The worst thing about my father's death was not that he died. Everybody dies. It's like the old movie line: Nobody's getting out of here alive!
No. The worst part of his death was that it went unnoticed for a week and a half. He was supposed to be out of town, so no one missed him until he didn't show up for work a week and a half later. He didn't have a cell phone, so when I tried to call him at home and he didn't answer, I figured I was just going to have wait until his vacation was over to speak to him.
A human body left unattended after death begins to deteriorate quite rapidly. Not only does it begin to deteriorate, but it begins to become food for other living things; insects, or animals if it is out in the open.
It is a morbid, unpleasant thing to dwell upon, and we hardly ever think about it because death and its effects are removed from our Western consciousness. When someone dies they are immediately taken to a morgue or a funeral parlor. They are embalmed with preservatives to keep them from rotting. They have their bodies emptied of fecal matter, and bodily fluids. They are dressed in attractive clothing and have their hair and makeup done. They are placed in satin-lined, oak or steel boxes with a polished sheen.
This is all done by other people. We don't see the deceased until all the dirty work is done and what we are left with is something resembling a wax figure. We gaze upon this figure and hold conversations at its side with other mourners, discussing how good he/she looks. We deceive ourselves with the luxurious funeral trappings, concealing from our consciousness the realities of what death means for a physical body. We provide ourselves with a sense of pseudo-immortality for the deceased person who is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
It isn't real.
Not only is it not real, but the entire process creates an impediment to our understanding of life and death.
I have become convinced that the Scriptural descriptions of Life and Death that we find in the Bible are based on simple observation and meditation. When Genesis describes man as being formed form the dust of the earth, it is a true description, because when people die, that is exactly what happens to them. An ancient observer had only to come across the remains of the dead to see that very quickly man transforms from a living being to inert, dusty matter.
When Genesis describes God breathing into the formed figure of man, bringing it to life, it is describing what must have seemed obvious to anyone:
Genesis 2:7the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Only living people breathe. A baby's life starts with its first breath, an adult's life ends with its last. Once breath permanently leaves your body, you're dead. And yet, what is breath? What is the impetus that makes a body breathe and continue breathing? To an ancient observer it would be a mystery, with no sense of lungs, or involuntary brain impulses that signal the body to continue breathing, how could one explain why death always comes with that last exhalation?
Another common and naturalistic description of life tied up with death appears in the command not to consume an animal's blood because "the life of a creature is in the blood". So life is found in breath and in blood. And just as when breath disappears, or returns to God, one dies, so too when one's blood pours out, life ends.
This is obvious when we think about it.
We keep people alive now by supplementing their breathing or blood supply. Thousands of years later we are still dealing in the same realms of life and death, breath and blood, as the Israelites did. Their words are no less profound or true, though we may think of them in a different light.
We are simultaneously more familiar with the physical, observable, biological processes of life, while being hopelessly disconnected from the physical, observable, biological processes of death. Because of this, we have an impoverished view of a large portion of Scripture as it pertains to life and death.
We don't understand that Death was/is an uncontrollable, unpredictable enemy readying itself to swallow up everybody. The lack of a belief in an after-life in early Judaism lays bare the fact that life was tied to a physical body, and death destroyed life in every sense. To hope for new life was to hope for a new physical existence, to hope for an escape from the decay.
We think that we have outwitted the nastiness of death, the disgust of decay, and the hopelessness of deterioration; but we haven't. We have only turned our gaze away from it.
This is what death looks like:
This is the home of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland, Ohio man whose home had at least 11 murdered, decaying bodies in it.
What we feel when we think about the 11 bodies left in Anthony Sowell's house is probably quite similar to what an ancient culture might have felt about the despair of death and the mistreatment of human bodies. It's a visceral, raw, gut-wrenching emotion.
Because we have sanitized and trivialized death in its physical sense we have affected how we also see life. We live in our heads. We live in the abstract. We live through our thoughts and not through our actions.
It isn't how we were meant to live. It isn't reflective of the world view that much of Scripture was written in.
Because we misunderstand death, we misunderstand life.