Sisyphus, king of Ephyra, escaped death twice by his own cunning. In the first instance Zeus sent Thanatos, or Death, to carry Sisyphus to Hades as punishment for disclosing one of Zeus’s exploits. But Sisyphus tricked Thanatos, binding him in chains so that, for a time, no one on earth died. Finally, Ares intervened and gave Sisyphus to Thanatos to take to the underworld.
However, Sisyphus again used trickery, this time to convince Hades to allow him back to the upper world, ostensibly to confront his wife about disrespecting him. He stayed in the upper world until he eventually died of old age. Once Sisyphus was in the underworld, Zeus punished him for his attempts to outsmart Death by having him spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down just before it reaches the top.
The stories handed down from Greek mythology remain with us because of their universal themes. These stories often explain something about the human condition and the interplay between gods, humankind, and nature. We know from Hesiod that Thanatos, the personification of Death, is twin brother to Sleep and both are the sons of Night. We have similar imagery in the Bible for death—darkness, sleep, and night.
We, too, employ imagery for death in our Western mindset, although rather than gods and nature we think of it in terms of medicine and disease. We no longer live in a culture of myths and gods, yet we still have stories to explain death, even if the plot and the characters have changed.
James K.A. Smith describes human beings as imaginative creatures whose actions emerge from the stories we have consciously and subconsciously imbibed. This is seen most acutely in how we, both individually and as a society, approach the end of life.
The past twenty years have seen a resurgence of both popular and academic materials addressing the way we die today. In January 2022, the Lancet published “Commission on the Value of Death: Bringing Death Back into Life.” The commission describes dying in the twenty-first century as one of paradox: “While many people are overtreated in hospitals with families and communities relegated to the margins, still more remain undertreated, dying of preventable conditions and without access to basic pain relief.”
The Lancet commission, though secular in approach, acknowledges that philosophers and theologians around the globe have recognized the value that death holds for human life; however, much of that value is no longer acknowledged in the modern world. The commission says, “Death and life are bound together: without death there would be no life. Death allows new ideas and new ways. Death also reminds us of our fragility and sameness: we all die. Caring for the dying is a gift, as some philosophers and many carers, both lay and professional, have recognised.”
Many of the problems with dying in the twenty-first century center on our “death systems,” including the impetus to overtreat hospitalized patients at the end of life as they lie alienated from their community, a critique common among both Christian and non-Christian writers. The dying patient often receives too much medicine and not enough meaningful human interaction. The commission goes on to paint a picture of a “realistic utopia,” as the authors call it, in which they reimagine a better system for death and dying. The goal is rebalancing death and dying by addressing “the many inter-related social, cultural, economic, religious, and political factors that determine how death, dying, and bereavement are understood, experienced, and managed.”
There are many good points in the forty-eight-page commission, including the importance of palliative care and the recognition that dying is a relational and spiritual process, not just a physiological event.
But what the Lancet commission lacks is a counter-narrative. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre describes human beings as tellers of stories that aspire to truth and says that we can answer the question “What am I to do?” only if we know the answer to “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” This is the language of myth. The Lancet, while describing the problem well, does not speak to our deep-seated need for grasping what C.S. Lewis once described as the “true myth.”
Denial of Death
To understand our abandonment of the true myth, we need to understand how we live in denial of death. Think of mortality as an hourglass. When the sand runs out of the top, our life will end. We keep this hourglass stored in the darkest corner of our attic (in Texas we have attics). While it resides there, we do not have to think about it, and all the while the sand trickles from the top to the bottom. This hourglass can stay hidden for many years, even decades, without us ever acknowledging its existence.
When I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in March 2020, a few months after my thirty-ninth birthday, it was as though the hourglass was taken from the corner of the attic and placed in the centre of my coffee table. I could no longer ignore my mortality, and I could no longer pretend that I knew how fast the sand was falling. Maybe it would fall for another thirty or forty years? Maybe not. So far the treatment has worked well and there is no evidence of disease. But I can never put the hourglass back in the corner of the attic and forget about it, even if I wanted to. Other cancer patients have told me it is like a loss of innocence, because now you know.
