Friday, November 13, 2009


This might get morbid...but I do actually have a point to make.

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 2:7

the 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.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think you are right that our distance from death impairs our understanding of the Scriptures. We make them neat and inoffensive as well, our hearts aflutter for the baby Jesus, Mary's clean robe, and all the washed animals in the spacious barn.

We just don't get it. And at some level, we choose not to get it.

Retriever said...

Agree. And also, we Americans are so obsessively clean, deodorized, and contained that the physicality of illness and death scare us even to see them. Let alone smell or touch...

I am so sorry for you that you found out about his death at such a delay. Was it just recently, or when?

I had just been talking with a friend whose mother is very ill about some fragments of memories of when my dad was dying, and how he would shudder with cold and pain from the exertion of trying to get from the bed to the sunny armchair near the window. At the time I was completely freaked out seeing my once tall, powerful Daddy reduced to an emaciated, agonized weak patient. It was the physical weakness that terrified me, because as a Dad he had loomed so tall, dark and handsome in my childhood (the handsome Naval reserve officer back from his time on exercises). In fact, he stayed pretty much indomitable, brave, and upbeat mentally until near the last days, and it was the contrast of suffering body and strong will that was so disconcerting.

I wonder now if some of that same disconnect and outrage doesn't come into play with facing the reality as opposed to the sappified gloss over the Crucifixion. Vulnerability and strength of purpose coexisting. One wants to say with Peter "No, absolutely not, I won't let this happen, you were made for better things..."

I can't imagine what it must have been like for you right after you found out. Did you find him?

All those Biblical passages on Death as a destroyer, a thief, a corrupter, have far more meaning in light of what you describe. Also, your reflections helped bring alive more of what the Lazarus story must have been about. REmember the practical sister saying "But by now he stinketh..."

ON the other hand, the most ghastly sight of death I ever had wasn't when working in hospitals, but when my mother died. My sister was ill in hospital herself and somehow managed to call the funeral parlor and insist they do a lavish and tacky pink satin ruffle lined open coffin and garish makeup and clothes on my mom. Nobody in my family has ever had anything except a plain pine box and/or cremation. WE don't do viewings. Chiefly because everyone in the family would rather the kids and grandchildren got the money that would otherwise have been spent on coffin, etc. Seeing my mother full of plastic preservatives and orangey was worse than seeing her dead without all that stuff.

But it must have been far, far worse for you coping with someone who had been just there undisvoered that long since death.

So sorry...

terri said...


He died over a year ago. Luckily, I did not have to find him. That would have been way more traumatizing. He lived 3 hours away from us, so the police from his town called and let me know what had happened.

However, because of the way things happened it was a very disorienting experience. We never saw him.....and that's a good thing.....but it was strange. His death was so sudden, and then never actually "seeing" him made it seem surreal.

I kept having dreams where he would knock at my door and be like,"Hey....I'm not dead. What did you guys do with all my stuff? " complicated everything greatly. When a person is not discovered quickly, it doesn't take long for them to decompose. The longer the amount of the time, the worse the effects. We had to have special biological cleaners clean the house. WE had to dispose of virtually everything and have the carpet ripped up because the odor seeps into everything......and there is no mistaking that odor for anything else.

It's why when the whole Casey Anthony case was going on and her mother called 911 saying that the trunk of her car smelled like death.....I knew Caylee was gone.

People who have been exposed to that smell know what it is as soon as they come across it.

I'm actually OK with things now. I still hate that it had to happen that way. It was a weird coincidence of timing and events that allowed for that much time to pass after his death.

When I hear news stories about these types of things happening it always brings it back to my mind.

It did open up my eyes more to all of those biblical references of "corruption" and "destruction".

I am sorry that you have lost both of your parents.....and having to see your mom in such a strange state.

I don't think we can help but try and preserve the people we knew. It's a natural the Egyptians and Maya?(I forget). Burying people with precious articles and adorned with jewelry or seems nearly universal.

Our way of keeping what we have left of people.