Culture

On death and dying: A post-mortem of life’s great equaliser

Adrienna Tan, Burning Hearts // September 4, 2018, 12:34 am

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Four years ago today, on August 21, one of my closest friends chose to end her life by jumping out her bedroom window. The ringing of my mobile awakened me in the early hours of the morning.

The voice on the other end of the line was hardly comprehensible, mingled with wails, sobs and hyperventilation. The only thing I could make out was the voice of my friend’s mom, inconsolable and breathless.

“She’s gone, she’s gone.”

And though I had seen many dead bodies while helping out with my family’s funeral business, seeing her wheeled in behind the viewing glass of the morgue was completely different. She’d always been bubbly, vivacious, effervescent even, yet here in front of me was one whose face I recognised, but presence felt starkly different from the friend I knew all my life.

That moment will remain etched in my memory for a long time.

I never imagined a viewing glass could change my perspective that much; after all it was nothing more than a transparent shield separating the living from the dead. Yet I’d never seen death in this light, how with every passing moment, the person on the other side grew more and more unfamiliar to me. More distant. More separate.

In a few hours’ time, with the embalming completed and her body prepared in the coffin for the funeral, I found myself face to face with her again: Different viewing glass, same unfamiliarity.

Four years on, the same questions plague me in the dead of night: How did I not notice anything? Should I have seen this coming, and could I have prevented it? Was there anything I could have said or done – that I didn’t?

Ever so often, I find myself thinking back to those last few months I had with her, trying to scrutinise my memories for signs and hints of what she was planning to do. See, when death comes knocking, we’re tempted to suppress the pain and numb it with whatever we know will.

But when the dust settles and the buzz fades, the reality that we’ve lost someone remains. Can any good come out of death?

A couple of days ago, I heard that a friend of a friend attempted to take her life, and when they discovered her, she was barely breathing. In that tiny window of time, my friend’s pastors managed to make it down to the hospital in time to pray with her before she eventually passed away from the severity of her injuries.

But before she took her last breath, tears in her eyes, she whispered to my friend, “I wish I’d waited to see how He would have turned my suffering into something good.”

This left me conflicted – part of me rejoiced at the way the Lord graciously extended her life for that short frame of time, and the eventual beauty and closure that came out of it, yet my heart also questioned God, wondering why He didn’t give me that same grace period with someone I loved so much.

Whenever I hear stories like these or see such cases come through my doors in the morgue, where I spend a considerable time now as a forensic science student, I get reminded of my young friend, and those questions start filling my mind again.

Was the pain so unbearable that hope was too far gone? 

Can someone be so consumed by pain and momentarily blinded to the hope of the Gospel that he takes his own life in a temporary moment of despair? I think the sure answer to that is yes.

But between the terror that we feel for such a choice and the hopelessness felt by victims of suicide, I am waving a flag of hope that true faith can still encounter a season that dark. No matter how hard it is and how painful living has gotten, despair and loneliness never need to end in death.

“O Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapour.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

The brevity of life intrigues me. Even more than that, the ease with which life can be taken away baffles me.

How is it that it takes so much to bring a life into existence, but so little to take it away? Oftentimes I wonder if life would be approached any differently if we understood that time is but a vapour, if we got to witness every last thought accompanying those fleeting breaths.

For in death, we’re faced with life’s greatest equaliser, and it has its way of confronting us with how our once temporal lives would have counted in the light of eternity. Death doesn’t just terrorise – it compels us to paint life on the canvas of our lives while we can.

And instead of grim pessimism, death can grow in us the resolve to live well now, with the knowing that there is an eternal destiny awaiting just beyond the grave.

So often I get asked how I cope with these daily dealings with death, with the cold, lifeless and ugly before me every single moment at work. Truth be told, it’s easy to numb myself to whatever i’m seeing, to make clear distinctions between work and life.

But with each body that I perform a post-mortem on, I can’t help but imagine what this person’s life once looked like. A tinge of sadness comes over me every time, knowing that at some point, this person too was full of life and passion.

At the same time, I constantly stand in amazement at His workmanship so evidently displayed in each body – every detail birthed out of His heart and intricately fashioned by His hands. Oh, the juxtaposition. But it’s in living in this tension that I get a glimpse into His heart as a Creator.

He who sees us in the fullness of our glory, ones crafted in His image and made to carry His light; He who knows that our frail humanity is but dust and flesh.

“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2)

 

Our society goes to incredible lengths to hide the inevitable reality of death from us, and it’s even considered intrusive or rude to have conversations about it. This may be unorthodox or slightly disconcerting for some of you, but I encourage you to think deeply about death.

New babies have their whole lives ahead of them, but what can we say about them yet? Not very much, not yet at least. But sit a little while at a funeral, and listen. What is said (or left unsaid) about the person, and what is said about their life?

Was he wise, humble, caring, and generous? Did she love the Lord? What will be said about you when it’s your turn to lie there in the coffin as your friends and family gather?

There is always something so beautiful and strangely disorienting in finding a gift where we only thought to find tragedy. But the brilliance of Ecclesiastes is the unearthing of gifts in the most bitter place of all: Death.

In the prayer room, one of the apostolic prayers we love is the prayer of Jesus in John 17. But His fervent prayers for us come with a sober implication – that to be with Him I will have to leave this world – and one day I found myself pleading with God to give me the very opposite of what Jesus wanted (John 17:24).

He is precious. And He is our gain in death.

Sometimes I wonder why I feel the reluctance to pass through the valley of death’s shadow. Could it be that we have to endure in this life what we detest and fear the most, in order to enjoy what we love and long for the most when we finally get there?

See, it isn’t death itself that is precious: It’s the Resurrection and the Life embodied in Jesus Christ, who removed the sting of death and in whose glorious presence we’ll experience unsurpassed joy for eternity. He is precious. And He is our gain in death.

I pray it is said of me at the end of my days that she did not live in vain, and she did not die without hope. That on the day I face death once again, this time my own, my anthem in the face of this pompous enemy will be, “O death, where is your victory? It’s not here, not over me.”

“Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)