When I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in March 2020, a few months after my thirty-ninth birthday, it was as though the hourglass was taken from the corner of the attic and placed in the centre of my coffee table.
Denial of death is nothing new. In The Christian Art of Dying, Allen Verhey discusses the silence and denial surrounding death even in the Middle Ages, when death was more visible and what we would call “premature death” more common. The medieval text called the Ars Moriendi was a response to this silence and denial, admonishing spiritual friends to be honest with dying patients about the state of their health, as well as the state of their souls. Verhey cites a 1490 English translation of the Ars Moriendi titled Crafte and Knowledge for to Dye Well as saying that people often neglect their spiritual state, turning first to medicine and doctors to attend to their physical state. We have changed little.
Verhey has two main critiques of the Ars Moriendi. First, it overemphasizes the spiritual at the expense of embodiment, which takes its cues more from Plato and the gnostics than the biblical view of the human being. Second, the Ars Moriendi does not mention the resurrection but focuses on the battle between good and evil and the ultimate reward of being with Christ in heaven. The Ars Moriendi recasts death as good, or commendable, and the deathbed scene as an almost egocentric drama in which the dying person courageously faces temptation to despair or lose faith. In support of this position, the text references Paul’s statement that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Verhey argues, however, that death is not to be commended, pointing to 1 Corinthians 15 and other passages that emphasize the resurrection. The biblical narrative describes death as the enemy, a result of the fall in which human beings, once spiritually and physically attuned to an immortal God, become separated from him and therefore will die. Sin separates, and death without Christ is not only separation from God and our loved ones but also separation from our bodies. The problem is that this tradition disparages embodiment and the value of temporal relationships, while the resurrection speaks to the importance of embodiment. Separation from the body is not the goal of sanctification. Death was conquered, not domesticated or diminished.
In a sense, the Ars Moriendi narrative leaves out the climax of the story. It reads like a story of man versus the forces of evil. Man, or woman, is the protagonist, and the tension rests on whether our hero gives in or stands up to evil. In cartoonish terms, it is as though the dying must decide whether to follow the demon on the left shoulder or the angel on the right shoulder. To be clear, Verhey affirms many good things from this tradition, but his critique stands. The narrative leaves out the most important part: the resurrection of the body.
Death was conquered, not domesticated or diminished.
Our modern-day narratives tend to put the emphasis elsewhere than the spiritual struggle against the forces of evil. As a result, we neglect the ancient practices that would prepare us for our eventual death. Or, as James K.A. Smith says in Imagining the Kingdom, modernity and intellectualism leave out the ancient practices that help orient us in the story. The Ars Moriendi, even with its flaws, at least cultivated the practice of imagining one’s death and the communal obligation to walk with someone as they were passing from here to there. Today, few of us have seen a person die or kept company with the dying.
Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine—without which I would not be here—we have dismissed the narrative of “man versus evil” and imbibed the subconscious narrative of “man versus nature.” Nature “red in tooth and claw” is the enemy. Whether she sends natural disasters, plagues, or predators, she has no regard for us. In this narrative, the protagonist wins by fortitude and ingenuity. We moderns are really no different from Sisyphus trying to outsmart Death. The tension rests on what our hero will do to get out of his predicament. The goal is to defeat Death once and for all, using ingenuity and skill—the tools of the modern scientific and technological endeavour. It is no accident that some of the biggest proponents of this narrative of death are in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for longevity and transhumanism is the logical end of a vision Descartes outlined in the seventeenth century: using modern medicine to rid humankind not only of disease but also of the frailty of old age. In effect, to use science to at last become “masters and possessors of nature.” It seeks a path back to Eden without God or religion. Descartes’s vision is now our reigning narrative.
The Narratives We Take to the Hospital
When you go to the hospital for major surgery, you know you will spend several days there recovering. So you pack a bag. I had never had any major illnesses, and neither have my parents. We’ve never had to stay in the hospital, so I didn’t know what to pack in the bag. Thankfully, my mother-in-law, who has had to stay in the hospital, had some very practical suggestions, like packing a toothbrush.
