Growing up in the 90s first in Canada, then in a westernised bubble in Hong Kong, I heard this idea a lot: death is natural, it’s just another stage of life. It sounds sage, it sounds nice, and reliable people say it – Mama Gump and Mufasa among others.
I heard it again tonight at a funeral service for a family friend. ‘We know that death is just another part of life,’ the priest told us. It’s ok, please feel better.
My buddy didn’t. The deceased was his uncle. He looked down at his feet as he told me ‘He got baptised before I was even born. I’ve never heard him talk about church even once. What am I supposed to feel about this?’
I’m proud of my buddy – because in his world death is not something to just brush away. Its potency can’t be averted with just a few niceties. If things don’t add up in the face of death, something’s wrong.
Death is natural, it’s just another stage of life.
I’ve even heard a further development of this idea: death is indeed natural, and our discomfort at it really is just a manifestation of our parochial self-centredness in the face of cosmic indifference.
Death is natural, get over it.
This past week I’ve had to get over it twice: a girl student, and a former security guard (my buddy’s uncle), both from my school.
I’ll give death its due so as not to cheapen the life it stole. The girl was just a teenager. Her parents will never see her again. Her friends will never see her again. She’ll never yawn in class again. She’ll never get to roll her eyes during Friday prayers again. She’ll never get the chance to take cringey selfies on graduation day, wearing a uniform signed by all her friends.
I won’t see my buddy’s uncle again. Nor will my buddy. Nor the man’s wife and two daughters. I’ll never again see him sitting in the guard hut like a sated Buddha, grinning and waving at me as I leave late. He’ll never chuckle quietly as his colleagues whine about some weird new policy. He’ll never again smirk and roll his eyes as I loudly claim I’m signing in an alumna for an unscheduled appointment with me, because of course she’s here to see her friends, and no she hasn’t followed policy to book visits beforehand, but I don’t actually care and just want her to come in and see her friends, and so does my buddy’s uncle.
Death took all that away. The girl will become a pile of bones in a box. So will my buddy’s uncle.
This isn’t natural. This isn’t just something to just get over. There were the girl’s teachers, hearing her name at the announcement and breaking down into wrenching sobs immediately, but they won’t cry because they can’t, not at a meeting. Here were the girl’s friends, taking the news stonily during morning assembly, then wailing after it was dismissed; one screaming into the silent walls ‘My friend is dead, my friend is dead, I never got to see her one last time’, and neither the walls nor the red-eyed teachers will say anything to answer her, because what is there to say? And there’s the counselor, trying to lead us to pray to our Father in Heaven, and her voice is cracking because she’s just lost a daughter she never asked for. And here’s the girl’s friend, asking me ‘She’ll go to heaven, right?’ then looking down at her feet because she can’t bear the answer yes, which smacks of cliche, or the answer no, because that would make her cry even more but she’s all cried out.
This isn’t natural. This isn’t something to just get over. There’s the dead man’s sister, my buddy’s mom, who normally loves to mother me and with a mischievous twinkle in her eye ask me where’s the missing lady in my life. And there’s my buddy’s dad, who normally wears a cheek-splitting grin as he wraps me in yet another bear hug and says ‘bless you.’ Except now her eyes are red, and she sobs into my shoulder as she repeats like a mantra ‘I miss him so much, I miss him so much.’ And her husband stands resolute and silent because what could he possibly say? And my buddy, who has his mother’s mischievous eyes and his father’s cheek-splitting grin, stares at his feet as he asks me why the priest is saying all this.
Death can’t be natural. Death can’t be an outworking of our parochial self-centredness. I defy you – I fucking defy you – to see and hear and feel all this and tell me with a straight face: death is natural, get over it.
I’m angry at death. It doesn’t belong here. It has no business in our world. Or maybe I’m myself being parochial? Maybe there are places and times in this world where death might seem like a release. But where I am right now, death is an enemy. It’s a usurper here, it’s a blasphemous scar that turns good things bad.
What can we say when faced with all this? Jesus is alive – and little more. Jesus is alive; he was angry at death when he saw it, and it took no less than the King himself to face down death, to die, but then rise to life again. Death is an enemy, it is powerful, but it doesn’t have to have the last say. Jesus is alive – I need to work out what exactly this means in the face of death. But I know he is alive.
Death is not natural. To believe this is true seems, to me, to cheapen life, to cheapen the power of death, and to cheapen the one who defeated it.
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