Thursday, January 12, 2006

Philosophers and Morticians

[I revised this post 1/13]
Our culture fears and loathes death. This is why morticians make such a good living. We want our corpses well-groomed and beautiful, thank you. It always strikes me as odd when a relative at an open casket funeral says, “Oh, he looks so good.” Why do we hate being confronted with the reality of death?

Tota philosophorum vita, commentatio mortis est. The entire life of a philosopher is a contemplation of death. This famous quote of Cicero summarizes the courageous words of Socrates prior to his execution. In Phaedo, he is trying to explain to his friends that he has no hesitations about his death. He says this:

“. . . a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death . . . the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death. Now if this is true, it would be strange indeed if they were eager for this all their lives and then resent it when what they have wanted and practiced for a long time comes upon them.” (64)

The philosopher spends his whole life preparing for death, and then he is upstaged by a mortician. (Nothing against morticians.) In any case, Socrates died well. His was not an unexamined life. Most of us let the hustle and bustle of living distract us from the really important questions in life. So when the Reaper comes, we are not ready. I want to die well. Maybe like my grandfather – peacefully, in my sleep. Not screaming and crying like the people in his car.

But here's what I'm trying to say: If Socrates could face death with such hope and confidence, how much more should a Christian look death in the eye unflinchingly! Unplug from life for a little while now and then so you can think about what's really important. Don't count on the mortician to create the illusion of a good death.


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