What living next to a cemetery taught me about the reality of death.
My wife and I bought our first home in the spring of last year. It was built in 1951, and the builders planted pine trees on the north, west and south sides to mark the property lines. If you walk through the south or west tree lines you’ll find a cul-de-sac with neighboring houses. To the north, our neighbors are all dead.
It’s not as strange as it sounds. We live next to a graveyard.
When we moved in, our first major project was to build a six-foot privacy fence around the backyard so that our two 65-pound pit bulls have a place to run and play. One unintended consequence is that our yard is now permanently separated from the graveyard. We used to be able to look through the 10-foot-wide tree line and easily see the lines of headstones, but now the only way to see the graves is by standing on tiptoe and peering over the top of the fence.
We like the added privacy, but recently I've been thinking about our fence and the graveyard as a metaphor for the way most of us treat death. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with it. I’ve grieved when death strikes both elderly family members and young friends. I’ve shared the sorrow of those who have lost children to miscarriages. I’m well aware that death exists. But I spend most of my time with a subconscious mental and emotional fence between my life and death, especially the idea of my own death.
That's why, just a few weeks into a new year, I’ve decided to skip the New Year’s resolutions (which typically don’t work anyway) and instead get serious about death. While that may sound depressing, I believe facing the reality of death can free us to really live.
The Wisdom Death Brings
Several years ago I was studying Ecclesiastes, where I came upon these words:
“It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind;
and the living will lay it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
I haven't been able to get this verse out of my head. There is a perspective on life that can only be learned by paying attention to the fact that all life comes to an end sooner or later. In other words, part of what it means to live well is to embrace the reality and inevitability of death.
We all tell ourselves stories, consciously and subconsciously, about the world we live in. For many 20- and 30-somethings, our stories contain a complex mixture of hope, excitement, sadness and disappointment. Typically, these decades are when many friends get married and begin having children. They're also the decades when friends begin getting divorced, when grandparents or even parents pass away, and when we have to transition to making truly adult decisions about heavy things.
What if the story we told ourselves every day included the reality of death? Here are three ways I think considering your mortality can positively impact your life.
Thinking about death frees us from the illusion of control.
Some people believe that through scientific discovery death will one day be a thing of the past. For the rest of us, death is inevitable. How does this fact free us from the illusion of control?
Our constant temptation is to imagine that our bodies, our time, our homes and our resources are truly “ours.” The truth is that everything we have is a borrowed gift from the Lord, who rightfully owns all and graciously allows us to steward some of it for His glory.
C.S. Lewis makes this point well in “The Screwtape Letters.” In Letter 21, Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, has asked for advice on tempting his human “subject.” Screwtape recommends convincing the subject that his time actually belongs to him: “You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.” But Screwtape admits that this is “a delicate task,” because this is such an absurd assumption that it falls apart upon critical examination.
To help with this, he encourages the cultivation of “the sense of ownership in general”—the idea that there actually are things human beings can call “mine.” Screwtape explains why this is ultimately a farce (keep in mind that “the Enemy” is God):
"And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong—certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”
For those of us in Christ, our time and our very lives are His. We can resist seeking joy in a false sense of control. We can be free from trying to control others and instead simply speak and act wisely. We can let our anxieties go, recognizing that our lives rest in the hands of a sovereign God. We can simply do what needs to be done with the time we’ve been given.
Thinking about death helps us care more about life.
Life is a precious gift from the Lord, and our lives as well as those of our friends and family could come to an end at any moment. That may sound morbid, but once we are freed from the illusion of control, we can respond to people around us with greater care and attention, focusing on the things that truly matter.
One example is giving. When we realize that we can’t take our money or our possessions with us when we die, it can allow us to hold those things loosely and share freely with others. I have a good friend who makes much less money than my wife and I do but gives more away. Her good example has shamed me into trying to be more Holy Spirit-led with my money.
Jobs are another big part of life, and calling can offer great fulfillment. My current career in marketing for Global Outreach directly serves hundreds of missionaries, and I find great joy and meaning in what I do. But jobs can also become idols that take time and energy away from family, friends, and community around us—the things we would miss the most if they were gone tomorrow.
Finally, think about your health. My wife is a physician assistant and has taught me a great deal about basic practices for preventive health, such as eating a healthy diet, developing consistent sleep habits and exercising regularly. Since we’re not ultimately in control of when we die, we can ask ourselves, “How can I act wisely in the areas over which I do have some influence?” Our world is filled with dangers over which we have no control; in the areas where we can take some initiative, such as our physical health, it seems wise to make decisions that benefit both you and those around you.
Thinking about death confronts us with the reality of resurrection.
The Bible teaches that death does not have the final word for human beings.
In Revelation 20:11-15, John sees a vision of the Lord seated on a great white throne. All who have died are brought before the throne and judged “according to what they had done…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
I hope you catch how important this is. Those currently searching for a way to ensure humanity’s immortality through science are missing a crucial truth: God has already created human beings to live forever. We will all be resurrected in our physical bodies, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting separation from our Creator.
When we face the reality of death, we are forced to question whether our present priorities stand up to the reality of future resurrection. This is just another way of talking about “mission.”
Though our callings as Christians may take different forms, they all flow from God reconciling all things to himself in Christ Jesus through the power of the Spirit. The most important things you and I can do and say are things that help others to see and know God.
Embracing the Inevitable
The first time I ever traveled internationally was on a short-term missions trip to Manali, a small town in northern India. Manali is a beautiful valley town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas; it’s an interesting cross between modern Indian, ancient religious and hippie mountain culture.
One day we hiked out of town into the Himalayan foothills. We followed a babbling stream until we came to a rushing waterfall, pouring into an icy basin at the base of a huge boulder. At this point, we were invited to strip down to our swimming clothes, navigate the treacherous climb up the back of the boulder, and jump off into the swirling pool.
I made the mistake of testing the water temperature before climbing to the top of the rock. It was freezing! At the top of the boulder, I realized that the drop was even more dramatic than it’d looked from the ground. It was probably over twenty feet high. I started getting cold feet (literally and metaphorically), and the missionary we were staying with (who was also a good friend) threatened to push me off if I didn’t jump.
In that moment, I decided to trick myself. I stared at the water and thought: It’s inevitable. In about five seconds, I will have already jumped, and I will be climbing out of the pool on the other side. A moment later I jumped.
There was something about the inevitability of plunging into the cold water that convinced me to take the leap.
Death is inevitable. And yet for believers, it has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). Perhaps listening to the teacher’s words in Ecclesiastes 7:2 that death “is the end of all mankind” can do for you and I what no New Year’s resolution has the power to do—align our perspectives more fully with the Lord’s so that we can make wiser decisions in all circumstances. May your new year be full of the kind of joy and selflessness that can only come from accepting the reality of death.
Copyright 2017 by Rory Tyer. All rights reserved.