American culture has a conflicted relationship to death. Maybe that’s because most Americans don’t have to think about it very often.
Death is less visible than it used to be. It comes most often to people in their 70s or 80s. It typically happens in sanitized, professionalized institutions most people rarely visit. You might live well into adulthood, even most of your life, without an up-close-and-personal encounter with death.
This buffer between the average American and the prospect of death is an illusion, of course. Death is no less inevitable now than when life expectancy was in the 30s and everyone died in their own beds. But precisely because it is often ignorable, when death does impose itself the common responses are confusing and even contradictory. It’s common to fight off death with everything we can muster, on one hand. Then once a death has occurred, it’s common to shrug off death as if there’s nothing to see here.
Fighting off death
Americans invest a staggering amount of resources in the attempt to hold death back. In Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande reflects on how the incredible capabilities of modern medicine shape the way we think about, confront, and ultimately experience death. Doctors are trained to approach diseases as problems to be solved, to throw everything they have at what isn’t yet curable, and to extend life however possible. They’re so good at solving these problems that doctors and patients alike cling to the hope that there is always something more to be done. Some new experimental drug to try out. A new surgical procedure to perform. Another specialist to weigh in.
As a result of this hope, Gawande says, “we’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win” (Being Mortal, 171-72). In fact, one quarter of Medicare spending goes to “the 5 percent of patients who are in the final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months that is of little apparent benefit” (Being Mortal, 153).
This common approach to end-of-life care points to the cost we’re paying for all the benefits we’ve received from medicine’s ability to make life longer and more comfortable. Our success in treating a wide variety of once-fatal problems has blinded us to the fact that you have to die of something. Every time we cure one disease another will eventually rise to take its place. Because death is no disease to be eliminated. It’s the inevitable end to every human life.
Shrugging off death
So on one hand in American culture there’s a tendency to fend off death at all costs. On the other hand, when someone actually dies, there’s another tendency that pulls in the opposite direction. Sometimes we shrug death off as if it’s something less than a devastating tragedy. Just one of those things. Nothing to see here.
For example, think about the way many American funerary customs blind us to the ugliness and finality of death. In 1963 investigative journalist Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a satirical send-up of the American funeral industry. Studying trade magazines with names like Mortuary Management, Mitford found a startling range of products for the dead marketed with qualities desired by the living. Whether burial clothing, caskets, cemetery plots or whatever else, “the emphasis is on the same desirable qualities that we have been schooled to look for in our daily search for excellence: comfort, durability, beauty, craftmanship.”
In American culture, it’s normal to put clothes on our dead as if they are alive. It’s normal to place our dead in soft and sturdy coffins for comfort and protection as if they are alive. It’s normal to manipulate their bodies and cover them in makeup and even set their faces with pleasant expressions so they look like they’re alive. But underneath the appeal to comfort and preservation is a denial of the fundamental separation that has taken place. Behind the quest for a lifelike appearance is an attempt to deny the deathly reality.
Facing up to death in Christ
These books on end-of-life care and funerary practices offer just a couple examples of a much wider phenomenon. Ours is a culture in denial. This denial leads to disorientation when death comes close. And in that confusion Christians have a powerful opportunity for a clarifying witness.
As Christians we face what we face in Christ. He is our orientation to the world. We view death as we view life—looking to his example, listening to his words, hoping in his work.
That means we know we should know better than to shrug death off as if it’s not terrible, even through some sort of solidarity with the promise of heaven. Yes, of course, it’s right that a Christian who has died in faith is in a better place. Paul tells us that to die is gain (Phil. 1:21), that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). This is true and wonderful. But this same Paul also called death our final enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and told us we’re still waiting till that enemy is made a footstool for Jesus’ feet.
Even more to the point, think of Jesus’ own posture toward death when he approached the grave of his friend Lazarus. He didn’t tell Mary and Martha to remember he’s in a better place. He didn’t come to Bethany for a funeral “celebration.” Jesus wept. The text says he was deeply moved, even angry. He knew he would give Lazarus life again, but still he experienced the truth about death. Jesus’ example gives us permission to grieve this awful reality and absolutely no incentive to suppress any of it.
Facing death in Christ also means we should know better than to try to fight it off ourselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek medical interventions where we can. Thank God for what modern medicine has done to make our lives longer and more comfortable. By all means, use this gift. But the Bible tells us to be honest with ourselves and with each other. We’re told to remember that all flesh is like grass. At our most glorious, we’re like flowers in a field, blooming brilliantly just before we wither and fall (Isa. 40:6-8). We’re told to number our days as the path to wisdom (Psa. 90:12). No medical intervention can change what it means to be mortal in this fallen world.
In Christ, all our focus hinges on the only intervention that brings any true comfort in life and in death: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
It’s all in Hebrews 2: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (2:14-15).
We have no chance to fight off death for ourselves. In Christ we don’t have to try. This battle is not ours to fight. He has made our enemy his enemy, and he has conquered for us.
In Christ we’re set free to speak with clarity into our culture’s confusion about death. And the truth about death gives us a rock-solid platform from which to offer the hope of the gospel. Yes, death really is terrible. No, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. But Jesus and all in him is yours for the taking.