So, What’s in Your Bucket?

Death is an affront to the human heart — but death is not the last word

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Wept”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Wept” (photo: Public Domain)

Have you got a bucket list waiting to be filled? What on earth would you put in it? Perhaps an airline ticket to Australia? If you’ve never been there, why not hop on a flight and spend a week or so traipsing about the bush? You might even spot a wandering wombat or two. 

Or perhaps you’d prefer leaving earth altogether? Well, then, get yourself launched into space and look for another planet. Earth can be such a bore. Give Jeff Bezos a call and see if he can’t book you on his next space flight. 

And if neither earth nor sky appeal, what about a deep dive into the ocean in search of hidden treasure left behind on the Titanic? Now there’s an adventure for you.

Shall I tell you what my wife and I drew out of our bucket list? A trip to the local cemetery to buy a burial plot. That’s right. On a cold and wet afternoon in the middle of February, our least favorite month, we finally decided to do it. Having just made the final mortgage payment on a house we first moved into more than 30 years ago, it seemed like a pretty good idea to go out buy some more land.

What a perfect day it turned out to be, too. Ash Wednesday. The solemn start of the longest penitential season of the year. Respice finem, as the pagans would say. Look to the end. Which is exactly what we did. Knowing that we are dust and that unto dust we shall return, we needed a place to stash it. Until, that is, Christ’s return in glory to reclaim what’s left. 

So, what is death, anyhow? And how are we to manage the event when, sooner or later, God comes to collect? He will surely have us in the end, so we might as well do a little advance planning. No one gets out alive, right? It’s just a matter of where you stand in the queue. And at my age, why take chances? “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead,” quipped Mark Twain, “and I myself am not feeling at all well.” 

In a more serious vein, however, befitting the subject, I recall the poet Robert Lowell, who, when asked what bothered him most about life, replied at once, “That people die.” And what can you do about it? “It is the blight man was born for,” says the narrator of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ haunting poem “Spring and Fall”, to a hapless young child who has wandered innocently into the late autumn woods where, weeping but not knowing why, she watches all the fallen leaves die. He then asks her,

Margaret, are you grieving.
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for….

And he will tell her, of course, with brutal finality:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

We must all die, and so, like young Margaret, we are given over to grief at the loss even of the leaves since, in nature’s passing, we glimpse the clearest prefiguring of our own. But we are not resigned to die — or to suffer, or to remain always alone — and so we rage against the dying of the light. Death, solitude, suffering — these things are a problem for us, an outrage even, against the heart of what it means to be human, which is the yearning to live always and in communion with others and without pain. If to be is always to be in relation to another, and to God who is most wholly Other, then death, to the extent it severs that welcoming web, really is an outrage, an affront to the human heart. This alien thing that rudely intrudes upon us, removing by sheer violence the presence of those closest and dearest to us, can only be an unwanted and unlovely thing.

But in a Christian perspective, provision will always be made for divine grace to suffuse every bit of human grit with the promised glory to come. For death need not be the last word. Even as all “flesh fade, and mortal trash / Fall to the residuary worm,” as Father Hopkins would say, yet with Christ there will always be something more, something greater going on. Never mind the “Heraclitean Fire,” or that “world’s wildfire leave but ash” — love will prove itself greater than both. The sheer unheard-of transfiguration wrought by the miracle of divine love, shall lift us right out of death, wafting us far beyond the merely mortal into vistas of endless and everlasting joy. An eternal ex-stasis awaits us, no less, enacted by God himself for ever and ever. 

Old Man Death, who has long been the most feared enemy of all, eager to waylay us at every turn, to snatch away our life, will thus be outwitted at the very moment when he thinks himself victorious. Vanquished by a love which is stronger than death, God himself will remove the sting of death, declaring henceforth: “Death thou shalt die!” 

“I will deliver them out of the hand of death,” he tells Hosea, the prophet. “I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy death; O Hell, I will be thy bite” (13:14). Paul will continue the same tale, of course. Writing to the Church in Corinth, he will strike the majestic chord of a hope whose message we have all awaited from the moment we first fell out of Eden: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality; then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting” (1 Corinthians 15:51-58)?

How one cherishes the claim made by Thérèse, the Little Flower of Lisieux, who asks of all who must die, “So death will come to fetch you? No, not death, but God himself. Death is not the horrible specter we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation that will unite me forever with God.”

Maybe it’s time to give that bucket list of yours another look.