The Last Enemy

Lecture delivered to Class VI(2) at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 21 September 1989

THE PROBLEM

My subject today is usually to be avoided in polite company, spoken of only in euphemisms as something not quite nice. Everybody does it, of course, yet it carries with it guilt, embarrassment, misinformation, sentiment and above all fear. It is endlessly fascinating. It commands attention and occupies the mind. It is not sex, but death which has become the great unmentionable in our society. It is perhaps a truism to say that it is the only certain fact of life; everything else is chancy. It is perhaps mawkish to say that from the moment we are born we are infected with a terminal disease called life!

How preoccupied we are with death. It dominates our newsreels, features in TV shows and cartoons, and murder is the most popular subject of fiction. We can’t get enough of its terror, yet we hate its profligacy.

It is important to face up to death squarely, for in so doing I believe much of its power to terrify or rob life of purpose or meaning will be diminished.

Death is inseparable from life. A seed dies, buried in the earth and, after a time, new life is born. Death itself is dynamic, never simply static or isolated from momentum. Its pause, its evident lack of rhythm, is deceptive; for forces of life are gathered and gathering. At death a body is indeed still and decaying, yet a personality is a great force of incredible diversity and many dimensions. It is this truth that the great world religions address in their teaching, and if we look at religions properly and take to heart their understanding of this mystery, then much of the sickly sentiment and the uneasy reassurances which people offer to the bereaved can be avoided.

The attempts to avoid the inevitability of death have led in literature from the comic, as in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, where the protagonists swear to “kill this traitor, Death”, to the sombre as in John Shirley’s:

There is no armour against fate

Death lays his icy hand on kings

Sceptre and crown

Must tumble down.

I think that John Donne’s expression defuses much of the tension and gives an opportunity really to see the last enemy in a proper perspective:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so

and the celebrated final lines:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

It is this belief, expressed through religious understanding, which I believe does make a real and fundamental difference, and I hope to show that it is more than mere wishful thinking.

ATTITUDES AND FEELINGS

The emotions aroused by death: fear, anger, sorrow, resentment, defiance, helplessness… but fear is the most common.

The anxiety is biological and normal. It is part of the strong survival instinct for life. Children between the ages of five and nine often express the fear of going to sleep and not waking up, of being killed by burglars, or the man under the bed. Bogeymen and ghosts feature frequently in their stories, but they are not unduly evasive in talking about death – especially at bathtime!

Young adults have less reason to think much about death. Why should they, when they have so much life ahead? Thoughts of death seem irrelevant. Older people’s thoughts relate more to matters of finance, making adequate provision for those left behind, since the main burden will fall on the survivors. When people have been questioned about how they wish to die, the almost universal hope has been for a swift, peaceful and painless exit.

Perhaps no other phenomenon is subject to so much dissimilation and euphemism. We use expressions like, “passed over”, “passed away”, “kicked the bucket”, “snuffed it”, “fell asleep”, “six feet under”, “called home”, and if you know Monty Python’s famous Parrot Sketch, there is a whole list more.

James Baldwin expresses this even more vehemently in The Fire Next Time:

We will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, bloody sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that we ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life.

LIFE AFTER LIFE

What allows one person to relinquish life easily while another doesn’t want to let go? Are they mainly troubled by fear or sadness? What is the fear? The physical suffering, the manner of dying or death itself?

People want to stay alive and they take obvious practical measures to preserve life. Not content with their own efforts, which cannot prevent death for ever, many pray for some divine intervention to shield them. Religions may promise even more. Many faiths assert that man does not wholly die and they help the faithful by preparing them for the end of their mortal existence.

This extract by Malcolm Boyd says many of the kind of things one hears expressed at funerals:

At death, it is something like a symphony which awaits the start of a new movement. At that moment, colour may seem to be absent, but not a Hamlet black-and-white. There seems to be silence, but listen: that dead life makes sound which is like the reverberation inside a dead shell torn from the sea. Death is very real, and exists, but not apart from life. Life is very real, and exists, but not apart from death. The finality of each is required of the other. How are the acts of death related to the acts of life?

