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Death as the Teacher of Wisdom

by Marcus Borg

Marcus J. Borg is Distinguished Professor of Religion, Oregon State University and author of many books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith; Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally; and The God We Never Knew.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 26, 1986, p. 203. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Many Christians are vividly reminded each year at the beginning of Lent of their own mortality. As their foreheads are ritually marked with ashes, the accompanying words make the meaning of Ash Wednesday clear: "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return."

The ritual expresses one of the central convictions shared by various religious traditions of the world: the importance of being starkly aware of one’s own finitude. Intense awareness of one’s own eventual death can be the teacher of wisdom about how to live.

Such awareness is difficult to attain in our culture, however. As numerous studies demonstrate, contemporary mainstream American culture is deeply death-denying. To some extent, this attitude of denial has come about because of changes in our society in this century: the marked decrease in the number of deaths at an early age; the development of specialized professions for the care of the dying and the dead; the emergence of geographical mobility, with the consequence that most of us live at some distance from aging and dying relatives, including parents; the growth of separate communities for the aging, not only nursing homes but retirement communities. More and more, the aging and the dying do not live among us. Increasingly, we are insulated from death.

There is considerable evidence that we are not only unfamiliar with death, but deeply uneasy about it. We are uncomfortable around the dying and the grieving, not knowing what to say. Often even the family of a dying person. as well as the attending medical staff, do not openly acknowledge what is happening; an atmosphere of denial and pretense prevails. Our language is filled with euphemisms about death: somebody passed away, or "we lost Uncle Ned"; if a husband and wife discuss life insurance, one typically hears, "If something should happen to me . . . ," not, "When I die. . ." Graveyards became cemeteries and then memorial gardens, the corpse has become the remains (and a cremated corpse the cremains) , burial has become interment, and the death certificate the "vital statistics form." Our language betrays much about us; we are as uncomfortable with the words ‘death "‘ and "dying" as an earlier generation was with the language of sexuality.

The daily display of violent death on television only confirms the diagnosis. Commentators such as anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer have noted that our preoccupation with video violence is a manifestation of the "pornography of death." Out of touch with death as a natural and universal phenomenon, we become fascinated with the display of death in unnatural forms.

The "thanatological revolution" of the 1970s called our attention to our widespread denial of death and had an impact on tens of thousands of people, many of them in the helping professions. Yet there are signs that the growth in death awareness has run its course; a textbook published just last year refers to the revolution in the past tense. Of course, that movement was and is a hopeful development, and it is important to nurture and deepen it. But’ to this point it has left popular culture largely untouched.

To some extent, the church participates in this denial. In teaching a course on death and dying during the past decade, I have required students to attend a funeral and to write a brief commentary on it. They report that the great majority of the funerals, most of them conducted by clergy, strongly express our culture’s denial of death. Frequently the funerals are brief, hurried events, or they are marked by our culture’s euphemistic language, or, with an almost shrill confidence, they proclaim an afterlife (often "complete with cigars," to use C. S. Lewis’s sarcastic phrase) while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the reality of death, loss and grief.

In an atmosphere of denial sustained by both church and culture, it is not surprising that most of us have serious difficulty not only in relating to the dying and grieving but also in imagining our own mortality. Yet historically, the religious traditions have assigned tremendous importance to the awareness of one’s own death.

In addition to Ash Wednesday, the Christian tradition has liturgical seasons and observances whose purpose is at least in part the contemplation of death: Lent, Advent, All Saints’ Day. One of Buddhism’s most powerful practices is meditation in a cremation ground amid still-smouldering corpses. Socrates’ counsel to "know thyself" meant above all to know one’s self as mortal. What is at stake in these urgent admonitions to be aware of one’s own death, and what do we miss by living in an ethos of denial?

Styled as a funeral meditation "at the side of a grave" and dedicated to Kierkegaard’s dead father, the essay speaks of death as the "master teacher" who can teach us how to live. But it can do so only if we become "earnest" about death. Earnestness means making the connection between death and me, to know that I will die. It is much more than the intellectual knowledge that we will all die. All of us know that; none of us would get that wrong on a true/false test. To realize that this consciousness will one day cease, to see myself dead, to see the coffin closed upon me -- that is earnestness.

Concerning death in relationship to one’s self, it is important to perceive three things. First, death is decisive in its finality -- when it comes, there is not one moment more; "it is over." Furthermore, death is decisive in its absolute certainty and equality: not only does it come to all, but it makes all equal, obliterating the distinctions that we make so much of in life. And death is decisive in its radical uncertainty: I do not know when (or how) I will die, whether today, next month or a generation from now. The radical uncertainty in its timing, coupled with its absolute finality and certainty, gives death its teaching power to one who will listen.

If one truly grasped all of this, what would the consequences be? Nothing less than the life of a saint or a Zen master (though Kierkegaard does not refer specifically to either) : the earnest thought of one’s own death liberates one from all that mars our lives. The radical uncertainty of death ("Perhaps today") makes the moment precious, and therefore beautiful. It can free us from procrastination, the illusion that we have an infinite amount of time, that we can put off living until some future time -- after graduation, or after career and financial security are obtained, or after a particular project is finished, or after a special relationship is established.

Earnestness about death can also liberate us from the weight of culture. The equality of death exposes the ephemeral character of the cultural standards by which we judge ourselves, whether we are puffing ourselves up by virtue of our achievements or being crushed by our failure to measure up. It can free us from an identity based on distinctions and comparisons. For the same reason, the equality of death arouses compassion in us, for it teaches us about our essential equality before God and about the artificiality of the comparisons by which we typically assess people.