We also take with us narratives about how things are supposed to go, how life and death work. These stories predominantly come from television and film. The narrative, as Lydia Dugdale illustrates in The Lost Art of Dying, is that of a fight against death. She recounts an example of an elderly patient with metastatic cancer who “coded” twice. Dugdale and a fellow physician perform chest compressions—breaking several ribs in the process—shock his heart, insert a line, and pump him full of medication to restart his heart. The doctors know he’s dying, but they perform this process because we, the dying and by proxy our families and our physicians, are going to fight death with all we’ve got. Even if we go down, it won’t be without a fight. Dugdale likens the entire process to a war room mentality against disease and death, until finally, after a violent struggle, the physician checks all vitals and calls time of death. It is a powerful liturgy.
One of Smith’s main points in Imagining the Kingdom is that the liturgies we perform—those habits, practices, and patterns we do as we go through life—come out of the stories that we subconsciously believe. Those stories shape our actions, including the liturgy of the ICU setting that Dugdale describes. Like the characters on TV, we play our part in the narrative. The physician is a protagonist who saves the day. She serves as a kind of paladin or sorcerer who wields technology to save the patient. Everything is intense, fast-paced, and often successful at the very last minute. Like Sisyphus, our televised narratives show us outsmarting Death. Everyone can go home. In our imaginations, we are either the heroes or the person who is heroically saved. We never imagine in such stories that the body becomes a corpse.
The Real Story
Despite what our screenplays suggest, we actually reside within a story whose arc does not culminate in an epic battle in the hospital. The hospital may or may not be part of the story at all. The hospital is a minor part, a particular and local setting for one scene, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s allegory “Leaf by Niggle,” in which the hospital serves as a kind of purgatory or thoroughfare between this world and the next. The real narrative is grander than that, requiring a cosmic climactic scene that extends beyond one emergency room in one time and one place. The second volume of songwriter Douglas McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy is perhaps one of the closest things to a modern-day ars moriendi that I have read. It is a book of liturgies on death, grief, and hope. One such liturgy reads, “Our dying is part of the story that God is telling to us, and part of the story that God is telling through us.” It’s part of a grander narrative, something Tolkien expounds on in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien says the Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind that embraces all the essences of fairy stories. In other words, of all the fairy tales we love where the hero slays the dragon, the biblical story is about the hero who slays the dragon.
This puts the “man versus evil” and “man versus nature” narratives in a different light. The story is not one or the other, but all three: “man versus evil” and “man versus nature” and even “man versus man.” These are our adversaries, after all, the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we had the wrong protagonist all along because we have imbibed the Enlightenment project, whether we know it or not. While science-based medicine, as originally conceived by Francis Bacon, was to overcome the effects of the fall through healing, the techno-industrial endeavour of avoiding death became an end in itself.
The post-Enlightenment narrative of technological salvation places humankind as the hero of the story, but we, including doctors and scientists, are incapable of playing the role because we are the ones who need rescuing. J. Todd Billings, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma when he was thirty-nine, writes in The End of the Christian Life, “Our lives are like a speck of dust in comparison to an eternal God, and we cannot be the true heroes of the world.” We are much smaller and weaker than we would like to believe.
Billings also says that to truly live we must deal with our death. Death is scary and loss is painful. Jesus did not make death something good; rather, he delivered us from our enslavement to the fear of death. Even though we are not the hero of the story, we are on the hero’s team. We are not the prince of the kingdom, but the prince vouched for us before the king so that we are given all the rights and privileges of his siblings.
So the narrative we need to take with us to the hospital, or to the bedside of a dying loved one, is the same narrative that we need to take with us to a wedding or to a birthday or to any other life event. It is the most epic story ever told, and we get to participate in it. It’s that of a beautiful creation, a tragic fall, and a harrowing act of rescue resulting in redemption and ending in consummation.