College Director Dan Strange considers what our mortality and death can teach us in these testing times including the art of living.
Good folk, come, rich or poor, this way,
Come, young and old, to see the play.
And think on this: though every man
Would live forever, no-one can. (‘The Preacher’, Totentanz)
Oh death, how can I understand?
I cannot walk, yet I must dance! (‘The Baby’, Totentanz)
…[W]ar does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. (C. S. Lewis) (1)
Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) is British composer’s Thomas Adès’ critically acclaimed composition for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, premiered at the BBC proms in 2013 (2). At once arresting and macabre, the work sets to music an anonymous German text that appears under a huge 15th century frieze which once covered the inside of St Mary’s Church, Lübeck, Germany (3). The frieze depicts a danced drama with the character of Death seizing people from every category of society in descending order of status, from Pope to peasant to baby. Class and privilege count for nothing. Interviewed about the piece, Adès notes that the dance of death is not an optional dance, it’s the one we all have to dance. It is both terrifying but also funny and absurd because of the total powerlessness of everyone no matter who they are: Death has to tell the Pope to take off his hat because it won’t fit into the coffin. At the end of the interview Adès is asked whether the writing of the piece has changed his view of mortality and death. He responds with a chuckle, ‘No, I mean it wouldn’t matter if it had, I mean it’s not going to change anything is it? That’s the point of the piece.’
At the moment, death is, and will continue to be for some time, at the forefront of our minds. As more and more people succumb to COVID-19 many of us will experience pain and loss personally. However, accompanying that pain will be, I hope and pray, among God’s people a faltering but growing sense of privilege, of the Lord’s perfect pedagogy in a sanctifying exercise to de-mortify our mortality. As Gibson notes ‘Death creates as well as kills. It can shape and mold as well as tear and shatter.… Death is a Teacher.’ (4)
For many in the West, we are experiencing, maybe for the first time, what many in others cultural contexts around the world, and what many have experienced throughout history: a stark full in the face stare at human finitude and mortality, of the inevitability of death, of the ephemerality of life, and of our mutability. We have never seen with such clarity the Creator-creature distinction: the unchanging ‘I am He’, contrasted with our ever changing creatureliness.
There are many modules to take in death’s curriculum. Death and mortality is God’s wrath revealed, an unnatural curse to be endured and feared, a fitting judgement for our puny pretensions to be as God (as Psalm 90 makes clear). For those in Christ crucially, death is ‘ours’ (1 Cor 3:23), no longer a penalty for sin but a stingless servant and gateway to life:
Q: Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?
A: Our death is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life. (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 42)
However, as Ephraim Radner points out in his extraordinarily rich study, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality and the Shape of a Human Life, we are reminded also that ‘the ordering of the traversal of the world, clothed in skins, is itself a divine gift’. (5)
While the ‘hope of heaven’ is a central Christian commitment, it should not be one that is based on the theological rejection of the grace that marks our being alive at all, given within the form of mortality. To say that mortality limits our being in a definitive fashion, theologically, is not to deprive our self-understanding of transcendent elements. That could happen only if our mortal existences were not created – that is, if they were not utterly dependent upon God. Indeed, the loss of a sense of creaturehood is what has determined the desiccated character of modern ‘immanence’ noted by critics like Charles Taylor in his studies of secularism. (6)
Such creatureliness means that amortality, ‘the mass condition where people don't act their age and don't acknowledge death’, (7) is a denial of our created givenness. It’s futile, foolish and as we are realizing every day at the moment, fantastical.
Our mortality and death are meaningful in that they reveal things about ourselves and about our Creator. Sinful and supressing cultural discourse attempts to vandalise this meaning by attempting to obscure with its own graffiti. Our culture has redefined our mortality in a myriad of ways, domesticating it, being terrified by it, denying it. However, the intractability of death remains. We can argue that our contemporary cultural context has been one where gospel ‘points of contact’ are being pushed down further and further underground. They are there (and are always there), but require us both to excavate with the power of a bulldozer, and operate with the deftness of a surgeon. Apologetically and evangelistically death has not been an easy target, but perhaps has remained an easier target: death is stubborn and just won’t die quietly. And now in these current times, the death rattle is pretty loud meaning it’s a target we can’t really miss!
