This might sound morbid to some people, but I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of death. As a youth, I found funerals much more interesting than weddings. And growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I thought Catholic funerals were particularly remarkable ceremonies. I can still remember the unique smell of incense filling the church at the first funeral mass I ever attended.
My wife would tell you that I still enjoy visiting cemeteries—especially national or military memorial parks. In a cemetery I feel singularly alone with my thoughts. As a philosopher I have always hoped that by reflecting upon death’s inevitability and imminence, I might gain a deeper and more insightful perspective on living life. I suppose I have also hoped that by keeping the inescapability of my death in the front of my mind that my fear of it would lessen. Yet when I endured a life-threatening illness 12 years ago, I definitely experienced the one-of-a-kind fear and dread that comes from anticipating one’s death.
As a college instructor I taught the philosophy class Perspectives on Death and Dying for several years. The textbook I used on thanatology (the study of death and dying) revealed that many people avoid thinking about death. In fact, the text stated that some people actually think that if they don’t think about death or in any way acknowledge it, then it may not happen to them.1 Now that is the perfect example of wishful thinking! As my former boss and apologetics mentor Walter Martin used to say: “The real death rate is one per person.”
A Little Humor from the Graveyard
While I take the topic of death quite seriously, that doesn’t mean I can’t also make jokes about it. Along with being a philosopher, I’ve always thought of myself as something of an existential comedian. One of my many jobs while working my way through college was digging graves for one summer in 1986. Here are my ten reasons for leaving that laborious, earthy profession:
10 Reasons for Leaving My Job as a Gravedigger
- I was buried in work.
- I just didn’t dig it.
- It was a grave time of my life.
- I was in over my head.
- Time was passing away, and I didn’t understand the plot.
- I mourned that I couldn’t find a good resting place at lunch.
- I was at a loss as to why I couldn’t vault ahead of my coworkers.
- The lifeless work environment left me bereaved.
- The graveyard shift interfered with my deep sleep.
- It was a dead end job, so I departed.
After hearing my gravedigger shtick, my boss at Reasons to Believe, Dr. Hugh Ross, said: “Ken, let it rest!” Maybe the reason that some of us try to poke fun at death has to do with death’s overwhelming magnitude. Our entire lives are lived in the wake of this ominous event. You could say that we are stalked by death. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre even stated that there is “no exit” from this dilemma.
So we all know with some honest reflection that we’re going to die and that it will be soon, even if it is still several decades away. But there are two other pressing questions about death, and their answers depend upon one’s world-and-life view. The first question is: Will we have to face death all alone? And second: Will we remain dead forever?
At the heart of the historic Christian message are a cross and an empty tomb. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was a man of history who died on a Roman cross as a sacrifice for human sin and three days later rose bodily from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3–8). If Jesus’s resurrection is historical and factual as the New Testament books testify (Acts 26:22–26), then believers in Christ have their answers concerning death. Christians affirm that they do not die alone but rather die with or in Christ (Philippians 1:21–23). Christians also do not remain dead forever but rather will be raised to life by Christ in the eschatological future (1 Corinthians 15:17–20).
The Gospel of John records the following discourse between Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha upon the death of their brother Lazarus:
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she told him, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world’ (John 11:25–27).
I guess I’m also fond of cemeteries because they remind me of what makes historic Christianity so unique. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, has conquered that ominous death that shadows all of our lives.