclaims the Resurrection of Christ, death will not cease to be uncanny, but it will cease to be terrifying. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? With the hope of the Resurrection, the Christian need no longer fear death. Science may have one kind of medicine to offer, but the Church has another, one far more important; and the Church’s task is to offer it to a fearful world.
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