Death follows life, yet life also follows death. Poppies bloom on the graves of those long dead, children grow into adults who are eventually succeed by a new generation of children. Death is a natural part of the cycle of life. It is annually reflected in cycles of nature, and daily illustrated in the lives that end – because the time has come, or because they have been cruelly cut short through violence, illness or some other tragedy. Life ends. Sooner or later. Life ends, every day, but life also begins every day. Countless children are born daily; seeds germinate; new ideas lead to new actions and initiatives. These things are our now, and they are our future. The world of those now dead is our past.
As one who has experienced the death of a loved one, it is impossible to call death “nothing at all”. It carries with it a gut-wrenching, life-altering finality, for the dead are really gone. They do not linger in the wind or look down from the sky, they have been torn out of the lives of those who loved them, knew them or hated them, and their absence causes a rift that only time and grieving may eventually close. Death is a trauma and a nightmare to those who remain alive.
So we fear death, and I think it is this fear of death that leads to our nostalgic desire to dwell in the past. We remember what we loved about those who have died, but we do not dwell on their weaknesses. We remember the joys of the glory days of the institutions that we cherish (by they church or state or local drama group). We remember the ideal moments of family togetherness, holidays and vacations, laughter and games. We do not dwell on the arguments, disagreements, moments of coolness, or pain caused. Or perhaps, we can’t forget it because this legacy is now all we have left.
Why do we dwell so in our minds on death, on what is gone, on what is past. Why do we strain every nerve to recreate what has vanished, to reanimate what is dead, to live in the memory of what can never be again?
Perhaps, just perhaps, the future is more frightening than death itself. To live, that is the most terrifying thing of all. For to live, truly, is to love, to love self, to love others, to love earth and sky and sea, to love the hawk and the sparrow and the duck.
For many years now I have disliked the spring. I have sat amidst the transient loveliness of leaf and blossom unmoved by the beauty, almost repelled by it. Two years ago, as I walked the dog and picked up her waste among the fallen petals I realised why I so dislike the season. Spring is wasteful, it bursts forth in exuberant life, pouring out fragrance and beauty in a frantic effort to attract, yet mere weeks or months later that beauty is fallen, trodden underfoot, rotting on the pavement and in the undergrowth.
This year, I see something different, as the colour on the hills lightens a shade each day, and I notice the blossom on a tree here, or the leaves on a shrub there. As the streams fill with spring rains and the skies are a little more blue than grey, I feel it in me to embrace the spring. Every day I pass the lambs leaping in the fields and know they will likely end up at the butchers, but this is part of the cycle of rural life, its beauty and its hardship. Death does not take the loveliness of life, although it may sometimes smother our ability to see it.
We cannot go backwards. Our beloved dead will never again breathe, speak to us, hold us, laugh with us. The memories of our past will never recur. The ‘glory days’ will never come back again, but what of the glorious days of our future, or the future of our children, what of the life that follows that death.
With every choice we make countless other possibilities for our lives are eliminated, this is our chance at life. This life, this moment, this now, is all we have. We can live with it, change it and be changed by it, or we can resist it and fear it and hide from it.
Do we fear death, or do we fear life?
And when I set out thinking about how churches should stop fearing death because only through death can they come to something fresh and new or how our society invests so much money in prolonging life and so little in enriching life, perhaps I didn’t realise that I was also talking to myself, exorcising my own fear of life that strongly manifests itself as an odd fondness for the idea of death.