The power of death in a secular society.


Peter Sellick.


Published in Quadrant May 2006.


Some words, when used in a certain context, trigger a question mark in consciousness for reasons that are not immediately apparent.  Years ago, when working as a hospice chaplain, I heard nurses talk of quality when discussing the end stages of terminal illness and it was this experience that  posted a question mark in my mind that has persisted over the years. 


What was so odd about talking about quality of life for the dying?  I certainly hope that the doctors who look after me, if I die a slow painful death, are not reticent with the morphine. So why the question mark?  It is surely not irrational to want to save oneself from the painful and degrading experience of dying.  So what is my problem with the use of the word quality when it is used to describe the final days of human life?


Part of my unease is the easy use of this word that is strongly associated with consumerism and managerialism, in the context of the unimaginable extinction of the self. It seems that the devastation that death brings, the removal of our most loved and precious, is somehow reduced to the quality of a product that we might buy. In the absence of real comfort in the face of death, the only thing we can resort to is to make our experience of it the best we can.  The word “experience” is a giveaway to what is going on here. It is increasingly the case that the self is defined exclusively by the present.  We are becoming ahistorical persons.  As such, the only thing we trust is the infinitely thin segment of time called the present and, obviously, our experience of it.  It therefore makes sense that we focus on the experience of dying and are therefore concerned about the quality of that experience as we would be concerned about the quality of a holiday or a dining or a sexual experience. Again we are faced with an enormous disjunction; the immensity of death has been reduced to the everyday even while its power over us increases.


The reduction of the human to experience worries me. The Christian story would give us an understanding of human life as a journey into God and hidden in God in death. It understands a person’s life as being the subject of blessing and as under judgment, as living under the YES and the NO of God and of being an offering to God even in its messiness and faithlessness. The Christian story thus provides a context for death as the end of a journey and a home coming. The tradition of faith taught us how to die. Euthanasia was a good death, not in that it was free of pain, but in that it entailed a sober leave-taking and thankfulness for the life given.


Our society is in the process of replacing a faith based approach to death by an exclusively biological narrative glossed only by the assurance of the progress of our genes into the future. While this is obviously a true narrative, it only states the obvious; its thinness threatens all of culture.  The insistence of the biological view reduces us to the level of the animal, even if a talking animal, and reduces our response to life and death to that of fate and tragedy.  The absence of the Christian story, unremarkably, returns us to the Greeks,  not only in their worship of gods of their own making but in the tragic celebration of the fates.  The fragility of this view was evident in how little resistance it demonstrated in the face of the new community of Jesus.




To the secular mind death is simply the end of the self, the end of experience. The absence of any narrative other than this stark erasure of the self produces distortions in human living.  For example, I am reminded of a friend who suffered from a very serious cancer and underwent courageous medical treatment until he finally succumbed. I was surprised when his widow told me that he had not made a will.  My friend refused to acknowledge that his life was in danger and left his wife not only with the grief of his loss but a headache about the settling of his estate.


Similarly, I once attended a young woman in hospital who suffered from breast cancer.  By the time I saw her metastasis’ had spread throughout her body and the nursing staff knew that she did not have long to live.  However, she told me in all seriousness that she would not allow anything to happen to her body that she did not want to happen.  She died several days later.  Where did the idea come from that our will is powerful enough to stop virulent disease in its tracks? We seem, as a society, to suffer from extreme hubris to the extent that we have lost contact with the most basic human reality i.e that our dying is largely out of our control.


Perhaps it is this arrogance in the face of death that troubles me when health professionals talk of quality in the end stages of dying.  This was brought home to me when I heard a friend describe the death of her mother who, in the final stages, vomited up her own faeces.  Where was the quality in that? Despite all of our medical technology our dying is not under our control, indeed it is the final loss of control and to pretend that it can be managed is nothing less than professional arrogance.


Our attempt to assume control over our health has produced a burgeoning alternative medicine sector and anxiety about diet and exercise.  Many people now take numerous pills at breakfast, not because they are sick and these pills have been prescribed to help, but because we believe that they will extend our lives. Billions of dollars are spent on alternative medicines because the label on the bottle proclaims a certain health benefit. One suspects that this entire industry is based on the placebo effect. That the CSIRO wellbeing diet book is the number one bestseller, indicates a slippery combination of the authority of science and superstition about health and diet! While the snake oil aspect of this industry is of great concern, my point is rather our vulnerability to its claims. The reason we are sitting ducks for this industry is that it preys on our fear of death, our inability to even contemplate the time of our taking away. Alternative medicine has taken the place of the talisman of old, those religious objects worn on the person to protect one from harm.  It is a plus that these concoctions have not been tested and that we do not know what the active ingredient is because that leaves room for the imagination. It is our fear of death that makes us irrational, which is ironic since in secular thought it is rationality that does away with God.


