What Death Means

I mentioned in an earlier blog, that when I first became a funeral celebrant one of my favourite books was, A Book of Eulogies; edited with commentary by Phyllis Theroux. It was a gem for many different reasons. Some great eulogies, stories and a chapter on, What Death Means, from Buddha, Kahlil Gibran, Helen Keller to Socrates. Another chapter was on Grief Defined. Here are two selections from the book.

Socrates was condemned to death in 399 BC and his most famous student, Plato recorded Socrates final words.

“Moreover, we may hence conclude that there is great hope that death is a blessing. For to die is one of two things: for either the dead may be annihilated, and have no sensation of anything whatever; or, as it is said, there are a certain change and passage of the soul from one place to another. And if it is a privation of all sensation, as it were a sleep in which the sleeper has no dream, death would be a wonderful gain. For I think that if any one, having selected a night in which he slept so soundly as not to have had a dream, and having compared this night with all the other nights and days of his life, should be required, on consideration, to say how many days and nights he had passed better and more pleasantly than this night throughout his life, I think that not only a private person, but even the great king himself, would find them easy to number, in comparison with other days and nights. If, therefore, death is a thing of this kind, I say it is a gain; for thus all futurity appears to be nothing more than one night. But if, on the other hand, death is a removal from hence to another place, and what is said be true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing can there be than this, my judges? For if, on arriving at Hades, released from these who pretend to be judges, one shall find those who are true judges, and who are said to judge there, Minos and Rhadamanthus, Æacus and Triptolemus, and such others of the demi-gods as were just during their own life, would this be a sad removal? At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer? I indeed should be willing to die often, if this be true.”

In the chapter, Grief Defined, Rev. William Sloane Coffin spoke this at his son’s funeral who had died in a car accident.

‘… I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, came from fellow reverends, a few few of whom proved they knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the ‘right’ biblical passages, including, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and my faith is no house of cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this. While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.” (Lord Byron). That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers – the basics of beauty and life…”

He goes on to say that some people ‘were using comforting words of Scripture for self protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face.’

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