QED

Death, You’ve Got a Sting Alright

O death, where is thy sting?

They are replacing fire and smoke detectors in my apartment building in order to meet council standards. Most apartments in my building have built-in balconies. Across mine I have had installed concertina-type doors to cut down heating bills in Sydney’s deepest winter. Thank God for global warming. And I was told that I had created a separate room which therefore required an additional detector.

Around about a year ago all windows were fitted with locks to ensure that they couldn’t open wide enough to let a child fall out. I asked the chap who is advising on the smoke detectors what should be done if a smoke alarm goes off accidently? Open the windows wide he said before the alarm activates alarms in all of the apartments. Must keep my key to the window locks handy I thought lest my monthly cheroot causes panic.

When visiting Southport, a seaside town in England, earlier this year I was told that I couldn’t drink my glass-bottled drink outside on the pier for fear that I would carelessly drop it and cause serious injury to lightly shod passers-by. There are lots of mandatory rules these days to keep us safe. Bicycle helmets and seat belts, for example, and still we die. What’s going on? We most definitely need more rules if we are ever to live forever.

I have been thinking about death recently and came to the conclusion, temporarily at least, that it is overrated. Marcus Aurelius (in Meditations) has a seemly sensible perspective on the whole grisly business:

Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind you and to the time that is ahead of you, another boundless space. In this infinity, then, what is the difference between him that lives for three days and him who lives three generations?

On the other hand, George Burns’ aphorism that no-one wants to live to be a hundred until they’re ninety-nine, has a ring of verisimilitude about it. Certainly, those running our national health service appear think along the lines of Burns rather than Aurelius. They give me my flu shot for free, and a stronger dose to boot, to try to keep me alive; even though I am not sure what value I add to the human family that makes me so precious.

I also get a free pneumonia shot. My doctor told me that pneumonia used to be called “the old man’s friend” because it often put sick old people out of their misery. These days they want to keep old folks alive; presumably, judging by many distressing accounts, so that they can torture them in aged-care homes.

I began thinking of life and death recently when rereading Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion. He’s an uncompromising character is Dawkins. He bangs on about how awful the Bible is with all those stories of slaughter. He examples Jericho and the Lord’s instruction to Joshua to kill all of the men, women and children within the city; save, that is, for one particular household.

There is a lot going on beneath the surface in this Biblical story which has to be understood. But leave that aside, for Dawkin’s surely does, believing it all to be mythical hocus-pocus, and focus just on the mass killing. It is a drop in the ocean.

Billions of people have died, a great many in the most awful circumstances, since human beings first trod the Earth. It is as certain as taxes that many more than seven billion (perhaps even ten or twelve billion? I don’t know, I’m not an actuary) will die during the course of the next one hundred years. That’s a disposal problem to conjure with, never mind plastic bags. Maybe the Lord thinks as did Aurelius. What’s a few thousand dying in Jericho set against the unfolding of His grand plan?

Do we put too much store on dragging out our lives? There are any number of set days when there are collections in the cause of finding cures for various morbidities. None of it does any good in the end result. We will all die anyway and within a comparatively short space of time.

Bear in mind that I am not pretending to be above it all. I pray each night that God will watch over my family and friends. And I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. Except, maybe, for a few saints we are hardwired to cling to our own lives and to be enormously protective of the lives of those close to us.

Reportedly one of the popes on his deathbed (I can’t pinpoint which one) said that “life is sweet.” Presumably he thought he was destined for Heaven so you wouldn’t think he would be regretful about leaving this mortal coil. But there it is. If human nature doesn’t quite trump religious conviction in the godly, it sure gives it a good run for its money.

My final thought on this is as follows. We, human beings, have our own perspective on death. And we cannot escape from it. However, intellectually, if not emotionally, I think we can imagine that our perspective isn’t definitive.

In a sense we are cocooned. If you are Dawkins nothing lies outside. If you believe in God more lies outside than in. Take your pick. Death has a bigger sting if you believe as does Dawkins but it clearly retains a sting whatever you believe.

7 comments
  • Ian MacDougall

    “There’s a Jewish joke that says there’s no Heaven or Hell: we all go to the same place when we die, where Moses and Rabbi Akiva give constant and everlasting classes on the Bible and the Talmud. For the righteous this is eternal bliss, while for the wicked this is eternal suffering.” 😉
    https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-what-is-the-jewish-afterlife-like-1.5362876
    Naturally, other variations on that theme come to mind.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    Heaven, n. A place where the climate never changes and the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with rapt attention as you expound your own, while smoking a cheroot whenever it pleases you. (after A Bierce, 1906)

  • pgang

    Peter, as you know the sanctity of life exists because life is granted by God. Because we carry within us the image of God, life is therefore intrinsically and unfathomably precious.
    On the other hand we ourselves are not gods, but fallen created beings. There is a penalty to pay for our rebellion which can’t be avoided by absconding on bail or escaping from prison, nor is there any end to the prison term. Many attempts to prolong life have become a vain attempt to cheat death, rather than improve the quality of our lives.
    As you insightfully point out, all the rules in the world won’t save us, nor will the endless medical interferences prevent the inevitable. Having watched industry stagger and the workplace fracture under the increasing burden of safety compliance, your question is a very poignant one for me.
    The question should be, is this making life better? All of the petty rules we must live with today most certainly do not. You have to also wonder about many treatments we offer, such as chemotherapy. Solzhenitsyn raised this question in Cancer Ward.
    Palliative care is based on quality of life, while extending the suffering of the sick and elderly is based on what exactly?

  • Ian MacDougall

    It would be interesting to get the view of a geneticist on the possible transfer process for the Original Sin. Did it wend its way into the human genome so that it is now part of our DNA? If so, it may in time be possible for it to be repaired, as with a number of other inherited conditions such as the classic sickle-cell anaemia,.
    As it stands, it has the hallmarks of Lamarckian inheritance: that of an acquired characteristic.
    If it were subject to future gene therapy, it would make Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to that bloodthirsty sky-ogre God The Father completely redundant. Well, at least for those inclined to believe that sort of fable in the first place.

  • Bwana Neusi

    With the exponential progress with medical miracles we are either the last of the mortals, or the first generation of the immortals. Chances are that we will have nothing to die from except boredom.

    I believe that we should leave this world having used up all of our physical and mental resources. There is little point in falling from your mortal coil with unused credit.

  • brandee

    Firstly Jericho and later Jerusalem.
    It seems to be an ancient war convention that besieged cities like Jericho were given 2 choices:
    One, all could surrender and remain alive, or
    Two, resist the siege until it is lifted or until the walls fall and all are slaughtered.
    Jerusalem was so treated by the Mohammedan Saracens and by the Crusaders.
    Jesus had other ways of resolving conflict!

  • Farel

    “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
    Saul of Tarsus

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