Death, Thou Shalt Die
Posted September 6, 2009on:
My father died last week. Death was a merciful release, as he had been afflicted with severe dementia for four years. He died at home quickly and painlessly with my mother , one of my sisters and myself at his bedside. Although we had been experiencing a prolonged bereavement over the past few years, his final passing away was still a sad moment for all of us.
We laid out my father’s body in an open casket at my parents home, as is the local custom, and we received a steady stream of people from all faiths and all walks of life coming to pay their respects. My father had touched many lives, both as a government surgeon and a teacher (at the North Colombo Medical College). I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at a thanksgiving service just before taking the body to the cemetery for burial. I give below an extract from what I shared at that service.
I shall remember my father not for his achievements but for his character. Especially his simplicity and his integrity. He shunned all luxury and ostentation, pomp and humbug. He refused to kowtow to politicians. As a government surgeon he would travel on public buses and trains from the various stations where he worked. Indeed his refusal to do private practice but to remain in government service, despite all its frustrations was due, I believe, to his sense of responsibility towards the so-called “common people” as opposed to the rich elites of our land. This simplicity was part of his integrity. He did not wear masks, but was in public what he was in private, speaking his mind in a way that sometimes won him enemies. He was utterly incorruptible. Whatever he was assigned to do, he did so meticulously and responsibly. Such integrity is rare in the medical profession today as well as in our wider society.
However, whenever I gazed at my father’s gradually shrinking and wizened frame, and grieved the loss of his fine mind, I would also think, “One day, he is going to be a glorious and radiant creature!” For as Christians, we don’t simply look back nostalgically to what people once were. We also look towards what they will become one day.
The great philosopher of medieval Europe, Thomas Aquinas, once defined human beings as “animals with an orientation towards friendship with God and friendship with one another”. Yes, we are animals, part of a wider animal kingdom, and the perishable animal remains that lie in my father’s casket remind us of that fact. We didn’t, as human beings, drop from heaven. But we are also more than animals. We are that mysterious entity we call persons. We live our animal lives in a personal way.
My personhood is what demands that I be recognized as a someone and not something. And that every single human being is to be treated as a someone and not as a something. Our personal identities are formed through relationships- with God and with one another in the human family. And though our frail bodies perish at death, our personal identity- everything that has made me uniquely me and not you- continues in God. And God has pledged, and given us a foretaste of that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that our personal identities will be re-embodied, “re-expressed” if you like, in new bodies in which will all that was true and good and just and beautiful in our lives will be re-focused and contribute to the life of a renewed world.
So we should not wait till the end of our days to realise that what is truly worth pursuing in life are our friendships with God and with others. The reality and depth of these relationships are what define us, not our cars, houses or bank balances. And they are infinitely more precious, because more outlasting, than status or money or power.