Our failure to deal with dying in any rational way means that the medical profession is caught between administrators whose job it is to manage hospital budgets and patients who will grasp after the slimmest chance to extend their lives. As medical technology provides more and more treatments and tests, and patients and relatives refuse to admit that death is near, the health care budget is increasingly spent on the last days and weeks of life.  Of course there are always stories of unexpected cures to keep hope alive but for the huge majority of people who die of cancer it is the type of cancer cell involved that determines the outcome.



The alienation of death from us has produced clichéd journalism that invariably describes death by cancer as occurring “after a long battle”.  It would be letting the side down to accept a terminal diagnosis and embrace the fact of one’s demise.  The living depend on the dying to put up a fight.  Dying is therefore seen as a moral battle even if that battle is lost.


Another symptom of our situation is the daily reportage of medical progress and health advice in our newspapers. This may be a case of good news selling newspapers, we all look for that brief injection of hope that comes when yet another discovery is made towards curing cancer or heart disease. But what a slim source of hope this is; that our lives might be extended if we find ourselves in a certain circumstance.   The fact that we are pleased by these reports means that we have placed our hope in something that will not support joyous human living but in a fragile stalling of something we know will happen to us eventually.  Such an approach can only lead to cynicism, to eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, hardly the source of the strength of Western civilization.


Confirmation of this fragile hope by which we live is the common request for donations to a pertinent health foundation in lieu of flowers at funerals, the cancer council being the most prominent beneficiary.  There is an unwritten exchange here, give us money for research and we will give you hope that you will not die of cancer. A cynic might say that this sort of charity is narcissistic and appeals of this sort manipulative.


The absence of a context of living and dying has given death enormous power over us to the extent that we fear it most of all.  We are left to deal with our death alone with no story that forms our understanding of what our death means. All we are left with is the frantic attempt to postpone it as long as possible, a panic increased by the knowledge that an end must come.  My point is that we have, by and large, lost any idea of how we should approach our death


An article about dying would be remiss if it did not address the idea of the afterlife. It is the popular notion, inherited from the medieval church and given a modern spin, that, for the believer death is but the transfer to a greater and more glorious room. 


This view is supported by the hymnody of the church.  How many of us would have sung the following words at Christmas found at the end of “Hark the herald angels sing”.


Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Sun of righteousness!

Light and life to all he brings,

risen with healing in his wings:

mild he lays his glory by,

born that we no more need die,

born to raise us from the earth,

born to give us second birth.



While the idea must have comforted many in the face of imminent death it lacks support in biblical texts. Most theologians have realized that the afterlife, as a reward for the good life, is not the central focus of the bible but a foreign incursion whose source is our (understandable) trouble with dying which infects most world religions.  The central focus of the New Testament is an earthly reality, the kingdom of Heaven/God that is even now breaking in upon us but whose fulfillment lies glimmering on the horizon.  The vertical-spatial scheme of the ascent of the soul so dominant in much medieval theology and still prevalent today in popular belief, has been replaced with an earthly (horizontal) and temporal focus. Human history exists in the tension between the now but not yet of the inbreaking of the kingdom.  While this reality is to be established in the world, its origin is not from the world, it is not a utopia of our own making but finds its origin in the overcoming of the death dealing powers of the world on the cross of Christ. The kingdom is grounded in the earth and in human community; it is political, economic, and personal and is marked by the healing of the earth including our personal relations, our political institutions and even nature itself.  


Under the influence of neo-Platonism in the early church the eschatological orientation of the NT was subverted to serve the fear of the individual in the face of death. There is no doubt that the church used the promise of an escape from death  to exercise political power, a use that became transparent in the age of revolution and served to undermine the church’s authority.   This personalization of the gospel eclipsed the intent found in most biblical texts that was more to do with the powers under which men and women lived, referred in the NT as “the elemental spirits of the world”. Far from being an example of primitive pantheism these spirits are the palpable spirits of human culture that displaced the worship of God.  Long after the totalitarian secular religions of National Socialism and Communism have left us we find that we have to deal with a new and subtle form of Democratic secular religion that enforces its program for the perfection of the world through the legal system and by censure (See Michael Casey November Quadrant 2006).  These are the universal spirits of the world of our particular time and they are spirits of death masquerading as the spirit of right.  We now live under the sway of the spirit of Capitalism that has been such a success in the material realm but which treats humans as resources and worships a particular elemental spirit, that of the market.  These are the spirits of death that were put to death on the cross because they were the spirits that conspired to judge the one true judge.


