Monday, August 17, 2009

Thinking about death

There have been quite a number of prominent deaths this summer, and not just Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. TV host Ed McMahon. Veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite. Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Former Philippines president Corazon Aquino. ’80s filmmaker John Hughes. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. Memoirist Frank McCourt. And in the Christian publishing world, Robert Short, author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, and Marie Little, wife of IVP author Paul Little. All of these passed in just the last few months.

I just looked up some of these and discovered that Wikipedia has running entries like “Deaths in 2009” or month-by-month listings like “Deaths in July 2009." Reading these entries is sobering, as you see the lives of the famous and the not-so-famous summarized in a single sentence, often with the cause of death - colon cancer, heart attack, car accident, hanging, brain aneurysm. Regardless of the individual's notoriety, fame, wealth or power, death comes to us all.

I'm certainly familiar with death; I've already lost my father, a cousin, an aunt, an uncle and all four of my grandparents. But it feels like there have been several recent reminders of death close to home; my wife's aunt died of cancer earlier this summer, and a publishing industry friend lost his wife. It's scary when people of our own age or generation start to die. It's my twenty-year high school reunion next year, and I'm nervous about finding out if any of my classmates are gone.

So how do we live in light of the presence of death? As I get a little farther along in my mid-to-late 30s, I find myself a little more aware of my own health. I get worried that aches and pains could be more serious. A friend from church found a benign tumor a few months ago. What if that shoulder or back pain isn't just a muscle or joint thing, but cancer?

I've been thinking about all this partly because I'm the editor for a forthcoming book by Rob Moll on The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (releasing spring 2010). I was reviewing an early draft of the manuscript as my wife's aunt was in the final stages of cancer. And what struck me most about Rob's book is that throughout most of church history, Christians have practiced the spiritual discipline of dying well, of anticipating one's own death. It had been an intentional practice of numbering one's days, of reckoning with one's own mortality.

These days people often say that they hope to die quickly, in a sudden accident or something. But Christians throughout history usually preferred to have time to prepare and anticipate one's death, to make peace with God and others. One's approaching death was a time of saying the important things, like sorry, thank you, forgive me, I love you. The reality of death often jolts us into living more meaningfully.

I remember after events like Columbine and 9/11, one significant result and response was that people hugged their kids and had significant conversations with their loved ones. It seems to me that every new celebrity death in the news could be a trigger to remind us to do the same.

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