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What is the Meaning of Death?

Sharlotte Hydorn, 91, California resident and purveyor of do-it-yourself suicide kits is in trouble with the Law. Apparently she has been selling plastic bags that plug into helium canisters, the kind used at children's parties for blowing up balloons. Place bag over head, switch gas on and off you go. According to one reporter at the L.A Times she has a "neighborly demeanor that is disarming" and says that she just wants to "help people." For only $60 you can purchase your "exit bag" and she feels she has done you a favor.

Hydorn's "exit bags" were found by
 the FBI ready for delivery
to the sick and depressed. 
Discussion about the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide are all over the news at the moment. Doctors in Britain will soon advise terminally ill patients to write down how they want to die. This will allow patients to determine how quickly they go when it comes to their last days. One writer referred to this as the "fast track" to death. Dr Ann McPherson recently died. She was an advocate for patients who wished to control their own death. And, since I wrote the last sentence, Jack Kevorkian, who claimed to have assisted 130 people in taking their own lives, has also died. I have yet to see the film about Jack Kevorkian, "They Don't Know Jack" but it has fueled the present controversy.

Much of the debate is about allowing an exit to those who consider life not to be worth living - too sick, too depressed, too tired. The question is always about the meaning of life. However, the debate often misses the question of the meaning of death itself. Death is merely "the end" or the "exit" from a painful life.

Humans have developed many strategies for dealing with the meaning of death. Some have tried to ignore it and make death-talk taboo. Why think about such depressing things that no one can do anything about? “Flee the angst!” they advise us.

Others, who presumably find ignoring it too difficult or too irrational, try to fight death itself. They might look to science to purge death, or at least postpone it and its sidekick, aging, for as long as possible. These guys won’t go down without a fight.

Alternatively, some make this life, and therefore its end, relatively unimportant. Super-spiritual people have tried to make this present life less important by envisioning a more real afterlife. “Just passing through,” they tell us. For them this life and death is not real, only a prequel to the real thing.

A very different response is to make the angst about death a virtue. We might argue that death-angst is the cause of living the good life; that without it we would become apathetic and, ironically, deadened. Death is, therefore, a reason for living.

Further along the line, those who embrace their angst might also try to become familiar with “The Big D.” The imagination can be a powerful thing, especially when infused with a good dose of LSD. Life, for them, contains imaginative dress rehearsals for escape from life. They contemplate suicide, or accidents, some even long for it. Songs reflect this idea like this one by Papa Roach: “If I cut my arms bleeding, Would it be wrong, would it be right, If I took my life tonight, chance are that I might, Mutilation out of sight and I’m contemplating suicide.”3

More often than we would like, rehearsal leads to performance. Some end up doing death before it does them. Suicide, for these men and woman appears to be the most rational response to the “absurd” life which they face.

The problem with suicide is that you have to get it exactly right, and that is not always possible. In a recent essay about Dignitas, the Zurich based assisted suicide clinic, Bruce Falconer listened to an employee of the clinic list some of these failures, “One lady jumped eight stories down to a paved parking lot. Now she is in a wheelchair. Then there was a man who shot himself in the face and survived. Another leapt in front of a train and lost both his legs.”4 Ludwig Minelli, the founder of Dignitas, has helped over a thousand people commit suicide. The clinic provides a room and a cup of sodium pentobarbital because, as Minelli argues, “the right to die is, in fact, the very last human right.” Death, for Minelli, is akin to possession that needn't just happen to you, but should be something you claim as your own.

The problem with all these responses is that death is assumed to be one thing - the cessation of bodily  function. If that is all it is then we can certainly choose the reason and the way to go. The body does cease to function, but death has a broader meaning in the Christian conception of the idea.

The first thing to get straight is that there is no such thing as a contingency plan in God's eyes. Death is not merely event, an accident; it is providence. Our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones are not surprises to God but part of his plan. As Erwin Lutzer says, “We have the word accident in our vocabulary. He does not.”5 Just as man has no power of life innate to himself, he does not have the power of death either. Man is a dependent creature, utterly reliant upon God for every breath. Suicide assumes autonomy, the delusion that we are in ultimate command of our destiny.

Most people have a certain anxiety about death, but we should not feel guilty about this. But death, for those who are, as the Bible puts it, born again, has no grip upon us. Our hope is in a bodily resurrection and an eternity lived in the presence of our creator. But for those without this hope death is bleak. That's because there is more than one kind of death - bodily and spiritual. The latter is called the "second death" and is terminal - it is eternal separation from God. When a person who denies Christ dies, it is a hopeless death, a depressing end to life for they too will be ressurected to face judgement. Death is not to be seen as non-being, but as being dead. Eternal separation from God is to be condemned to eternal death.

We should also do away with any idea of death with dignity. No death is dignified. As it is the result of human sin, not even the comfort of a controlled death in a suicide clinic can cover that up. I am even more certain that a plastic bag over the head offers no stylish last impression. That kind of death trivializes death, reduces it to a full-stop. Death is not only the end of life but the result of our rebellion, the first-fruits of sin.

Death is broader than mere end of life; it is with us even before we see it. Death entered life in the garden and is ever present with us. The bible speaks to those who are made alive in Christ as having once been dead (Eph 2). If life appears to not be worth living, we should not look to end it, but to realize our own deadness. Christ is the source of life or "new life" as he puts it. New life springs from being "born again," a spiritual term meaning to come alive to God. This can only be done by God to us. No one can birth himself.

Strangely, Christ is also the source of the kind of death we really need. In believing in Him we actually die; our sinful nature is put to death. It remains with us but no longer has the power to condemn us. This is illustrated in the baptism by immersion. We die with Christ in going down into the water and are raised with him to new life as we arise.

Many will see Sharlotte as well-meaning, Jack Kevorkian as a prophet and Dignitas as a oasis in a desert of pain. I know that pain makes us wish it was all over, but since there is no other world to which we can run, not even the non-existence so hoped for, death should not be seen in terms of treatment of symptoms, as a kind of last resort in medicine. It is not a possession, one to be claimed as a basic human right; It is given to us at the right time by the one who made us.

1John Cottingham, Philosophy Bites, Audio blog post, (June 12, 2007)
2Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Clein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, (Viking, October 20, 2009), p. 5-14.
3Papa Roach, Last Resort, Infest, 2000, Dreamworks, T-2.
4Bruce Falconer, “Death Becomes Him,” The Atlantic, (March 2010): 68-77.
5Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After you Die, (Moody, 1997), p. 159.