Finally, earnestness about death can teach us about the wise use of time, about the difference between what Kierkegaard calls "accidental" and ‘essential" activities. In the context of his aforementioned essay, "accidental activities" are not intrinsically meaningful; "goal-oriented," their meaning depends entirely on their being completed. "Essential" activities are those which are valued in themselves, in which the process is meaningful in itself and does not ultimately depend on completion for its meaningfulness or enjoyment. One who is earnest about death will minimize the former and maximize the latter: "And so earnestness comes to consist in living each day as if it were the last, and at the same time the first in a long life" (p. 107)

The notion is capable of being misunderstood. Earnest thought about one’s own death does not make one fearfully or morbidly preoccupied with death, for earnestness makes one realize that time is too precious to be spent being morbid. It does not lead to a giving up of plans or projects, though it does change the mental frame of reference within which they are chosen and worked on. It does not mean that one lives every day simply as if it were one’s last -- a kind of crazy living "for the moment" rather than living "in the moment," to use a distinction made by the dying poet Ted Rosenthal in his book and movie bearing the same title, How Could I Not Be Among You? To live "in the moment" means to be gracefully present to the simplest and most complex joys and tasks. It means to value the "dailiness of life," as one of my students put it.

Thus death emerges as the teacher of wisdom -- indeed, as the liberator of the psyche. For the earnest thought of death can liberate us not only from procrastination, but also from our typical pursuit of an identity based on cultural distinctions. Death also plays a liberating role in the thought of another 9th-century radical Christian: In ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Leo Tolstoy describes with harrowing detail a successful middle-aged man who is suddenly confronted with a terminal illness. The encounter with death finally enables Ivan to see that he has lived the life of an "automatic cultural person," to use Ernest Becker’s apt phrase for a life lived in accord with the messages of culture. Ivan’s liberation comes only a few hours before his death; Kierkegaard and Tolstoy would have us reach that realization and liberation sooner.

Who would not want to live in this liberated way? Yet such an internal state is difficult to experience and sustain. "It is so easy," Kierkegaard writes, "so very easy, to acquire a true opinion; and alas, it is so difficult, so very difficult, to have an opinion, and to have it in truth" (p. 11). The "true opinion" which is easy to acquire is the intellectual knowledge that one will die; the opinion which is hard to have "in truth" is the application of that knowledge to one’s life.

Until recently the Christian tradition knew both the importance and the difficulty of this awareness. For this reason, Christian culture sought to provide frequent reminders of death. Besides the conditions of society itself, under which family and friends had primary responsibility for the care of the dying and the dead, memento mon were spread throughout culture: in the church’s art, in morality plays like Everyman, in drinking songs, in the ordinary artifacts of everyday life (e.g., in Austria a towel hanger portraying a human form split down the middle: one half a beautiful young woman, the other a skeleton) To be sure, the specter of death (and judgment) has been used as a form of social control. When this happens, the fear of death becomes the ultimate enforcer of the culture’s (church’s) messages.

But the distortion of the message should not blind us to its essential truthfulness -- a truthfulness attested by the experience of many. Shortly after the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow suffered a near-fatal heart attack, he wrote in a letter: "The confrontation with death -- and the reprieve from it -- makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful. . . . Death, and its everpresent possibility, makes love, passionate love, possible." (quoted by Rollo May in Love and Will [Dell, 1969], p. 98)

It is death that enables one to see this ephemeralness, according to Ecclesiastes. It is death that exposes the insubstantial quality of all distinctions based on culture (see 2:14-16) And it is death that can teach one how to live:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting; for this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning [7:2-41.

This emphasis appears most dramatically in the book’s famous closing speech (12:1-7) Its opening line is commonly translated as "Remember your creator in the days of your youth"; yet as almost every commentary notes (including the footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible) , the correct translation is almost certainly, "Remember your grave [or death] in the days of your youth." (No doubt the persistence of the common translation is due to its sheer familiarity, so often has this portion of Ecclesiastes been anthologized.) In short, it is the contemplation of one’s own grave that can teach one how to live.

And how is that? For the author of Ecclesiastes, it is the same life of simplicity spoken of by Kierkegaard and others. "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. . . . Enjoy life with the wife whom, you love, all the days of your life. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. . . . Eat and drink and find enjoyment in your work" (9:7-10, 2:24, 3:12-13, 5:18) It is the counsel of one who knows death.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes needs to be tempered with the passion of the prophets (and Jesus) : some things do matter. But the message of Ecclesiastes and the church’s traditional wisdom about death need to be heard, especially in our death-denying culture (and especially in Lent, though not exclusively then) The memento mon are gone -- from our lives, from our culture, from the church in our time. Even Ash Wednesday as a reminder of death is no longer ritually observed by the majority of Protestant Christians. We do live our lives largely on the basis of what Herbert Marcuse called "the performance principle" and the ‘postponement principle." in which our well-being is the product of measuring up to cultural standards, and fulfillment is postponed until some goal is reached. (For an insightful use of Marcuse’s terms in an exposition of Paul’s understanding of "life under the law," see Robin Scroggs, Paul for a New Day [Fortress, 1977], pp. 9-14.) We frequently do lose our lives in procrastination, preoccupation, performance and postponement.

The importance of being aware of one’s own death is not a popular message. I do not much like it myself, though I find it compelling. People may need to be convinced that it is important. It is not typically heard as "good news."

Of course, the Christian tradition has other things to say about death in addition to reminding us that each of us will die. In the end. after Christ has delivered everything to God, "God will be everything to everyone" (I Cor. 15:28) As theologian Hans Kung remarked in a recent lecture: "What else do we need to know?"

But the message of eternal life in God should not be proclaimed in such a way as to obscure death as the teacher of wisdom. In our time the church needs to tell us about death, and not simply about life. For our tradition unambiguously affirms that the encounter with death is one of the vehicles whereby God instructs us in the way of wisdom. "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return."


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