Life and death seem to be polar opposites. Death is the absence of life, and if there is some life, death is nowhere to be found. Life and death are a dichotomous reality.
There is plenty of evidence for this sort of dichotomous understanding of life and death. People buried in cemeteries stay there. No one wonders whether those bodies are coming back. My grandfather died of heart attack when I was 10 years old. He was alive and then he was dead. Just like that.
And yet, death and life are not always so easily categorized. Anyone who has a debilitating disease, serious mental health disorder, or has a loved one in hospice, can see that there is life and there is death co-existing – competing as it were, for dominance.
People wrestling with major depression sometimes describe the experience as a weight on their spirits, as thought death itself were gnawing away at their still living soul. People with long term or terminal illnesses or fragile health conditions are aware that death is not only near, but sometimes encroaches in, even when life is very much active. In hospice we see the relenting of life in an often gradual transition to death. Death occupies more and more while life vacates more and more.
Life and death is more like a spectrum with a point of no return on the death side. Unless the person has crossed the point of no return, there is some life, but there has been some death as well.
This idea that there is a little death in all of us is hard for many to accept. We want to be fully alive until we are fully dead, but this is not the reality for most people. We assert our science and our technology in efforts to eliminate the death end of the spectrum – or at least stretch it our further than it is. We assert art and literature in efforts to understand this spectrum and this mystery of death, to define it, to control it just a little.
Theology enters in differently than art and science in that theology does not accept death as an end to the spectrum, but rather a transition into the next portion of the spectrum. It is the great reversal where life is launched from death itself like the very dead seed germinates when conditions are right.
Science and art seek to deal with death on its terms while theology deals with death on other terms.
As we sit with my father-in-law at in home hospice, giving him medicine for comfort, we see this spectrum playing out. We do not believe that his death is the end of the story, that there is no more life once death captures his entire body. We see death as a transition. His weak, broken, leaking body is the seed of something wonderful about to germinate.
Our lives, everything out our fleshly existence happens in the dirt of heaven. Only when we die can we live above the dirt.