Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Reflections on Life and Death

The two most important events in life are birth and death. We do not consciously remember the first, and we hesitate to contemplate the second. Much of life is spent wondering why we are here, until it slowly dawns on us that we are not permanent fixtures, and then we begin to wonder why we cannot stay. Loren Eiseley, noted anthropologist and writer, wrote this epitaph for his wife and himself: "We loved the earth, but could not stay". The Good Book reminds us that we all "appointed once to die". (Hebrews 9:27) Ecclesiastes 3:2 tells us "There is a time to be born and a time to die".

Once we accept the certainty of death, we can never again be casual about life. Death is a thought around which none of us like to linger long, but this existential fact defines life whether we like to think about it or not. It is a reality from which we cannot flee. No one ever has, though many have tried. Some fear death will come before they finish with life. In a pensive and profound poem on this idea, John Keats wrote: "When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,". Before his death in 1981, writer William Saroyan phoned in to the Associated Press this interesting observation: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. What now". Well, there are no exceptions. I have a friend who ends all his emails: "I intend to live forever - so far, so good".

Most great thinkers would readily subscribe to the Latin idiom: "Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium" (All things pass into mystery). When we pull together all we know about almost any philosophical idea, we find ourselves standing at the edge of the great unknown with no tools for negotiating the mystery except faith, imagination, and speculation. There is no subject to which this idiom more aptly applies than death.

Is there something in nature that prepares us to leave this life? Famous American Lawyer, Clarence Darrow, opined in the last months of his life: "Nature treats all of her children as she does the fields and the forests. In the late autumn, as the cold blasts are coming, she strips us for the ordeal that is waiting. Our steps grow slower, our efforts briefer, our journeys shorter, our ambitions are not so irresistible, and our hopes no longer wear wings". That is one way of looking at how we are prepared to take the long journey back to the source from which we came.

Consider yet another aspect of this idea. We tend to think that when someone dies that for all practical purposes it is all over. You may be surprised to learn that this is not true. When people with whom we have unfinished business die, death does not finish that business. I do not know how an unsettled broken relationship affects the dead, but I do know how it continues to affect the living. It is much more difficult to settle a broken relationship with someone who is dead than with someone who is alive. I have seen people go through years of agony and therapy because a parent or child or friend died before an important broken relationship was resolved. Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.

In the course of more than sixty years of ministry I have seen many people approach the end of their lives. I have been with many people as they died. Most people seem to leave this life without fear and with a serene calm. I have always felt that there was something I could not fathom or name that gently took over the process. In death everything fades into mystery from this side. Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said there is no death. We simply move from one dimension of existence to the next. I love the little tercet by Robert Burns: "The voice of nature loudly cries, and many a message from the skies, that something in us never dies".

We do know that death is the great "leveler". All distinctions of wealth, power, fame, beauty, etc. fall away, and we leave this world as we came - empty handed. Alexander the Great was once surprised to find the philosopher, Diogenes, examining a heap of human bones. When asked what he was looking for, he said: "I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves". Bones don't lie. With death distinctions fall away.

On those occasions upon which we are able to think about the nature of our earthly existence and the certain fact that we are not here to stay, perhaps we could find some solace by reading the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John. It begins: "Let not your hearts be troubled....".

Well, read it for yourself. It will make you feel much safer about living - and dying.