Image copyright DC Comics
A long time friend of mine died suddenly a couple of days ago. Tom was in his comic shop, putting together orders, and, it appears, suffered a heart attack. He died there alone.
Death still has its sting – for both those who die (which is all of us) and those who are left behind. Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) has always seemed to me to be particularly fatuous, not to mention deceitful. He said it, of course, in the belief that faith in his Christ meant life would resume on the other side of the grave. Even if this were so, dying would not be without its pain, and grieving not without deep sorrow.
And what about that word ‘sting’? The Greek Paul uses, ‘κέντρον’, means ‘a sharp point’ as if death is nothing more than a pin prick, a short sharp shock no more troublesome than an injection. In my experience, spending time with people who are dying, it is far from that. The body’s shutdown is often slow, relentless and unbearable. Morphine helps, not Jesus.
Mourning too is persistent; an emptiness and a profound sense of loss, as we often acknowledge when offering condolences. It takes time to subside, but never truly disappears. Every death, especially of loved ones, depletes us. As John Donne puts it:
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
God Nature, whose product we are, is insensible and indifferent to our suffering. It neither knows nor cares that we are self-aware, emotional beings who grieve and suffer. Death, which troubles us so much, is one of the engines of evolution. Once we have passed the stage at which we might viably reproduce we are programmed to decline and die. We must make way for new creations, which is not, despite what Christians claim, in a brand new body on a new earth or in heaven. The new creations are those who follow us. Paul, as he was in so many respects, is wrong to say that because of the futile hope of resurrection, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Death will never lose its sting, its pain and finality.
Tom will be remembered by those to whom he mattered in life. This is the best we can do; this and living our lives to the full while we’re still here, loving others and being kind.
Farewell Tom, my friend.