In previous ages of low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates, days of plague, pestilence, famine and war, death was everywhere all of the time, hence the tradition of the totentanz and the danse macabre. Could it be that we need to re-appropriate such traditions? As Radner states:
part of our Christian vocation is to proclaim the reality of death itself. Nothing could be more revelatory of contemporary forgetfulness – or faithfulness – than the disappearance of this proclamation from Christian teachers and preachers as a central part of the gospel they announce. The tradition of memento mori - “remember that you must die” – was not merely a medieval invention. Is stands as a central scriptural focus (e.g. Ps. 39:6; Luke 12:20). For to proclaim death, at least in its central aspect of our existence, is to return always to that form of our being as creatures. To announce our creaturehood is to proclaim God. (8)
It seems like another lifetime now but in ‘peace time’ and before the Coronavirus wars (and maybe the state to which will return some time….) even when our culture has admitted death’s existence we learnt to distract ourselves from its harsh reality, reinforcing our bravado in the face of it, to put whitewash over the kind of universal fear that would actually haunt us if we only stopped to think about it. In an article a few years ago, ‘How Death Got Cool’, (9) Marisa Meltzer evidences how dying well and ‘death positivity’ was becoming a defining obsession of our time in some sub-cultures. One of Meltzer’s interviewees is mortician Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, ‘a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.’ (10) Members of the order (most of whom appear to be in their twenties and thirties) include a ‘grave garment designer’, a ‘mushroom decomposer’, a ‘smell of death researcher’, a ‘post-mortem jewelry designer’ and a ‘morbid cake maker’. When this was written, just two years ago, this was cutting edge. And now we are here….. and the ‘coolness’ of death seems dated and in bad taste. I wonder how Doughty’s business is doing and how it’s being perceived in this new COVID-19 context?
Groups like these have wanted to have a public conversation about death which is an obvious point of contact for us. What we must lovingly but firmly point out is that ultimately ‘death positivity’ does not have the resources to deal with the hard reality and ‘negativity’ of the awfulness of death. As the journalist commentator Owen Jones (whose views are often antithetical to orthodox Christianity) confessed following the death of his father, ‘I have no idea if, or how, our culture will ever come to terms with death.’ (11) Into this vacuum we hold out that one can only ‘die well’ within the subversively fulfilling narrative of the gospel of Christ.
For Christian believers, remembering our death enables us to prepare for our death. One creative suggestion comes from Professor John Wyatt (emeritus professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London) in his book Dying Well. Coming from within the memento mori tradition he reminds us of the late medieval Ars moriendi (the art of dying). These were ‘self-help manuals for the person who was dying’ (because a priest might not be available) and that ‘could be read while you were still healthy but the manual was also to be kept for use during the final days and hours.’ (12) A standard format emerged consisting of a commendation of death; warnings on temptations that beset the dying person and how they could be overcome; a catechism on repentance with the assurance of forgiveness; Christ’s seven prayers on the cross as a model for the dying believer’s prayers; and finally an exhortation on the importance of this preparation with suggested prayers for those caring for the one facing death. Wyatt’s notes at the beginning:
Scholarly works on the Ars Moriendi are starting to appear and the question of what it means for Christian people to die faithfully is being discussed with renewed energy. What would happen if we tried to translate the medieval art of dying into our world, the world of technological medicine and care pathways for dying people? (13)
This is what the rest of the book attempts to do as each chapter is structured around the various stages of the Ars Moriendi. We need to be reading books like this at this time.
Finally, as we remember and prepare for our death, we will learn the art of living. As Radner states (and remember he’s writing before Covid), ‘whatever the church’s full vocation may be at this time of unprecedented global transformation, it must include as a central element the ministry of day numbering.’ (14) This is also a major theme in Gibson’s excellent study of death in Ecclesiastes: ‘Dying people, who truly know they are dying, are among all people the most alive. They are not here to live forever. They are here to live for now, for today – and most of all they are here to live for others.’ (15) Mortality can gift us with a depth, intensity and quality of relationship with God and with others that is beautiful to behold and which can produce so much fruit. We must strive to be good pupils of Death the Teacher, numbering our days aright and so becoming wise as we experience, and as we need to know, that we are all on borrowed time. (16)
1. C. S. Lewis. ‘Learning in War Time’. A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939.
2. This Proms world premiere including the interview with Adès can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G8ySgSayK8. Both the full text and score can be viewed on the Faber score library at http://scorelibrary.fabermusic.com/Totentanz-20627.aspx.
3. For a website devoted to the frieze, go to http://www.dodedans.com/Emaria.htm. Given its theme, it is tragically ironic that the painting was destroyed in a British bombing raid on Palm Sunday 1942.
4. David Gibson, ‘On Death’ in The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 132.
5. Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 34.
6. Ibid., 33.
7. Peter York, “A User’s Guide to Age: We Can’t Become Truly ‘Amortal,’” The Independent, May 13 2011, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/healthy-living/a-users-guide-to-age-we-cant-truly-become-amortal-2283276.html. The term ‘amortal’ was coined by Catherine Mayer in Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly (London: Vermilion, 2011).
8. Radner, A Time to Keep, 152.
9. Marisa Meltzer, “How Death Got Cool,” The Guardian, January 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/12/how-death-got-cool-swedish-death-cleaning. With thanks to Robbie Strachan for alerting me to this.
11. Owen Jones, ‘Grief will let go eventually. And then I’ll remember my dad as he was’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/12/grief-dad-father-death-loss
12. John Wyatt, Dying Well (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018), 14.
13. Ibid., 15
14. Radner, A Time to Keep, 241.
15. David Gibson, Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 133.
16. See Radner, A Time to Keep, 233
Dan Strange is College Director at Oak Hill College, London, and a Trustee and faculty member of Crosslands Training. A longer version of this article appeared in Dan’s regular editorial column Strange TImes in Themelios 43/2 August 2018