The victory over death that Christian’s proclaim certainly has a bearing on how they approach death but it does not do away with the physical death of the individual. We all die.  But how we deal with death depends, not on a manufactured attitude of our own, generated, perhaps out of our own sense of spirituality, but on this larger victory over the elemental spirits of the world that are in fact spirits of death because they stunt, maim and distort human life.   Hope in life and in death is born out of our knowing that in the resurrection God has vindicated the One who we killed in the name of the spirits of the day.  Our individual death is not therefore a double death, the defeat of all hope, the emptying of all things, as well as a defeat of the body, it is only the latter.  The hope that is kindled in us by the gospel is not extinguished by our death.  This is how death is disarmed, by hope. We may go to our graves in the knowledge that although the self ends it ends in the knowledge that a One has come into the world who has released us from the power of that end even in the midst of life.



The old dualism of mortal body and immortal soul had simplicity going for it. Its schemata fit our intuition about the immateriality of the self and makes sense in terms of reward and punishment. On the other hand, try unpacking the above to a patient in palliative care facing his last days! For a start it does not seem to have anything to say about death, it is rather about life and freedom (Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own  dead”). The victory over death won on the cross was a victory of death’s power over life in which life is lived under death’s shadow, a situation that has returned in our time.  The death that is referred to in the NT is usually spiritual death, that walking death of a people enslaved by the powers of the world and without hope, which need to be raised from their graves. This somewhat disarms the chaplain who is called to talk to one who faces imminent death.  But how do you rectify a lifetime’s neglect of spiritual matters.  To be able to face death and embrace it when it comes with faith and trust takes some practice.  It takes a lifetime of involvement with the faith community to learn that we do not live to ourselves but to God and that life is freely given and must be freely given up. We must live with the saying that tells us that if we would have our life we will lose it, that grasping after life suffocates it, that freedom consists in living both loosely to life and with deadly earnestness. On the one hand this may be seen as the old Pelagian temptation that we can do it all on our own, but it is properly a response to the gospel, the good news that taking our sin on himself, actually bearing it in his flesh so that it killed him, Jesus killed something in us, our mindless self seeking.  In the light of this we find that death loses its power to rule our lives even though we know we must meet it in the end.



 I do not think there was a golden age of faith in which men and women cheerfully embraced their deaths or were easily consoled upon the death, especially, of children. Martin Luther, on the death of his daughter wrote to a friend asking him to offer thanks because he “could not”.  Even the faith of the great reformer failed him at this juncture. Death must be given its due as the scourge of human life and not normalized as just a part of life. While it may be biologically natural, death is our enemy, even the enemy of the faithful. I like to believe that the martyrs gave their lives because they saw that the faith was something worth dying for rather than discounting the sweetness of life in favor of a life in heaven. That belief may be misplaced. Certainly the agony of Jesus in the garden before his death did not betray a cheapening of life or the desire to escape to a better place.


 In earlier ages dying was seen as an art, something that we learned to do with grace if we were given the opportunity.  While we desire sudden death, preferably one that we do not experience, (dying in our sleep is the ultimate) in ages past a lingering death was preferred so that we could prepare both ourselves and our loved ones for our departure. Thomas More spoke to his children abut dying, prompting them to imagine themselves on their death beds with their pulses growing weaker.  Imagine the outcry today at such a practice and the accusations of child abuse!


Having done away with “the most high” in our pursuit of freedom to be what we want, we find that the old gods have come to haunt us, particularly the god of death. Is not our knee jerk response to the deaths when the world trade centre came down a further symptom of the reign of death?  In response we inflict more death.  Murder must be avenged and we have become caught up in a cycle of violence that defeats us. If death did not have such a power over us then we could have paused after 9/11 and talked of murder and justice rather than war and vengeance.  Because death has become unthinkable we cease to think and we act irrationally. The trillions of dollars spent on “defense”, particularly by America, a Christian country that should know better, bears witness to the fact that we are indeed in thrall to death because we think that death is the answer.  We have used the wonderful fruits of the Enlightenment to invent more accurate, swifter, more powerful and more controlled episodes of death under the auspices of “the national interest”.  


While cultural relativism would insist that all must be accepted, the Christian story insists on discernment, a separation and analysis of human practice and belief.  The use of a single word, like our example word “quality” used in a strange context, is often the thread that unravels the whole construct.  This is because Christian theology is systematic in that everything is connected to everything else. Mistake a key dogma, as has often occurred in the history of the church, and you are likely to precipitate unfortunate or even disastrous social consequences.  Working the other way, examination of social mores often leads us into an understanding of the theological mistakes behind them.  Thus examining how we as a society deal with death leads us to discover that much of our society is now but a thin veneer of nihilism, a fragile bridge over the abyss of human nonexistence. Many of our social ills may be traced to the inadequacy of this bridge and its eventual failure.