I spent part of this morning watching portions of the Mass of Christian Burial for Vincent (Buddy) Cianci, former Mayor of the City of Providence. It was held in the Roman Catholic Cathedral with the Bishop of Providence Presiding. I was not a real fan of Buddy Cianci, but his death has caused a great deal of conversation throughout the city over the past week, and I was curious to see how the Bishop and others handled the topic. It stimulated a conversation I have had with myself many times, perhaps more since I have achieved “oldish” age.
I’ve gone 180 degrees in my adult life in terms of how I think about death. I have been present when many people have died, giving me much time to think about it and to come to an understanding of what it means. I’m not completely there yet, but I’m in a place where I’m comfortable with the meaning of death. I may make some revisions in the time I have left in my own life, however. I suspect that as it gets more and more personal it takes on a different hue.
Death has been a concern for humans for millennia. Ever since the human brain was able to articulate thoughts the issue of life and death has been with us. In this day and age we are greatly influenced by Greek thinking on the subject. It was a subject that grew from a belief in “the soul” that inhabits the human frame. According to Greek thinking, at the time of death “the soul” escapes the body and goes on its journey, either to what we have come to call “Heaven” or to that place we all are supposed to fear…”Hell.” You can see how this thinking influenced the eventual teachings of Christianity. *
At the time of death of a human, the ancient Greeks would say, the body dies and eventually decays, but the soul of the person continues to exist. There have been studies done to weigh the body at the time of death, and there are reports of some that there is a distinctive weight loss at the moment of death, considered by some to be the weight of the soul departing. I’m a skeptic on this specific issue.
I cannot speak intelligently on behalf of non-Christian belief systems without some further research, but I am safe in saying that there is a wide range of beliefs about death in the Christian community. Much of it is dependent upon the way in which literal reading of the scriptures (Fundamentalism) comes up against a more scientific approach to the scriptures.
In addition, cultural matters provide an influence upon the issue of death and what it means. Where one lives in this vast world can help determine the thinking on such a weighty subject.
One variation on the issue has to do with whether one sees death as something that detracts from human life, or if it is something that has a more additive quality to it. When someone dies, is there less of that person, or is there something which increases in them? Have they achieved a moment or place where perfection (as in Buddhism when one achieves Nirvana) and “life” really begins anew in a different way? Is death, then, a defeat or a victory?
Listening to the funeral today, and recognizing it as somewhat typical of Christian funereal practices, one could come to the conclusion that death is a defeat. Sadness and other forms of grief are for the “loss” of a loved one. That is not the intent of Christian theology, but it sure sounds like it when we think about black clothing, morbid music, and lots of talk about “loss.” That is all about “us”. It isn’t so much reflective of orthodox Christianity, where death is a victory.
There is something to think about in the realm of death that speculates that the body simply stops working. Science teaches us that we all will come to a point where, for one reason or another, our body ceases to function. Oxygen stops flowing, as does blood, and all the nutritions we need to stay alive. The human “machine” breaks down and stops functioning as it has throughout the life of the person. We know that that is what happens in animals. Deer that hunters shoot simply stop having life. Squirrels that are run over by a car have experienced the destruction of body organs required to continue living. Humans experience the same thing. So there is little mystery about the function of death.
What happens beyond the death of a person is a totally different issue. The “myths” (not a negative word in the theological sense**) kick in and we begin to call upon our belief systems. They have attempted to define the after-life according to what it means to be a child of God.
Christians have strayed from orthodox Christian belief to some degree, represented by fantasies which prey on denial and wish-fulfillment. Mystics play with the idea of an active after-life which includes ghost-like apparition and such. Atheists and some agnostics believe it is simply all over, just like the life of that squirrel, whose body is next to the curb.
As for me, I’ll keep thinking about this. I’m not finished yet.
Photo Credit: Science Photo Library
*The Greek Way of Death by Robert Garland. (Cornell Univ. Press)
** See Campbell and Moyers