Unless a person dies many deaths in the spirit, he cuts himself off from living itself. He comes to misunderstand life, fears other persons, and breaks the very rhythm of living. A person who is most alive knows such deaths intimately. His life, in its openness and continued vulnerability, its absence of hardness or cynicism, is marked by the scars of such deaths. They are the very signs of life in him.

Now, this may be fine and stirring stuff, but if you are a pessimist (though you may argue that you are really being practical and realistic) and wish to have everything cut and dried, you will be encouraged to affirm that death is the end and that is all there is to it. “Six feet under, guv, and that’s your lot. Just a lot of pushing up the daisies.” As such, you are hardly likely to be influenced by a lot of pious twaddle and wishy-washy sentiment. Very down to earth; but down to earth people miss a lot of sky.

Yet, in the face of death, at least as I have witnessed them close at hand, peculiar reversals seem to take place. Our pragmatist is often driven to an optimistic view by the sheer pressure of his need to have a heaven to wait for, like the man dying of thirst insists there is an oasis round the next bend. The same is true of the optimist who has been largely buoyed up with the mere romanticism of his religion, but finds that in extremis his little edifice is shattered by the Grim Reaper, and the tides of despair come flooding in. Any view, taken uncritically, can be the mere depository of our projected fantasies. Who is right? Who knows? For death is the undiscovered country from which no traveller returns to bear tales.

Some people will, of course, deny the possibility of life after death simply because it cannot be open to scientific investigation. There is much in life, however, that won’t lead itself to such examination, and yet it is not rejected as invalid or unenriching. The love of friends and family, the appreciation of art and music – these can be measured and weighed, merely drawing up an inventory of their particulars like the dimensions of a mathematical model, which of course leads to a reductio ad absurdum and robs them of meaning and value as they have been experienced. This is a crassly superficial approach which, if followed relentlessly, impoverishes our lives to the point of bankruptcy. Our humanity is stronger than logic.

THE SOURCE AND GOAL

Our humanity needs hope, and hope is more than the mere obverse of despair, because we are continually seeking for meaning, and it is hope rather than despair which seems to offer a way forward into meaning, understanding and growth: survival, no less. There is a difference, though, between hope and desire. Desire takes shape from what is already known and its fulfilment is a pleasure already anticipated. Hope is unseen and unknown; and in consequence is always surprising and it has the capacity to transform – something which desire can never provide. The dividing line is depressingly narrow, however. It is very easy to model expectation of life after death upon what we know now. That is the biggest lie of Spiritualism. Nothing has changed in the life of the deceased. Business as usual, only, it’s more pretty! Heaven viewed in this way is an incredibly boring eternity of clouds and harps. No wonder Hell sounds so much more fun! Hope, on the other hand, is the prospect of the radically new. It is the breaking in of what we had never even dreamed of before. It has no limits or conditions.

It should be obvious that there is hope in life and not merely in ‘after death’; but if we are already open to its power and possibilities, then we are also ready for death. We live now from hour to hour as those who are ever receiving from the unknown, and “taking no anxious though of the morrow,” as the New Testament suggests. Such confidence does not lend itself to rational enquiry but, nevertheless, it is not diminished thereby.

I have consciously avoided attempting to fit all this into one religious tradition, for it should be a universal experience. For my own part, I find it supremely expressed within Christianity; others may find an alternative view fits their circumstances and perspective.

To finish, and perhaps to prove a point, I’ll quote from a Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran:

[The manuscript ends here, and I cannot yet find the page which continues. It seems reasonable to conclude that the passage quoted is the now-famous passage about death in The Prophet – which, at the time this talk was written, had not yet quite achieved the mass popularity it now enjoys – SJC.]

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