We live in a culture that has forgotten how to help people measure their days. Through medicine and science, we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know little about how to prepare people for the inevitable. The church is a community that teaches people how to live well by teaching them how to measure their days. Put another way, when the church incarnates a culture of resurrection—one that recognizes the inevitability of death but not its triumph—it teaches people how to die well.
Having preached my very first memorial service homily in my young pastorate a few weeks ago, I became aware– if only for a brief moment– of the theology of death. In my homily I stressed the sadness of death; even Jesus wept for his friend and so should we mourn in death and not celebrate it. Yet, for us, death is dead at the resurrection. It is our deepest hope for our loved ones and the unbeliever’s deepest despair. After the memorial service, a Presbyterian minister approached me and thanked me for not perpetuating the “death is celebration” theme, which, as I understand it, is quite common in the evangelical culture. “Let us celebrate the life of ___________.” But wait, have we mourned his life yet? Death is still here. It is big and strong and it touches everyone. Life is short; a vapor, St. James says, and the more I ponder the question of death, the greater sense I have that few people know how to die, because few people are prepared to die. The Psalmist tells us that Yahweh loves the death of His saints. Perhaps the first step to preparing for death is to know that God knows when we will die. This is no cosmic surprise to the Triune God. If God knows, then I should know that He knows, and that may begin to inculcate in us all a culture of resurrection in preparing for death.