In his meditation on the sources of human community, “Death and Politics,” Jody Bottum makes a case for the foundational importance of death, mourning, and the grave. The dark universality of grief, he argues, glues us together. “We create true communities,” Bottum writes, “only when we have shared death.” We live as we bury.
Thoughts about death and its role in the affairs of the living take us into deep and, as Bottum rightly observes, “dangerous waters.” As a Jew or a Christian, the currents can be hard to swim in. Biblical faith denies the finality of death and trusts in the promises of God. For secular critics, this confidence epitomizes the self-deluding, reality-denying atmosphere of religious belief. “Of all things, death is most certain and cannot be evaded,” the critic says, “and this kind of evasion is exactly what makes faith so repugnant. It makes a mockery of the real experiences of loss and grief that we all feel when a loved one dies.”
Well said, but is it so? Does the promise of eternal life deny the reality of death and help us escape from grief? Is faith an evasion, a psycho-social narcotic developed to avoid the pain of loss?
If we turn to the Bible, then we will be surprised to discover that, in the primal history of humanity, death seems to evoke no strong emotional responses. True enough, death comes as punishment for transgression. But it is an affliction that seems readily accommodated in the subsequent generations. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, but the book of Genesis makes no mention of Adam or Eve mourning the loss of his life. The generations are recounted. Seth begat Enosh, Enosh begat Kenan, and so on to Noah. Each receives his full allotment of years, but we read no descriptions of weeping or wailing over the dead. It seems that men and women can feel jealousy, lust, ambition, and shame, but not the bitterness of loss. Death seems to become nothing more than a simple, nonnegotiable, and brutal fact of life, no more to be mourned than the setting of the sun.
But something odd happens. With Abraham comes the promise: land, prosperity, and the immortality of countless descendants. Here we find the first step toward Sinai and the covenant of life that Christians believe is fulfilled in Christ. Then Sarah dies, just as Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, died before, and just as her own son Isaac and his sons and the sons of his sons will die in their own time. And for the very first time in the Bible, we find a scene of mourning. Abraham enters her tent and weeps over his dead wife (Gen. 23:2).
Abraham’s mourning over Sarah tells us something about the psychological effect of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls “the dramatic rhythm” of salvation history. The covenant promise cannot help but sharpen the outlines of human experience. The future that God promises throws death into a new light. When he calls Abraham, God begins to awaken sin-slumbering humanity. We are created for fellowship with him, not for the grave, and inevitably what had been accepted as a fact of life becomes a brutal, unnecessary blow. Thus the psychological paradox of faith: a belief in God’s promises heightens rather than softens the existential pain of death.
Therefore, it is not a weak faith that feels the pain of death’s enduring power, anymore than grief over one’s sins is a sign of lack of confidence in God’s forgiveness. On the contrary, the victory of Christ on the cross intensifies our sense of death’s wrongful hold on life, and faith in the resurrection of the dead sharpens rather than blunts the loss. The scroll swallowed by John in his visions is sweet to the mouth and bitter in the stomach (Rev. 10:9–10).
It sounds counterintuitive, but it is not. Affliction, anguish, and tribulation become more real and more intense as victory seems more certain, as anyone knows who has made a long and difficult journey and felt the strange agony of the final stages when the end is in view. We are rightly driven to near madness by the thought of those killed in Hitler’s concentration camps in the final weeks of the war. We are not wrong to grieve more deeply at the funeral of a child. The promise of life makes death less manageable emotionally, not more.
The ancient Greeks and Romans understood the paradoxical relationship between hope and grief. “Cease to hope,” writes the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “and you will cease to fear.” Expect little, he suggests, and you will not be disappointed. “Make your peace with destiny,” he urges, because if we accept the deliverances of fate, then death will not disturb. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, a hard-nosed realism preaches similar wisdom. Biologically, we are to recognize that we are part of the cycles of life and death that characterize all creatures. Viewed cosmically, we need to accept that our world is a mere speck, and the short career of homo sapiens is an insignificant moment on the timeline of the universe. The death of a loved one is thus inevitable (natural!) and, viewed ecologically and cosmologically, is of no consequence. Why, then, should we mourn at all, other than to manage our psychological pain toward the rational goal of equanimity and acceptance of the facts of life?
Faith blocks this easy deliverance from the afflictions of loss. But with hope comes more than heightened affliction; it also stiffens our resistance to the power of death. Abraham does not weep forever. The pain of loss has brought him low, but he “rose up from before his dead” (23:3). Stricken by the power of deathwhat could be more powerful we often wonder?he straightens and prepares himself for action. He goes to the local chieftains. He wants a burial place for Sarah, a place to put her “out of my sight” (23:4)
“Out of my sight!” It is a shocking thing to say about the body of a loved one, but it is a sentiment repeated in the Bible. Jesus chastises one who would follow him but wishes to delay on order to bury his father. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he says (Matt. 8:22, KJV). The principle is not general, as if Christ came to abolish the law (both natural and revealed) that compels children to mourn for, bury, and remember their parents. Rather, like Abraham who rises from his distress, those who follow Christ must recognize that even as death continues to crush life, it cannot control the future. “O death, where is thy victory?” asks St. Paul with haughty confidence in the power of life. “O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
This resistance against emotional control that death can exercise over our lives is woven deeply into Jewish and Christian practices of mourning and burial. The Jewish prayer for the dead gives no space for any mention of loss. The Mourner’s Kaddish brazenly ignores the grave, calling for the triumph of the covenant and glorifying the power of God. It is a verbal punch, a spear of prayer plunged as deeply as possible in the nothingness of death that wishes to haunt our lives.
I’ve often felt the same at funeral Masses. I’ve known the anguish of loss and the tears of impotence. I’ve raged against death in the solitude of my mind: Why? Why? Why? I’ve brokered compromises: Nobody lives forever; She’s in a better place. I’ve felt the bittersweet presence of the dead in the caverns of my memory, as well as the numbing vacuum of their absence in everyday life. Death brings many emotions that cannot be mastered, which is why it bewitches and controls so much of our lives. And yet, after the eulogies are over, the priest prepares and consecrates the bread and the wine. When the wafer hits my tongue, I feel as though the Church has put a stick in the eye of death.
We live as we bury. It’s quite true, I think. I have little doubt that the restless humanism and volatile politics of modern Western culture stem from the ways in which Jews and Christian mourn and bury. We are not trained to reconcile ourselves to death. We do not make peace with the dark destiny of the grave. As a result, we grieve all the more intenselyand we strike back at death with all we can muster.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.