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Death, Dying and Life after Death

By Frances Clare

“We are going to our final resting place, and then there will be mourning in the streets. The silver chain will snap, and the golden lamp will fall and break; the rope at the well will break, and the water jar will be shattered. Our bodies will return to the dust of the earth, and the breath of life will go back to God, who gave it to us.” (Ecclesiastes 12: 5-7)

So speaks the Philosopher in the Old Testament of The Holy Bible. He does not shrink from naming the inevitability of death for us all, nor the unpleasant truth of the suffering involved in the demise of the body.

No-one knows when they will die. However, the terminally ill have a more accurate idea. Infact, they have a real opportunity to gain some spiritual understanding to help them prepare for death with dignity and peace and to live out their final days in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

From a Christian perspective, what comfort does the life and teachings of Christ give to those who are involved with terminal illness?

2009 began for me with the death of my grandmother.
Her funeral was held in the local church and I was asked to read from St. John’s Gospel;

“Let not your heart be troubled,” Jesus told his disciples. “Believe in God and believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you…I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:7)

Common fears around death are, “Will I exist after death and what will happen to me?” In this passage, Jesus re-assures us that even after death, we do continue to exist. Not only this, but he will prepare a place for us in God’s house and receive us unto himself. He says we will not be alone, but with him. It is a very comforting message from a merciful and loving Lord. The mystery of any after-life remains and Jesus does not reveal the nature of God’s “mansions” nor exactly how we go there. Indeed, his disciple Thomas asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?” Jesus replies, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one goes to the Father except through me.” His words imply that we don’t need to know the way. The mystery is to be accepted. Only implicit faith in him is required.

Death, as we understand it, is challenged throughout the New Testament.
The resurrection of Jesus is central to Christian belief. Following his crucifixion, he appears to his disciples on several occasions. During his lifetime Jesus also raised Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter and the Widow’s son of Nain. Jairus was an official of the local synagogue and when his 12 year old daughter died, Jesus was laughed to scorn when he said, “Don’t cry; the child is not dead – she is only sleeping.” Lazarus had been dead for 4 days when Jesus brought him back to life. He said to Martha, Lazarus’ sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25)

His apostles continued to resurrect people. Peter raised Tabitha and Paul raised Etychus from death. Jesus’ Transfiguration also tells us of his essential divinity, “while he was praying, his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)

So Jesus conquered death and is divine, but what does this mean for us? Before Jesus’ crucifixion, he left his disciples with this message. “When I go, you will not be left all alone; I will come back to you. In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live. When that day comes, you will know that I am in my Father and that you are in me, just as I am in you.” (John 14:18-20)

Here, Jesus explicitly tells us that we are not separate from him; we are not separate from the divinity which he is. Many people describe near death experiences and heightened spiritual states as a joyous “coming home.” So when Jesus says, “I will take you to myself and you will be where I am”, we can contemplate that when we die, we also go back to our natural state of unity with the Divine. We do not cease to exist. The body is lost and that is all.

How can I turn to God now?
Another fear around death is, “I have not thought of God, or followed God’s commandments in my life. How can I turn to God now, even though I am in distress? Will he accept me now?”

It is essential to remember that the very nature of Jesus is peace, love and compassion. He asks us in St. John’s Gospel for belief in him alone. He urges us not to be worried or afraid. He is the ‘Prince of Peace’ and he knows of our struggle in human life. He says,

“Come to me, all you that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28) “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus says that it is the humble soul who will be acceptable to him in the last day. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector go to the temple and stand before God. The Pharisee boasts to God that he has been a good person -fasted, prayed and given 10% of his income to charity etc. The Tax Collector stands before God and will not even raise his head. He says, “God, have pity on me, a sinner.” Jesus says, “for everyone that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:9- 14).

A life of ignorance.
Jesus’ compassion does not mean that we should choose a life of ignorance. Ignorance is an over-identification with the body-mind and the consequent pursuit of lasting happiness where it cannot possibly be found. For many of us this could be in money, pleasure, power, food, relationships or intellectual knowledge alone. We are to rise above our lower nature of endless desires and painful behaviour which only results in unfulfilment. As St. Paul said, “To be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

According to St. John’s Gospel, it was Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute, to whom Jesus first appeared after his crucifixion. Jesus appeared to her first because she loved him. Secondly she is a symbol of transformation.

Jesus asked a potential disciple to follow him. He replied, “Sir, first let me go back and bury my father.” “Follow me,” Jesus answered, “and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Luke 9:60)

It is clear that although many people are healthy, they are spiritually “dead” or asleep in this life. They are unmindful of the Spirit within them and of God’s commandments. They are uninterested in the true purpose of life. The Philosopher of the Old Testament concludes that one should, “Have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because that is all that man was created for.”

Jesus said that his first two commandments are this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second commandment is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There are no greater commandments than these.” (Mark 12:30)

The second commandment may seem easier to follow. For all of us, love is our true nature. For the dying, love may mean to forgive oneself and others, to receive love, and to make peace with the events in life that have caused oneself or others pain. However, plenty of love can still be given in the final days of this temporal life. Simple things such as smiles, kindness, and a loving look can be given to fellow patients, doctors, care-givers and family members.

The first commandment may cause more anxiety. How does one love God with all one’s mind, heart, strength etc, especially if one doesn’t have a religion or spiritual practice? Or one may be too ill or disabled to go to church, or even to say a prayer.

There is a very simple way to love God ceaselessly. St. Paul said, “Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) In Genesis, it is written, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Another meaning for Spirit is breath. Breath has been described as the link between each individual soul and God. If we can simply watch and love each breath, and know that it is God who is pulling that breath, then we can love God with all our soul, mind and strength until the very last breath. We are then at all times consciously united with God. As the Philosopher said, at the time of death, “the breath of life will go back to God, who gave it to us.” Indeed, if we can practice this, then we will stay in the present moment and have more control over an unruly and fearful mind which oscillates between past and future.

Whether you are involved with terminal illness, or whether you want to be more peaceful and spiritually alive, I leave you with the words of St. Paul.

"Who then can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or poverty or danger or death? …..No in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love…” (Romans 8:38)

“May God, the source of hope, fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him, so that your hope will continue to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

This article is in loving memory of Paramahamsa Hariharananda

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