End Notes: Live From Death Row

It is difficult to derive spiritual profit from a public execution when the condemned is given the kind of media attention usually reserved for rock stars and presidential concubines. Popular sentiment reacts to the death sentence as if the courts and the justice system had invented mortality. A man executed for incredible crimes should function as a reminder of our common condition rather than inspire the kind of woolly thinking that equates punishment with judicially sanctioned revenge. In thinking that way, we cheat ourselves out of a memento mori, a reminder that we all must die and come to judgment.

All men are mortal. This is a truth that most of us spend most of our time not thinking about. This is not because we live lives of quiet desperation: Mindless distraction would be more accurate. I recently read of a German millionaire who killed himself because he did not want to become wrinkled and old. He used a small-caliber gun so that his would be a beautiful corpse. Let us hope that in ictu mortis, he acquired some sense of life that was more than skin-deep.

This fall, St. Augustine’s Press will publish a translation of Florent Gaboriau’s magnificent The Conversion of Edith Stein (1987). Among the excerpts from the saint’s writings included in Gaboriau’s anthology is her meditative essay “On Death (With Reference to Heidegger).” It begins: “Death is the end of bodily life and of everything connected with it. Even more, it is a somber portal: It has to be gone through, but what then? That ‘What then?’ is the real question concerning death.” That is the question too often eclipsed by our culture’s superficiality and by distractions like the media circuses surrounding executions.

Most of us, Stein continues, confront death when confronted with the death of someone else, almost as if we would not believe in our own mortality if we did not see others die. Think of the first corpse you saw, and try to recall your reaction. Stein speaks of a child’s awareness of death: Suddenly, someone is no longer in the world. The child’s uneasiness about death springs from the realization that everyone, including the child himself, must die.

This recognition can remain abstract and impersonal. Without a religious upbringing and its promise of eternal life, our thinking will center on the lifeless body. But what made that body live? What does the passage from a living person to an inanimate corpse involve? From time immemorial, philosophers have pondered these questions. They are inescapable—evidenced by the fact that we are always trying to escape them. What comes after death? “If we find no answer to that question,” Stein says, “the sense of death escapes us.” Pause. Then Stein reminds us, “Faith has an answer.”

Do the reactions of Christian believers to death and the death penalty differ as they should from those of nonbelievers who have an ideological stake in avoiding “the sense of death”? Faced with an execution, we, too, are tempted to join the pagan carnival that obscures the fact that we all must sooner or later bid vale to the flesh and to this life. The circus of pro- and anti-death penalty advocates signifies a cultural rebellion against mortality that goes hand in hand with our society’s legalized massacre of the unborn and briefs for euthanasia. We Christians form odd alliances with post-Christians around the gallows.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has urged us to acquire a Christian understanding of suffering and death, an understanding essential to a culture of life. The culture of death does not want to ask the question that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle asked: “What then?” That discussion has all but died out among philosophers. But a destiny beyond this life is at the heart of our faith. The important question is not whether we will die, but how.

When justice justly takes the life of a monstrous murderer, divine mercy still calls both him and us to eternal life. Christians can and should pray for the soul of every murderer without necessarily questioning the justice of his punishment. There are fates worse than the death penalty. And deep down in our bones, we recognize—or should recognize—a fraternity with the criminal that was established by original sin. Mon semblable, mon frère.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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