A Brief Meditation on Mortality

Is there no way out? Not without Christ, there isn’t. Only he can save us now.

Giovanni di Paolo, “The Raising of Lazarus,” 1426
Giovanni di Paolo, “The Raising of Lazarus,” 1426 (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Let me give you the least controversial proposition on the planet. Which, by the way, is about as non-controversial as the fact that, having 2 X chromosomes will make you a woman, while having only one X and one Y will make you a man. For all the talk of transgenderism, we’ve yet to square that particular circle. Or must the truth of biology now give way to ideology? 

So, what is this non-controversial proposition? Well, it’s a bit like sex, actually, since the truth of it is also a matter of biology. It is the fact that, sooner or later, we’re all going to die. How controversial can that be? And not only is it true, but the truth of it is something we will surely realize in our own bodies. Finitude is something we are meant to feel, especially as it falls inexorably away. And isn’t this why we needn’t resent growing old? After all, think of all those who are denied the privilege!

So, the point is, the Old Guy will be coming to get us all. It is the one inoperable defect we are born with. Unless we are exceedingly unlucky, we shall first grow old, then we shall die. Ineluctably so. It that one pesky detail about life from which no dissent is permitted. Try it, and if you don’t die, do let me know. Of course, I’ll be dead by then as well.

How perfectly banal it all sounds. Boring, too. But, alas, utterly binding. No one gets out alive. 

And when will the great nightfall begin? At birth. In fact, it begins rather before birth — nine months, to be precise. That is, if we’re still free to believe in biology, the data of which appear more and more dicey these days. When the dominant media repeatedly tell us that dysphoric souls bent on becoming other than the sex they were assigned before birth, are entitled to do so, it does sort of make all science sound fairly suspect. Still, when it comes to death, there can’t be too many of us who imagine that they will prove the exception. The laws of gravity will not be suspended even for those who’ve decided to become birds — their maiden flight out the nearest window will not, I’m afraid, end well. 

That spellbinder John Donne, whose sermons kept even the king in thrall, put us all on notice about that nearly five centuries ago in language incomparably poetic. “We have,” he warned, “a winding sheet in our mother’s womb, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave … we celebrate our own funerals with cries even at our birth.” 

Here is a fate common to all finite creatures. Even the stars in the sky will eventually die; in fact, many of them already have, their expiration dates shown by the long withdrawing trail of twinkling light. It is The Big Sleep, in other words, as Raymond Chandler would say, from which he certainly had no expectation of ever awakening. And given my own antique status, I’ve got to assume he’s been peering impatiently over my shoulder for some time now, ever so eager to get on with it. Of course, I don’t expect he’ll contact me by phone (unless it’s a collect call), like those doddering old fools found in Muriel Spark’s delightful whodunit, Memento Mori, who react with senile resentment each time he does call. Yet the summons could scarcely be more salutary: “Remember you must die.”

So, yes, in the end we shall all be dead. That is, unless the mortality rate has lately dipped below 100%. To quote the novelist Philip Roth, who lifted the line from Franz Kafka, “The meaning of life is that it stops.” It was a line he often lifted — until, that is, his own life stopped. “Birth, copulation, and death,” reports the poet Eliot. “That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” Thanks for the newsflash, Tom.

Hold on a moment, however. It is not just that each of us is born to die, or that we carry our death before us, but that of all the living things on earth, we alone know that we must die. It is the final turn of the screw. The animals do not know this, of course, God having spared them the news, which is the blessing — or the curse — of self-consciousness. Not even in the midst of their dying, can they detach themselves sufficiently from the event to reflect upon its meaning. It is for us alone to entertain thoughts and fears of impending extinction, to see death not only as the most drearily commonplace of all that will happen to us, but the most terrifying as well. Without doubt, death remains the most painfully incomprehensible, the least welcome of all that conspires to overtake and destroy me. “On pain of death, let no man name death to me: it is a word infinitely terrible,” to quote a character from John Webster’s The White Devil, destined himself for a most horrible death.”

Is there no way out, then? Not without Christ, there isn’t. Only he can save us now. He who came to his friend, Lazarus, the dead man who, despite four days in the tomb, arose at once on hearing Jesus cry out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” How can this be, a mere mortal, one who weeps like thee and me, unless at the same time he is the living God come down among us? So intensely, everlastingly alive that, in outrunning his own death, is able to remit everyone else’s.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)