Dust and Ashes

The Gift of Mortality

By Published On: March 4, 20130 Comments on Dust and Ashes

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“Raising of Lazarus” – mid-12th century, Capella di Palatina Palermo, Italy


Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended.

From Little Gidding, The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot


Avowed atheist Susan Jacoby recently created a dust up with a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review entitled, “The Blessings of Atheism.” She wrote in response to all the god-talk that appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown massacre; where much of the attempts at consoling the bereaved stirred up, once again, the unanswerable questions or inadequate answers to human suffering and death so often peddled around in popular religious belief.

So too, not long ago author and “non-believer,” Christopher Hitchen’s posthumously published his little book Mortality; recounting his rambling thoughts on his own imminent demise; after a terminal diagnosis left him a sufficient number of days to find himself “deported from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

But what, or where to, after that?  What if this really is all there is?

It seems there has always been the human hankering to imagine all kinds of fanciful notions, in our attempts to recapitulate our mortal existence into something more than it is.  Many religious traditions, including centuries of “mainline” orthodox Christianity, employ great mythic stories to describe a life subsumed into something greater than we can either know, or grasp, except by “faith.” Heaven knows, some folks try to better themselves, merely in the hope of a remote possibility there something more, after our death, which is a certainty.


There has always been the human hankering to imagine all kinds of fanciful notions, in our attempts to recapitulate our mortal existence into something more than it is.  … Heaven knows, some folks try to better themselves, merely hoping in the possibility there something more, after our death, which is a certainty.


Where theologians fail to persuade, even a Harvard neurosurgeon recently stepped in to describe what he says was his own scientifically verifiable near-death experience in his book, Evidence of the Afterlife. But in the end, the unanswerable question persists for many: Is it all dust and ashes?

This is the liturgical time of year when many in the Christian tradition undergo a seasonal pilgrimage in which the faithful are reminded at the onset we mortals are nothing more than dust. And so we will one day return to that from whence we came.

Then the traditional forty days end with the perennial re-enactment of a passion play commemorating the mortal demise of the one whom Christians even these many centuries later would profess to follow. Many do so in the hope of some kind of immortality for themselves in some indecipherable form or other; attributing to Jesus a “resurrection” that means the same thing to them as god-like immortality; while others of us may find such imaginings to be not only reasonably implausible, but of less importance than what we take to be of greater significance and meaning in this faith tradition.

Such indifference is somewhat akin to the unimportance of debating “believability” in all those wonderful miracle stories found in the gospels; which, by definition, can’t be explained without explaining them away. But where, in addition, the point of the miracle isn’t so much the dazzling magical  feat, but the consequence of healing the outcast, or feeding the hungry multitude, or inspiring someone like Lazurus with a new lease life. It is what I call the Lazarus factor and effect that’ll be further explored in this commentary.

Otherwise, the vainglorious hope of immortality can become so enshrouded in our mortal fears that we become – like Lazarus in his early grave – so wrapped up in death that we fail to truly acknowledge and appreciate the gift of our mortality for what it is; nothing more, nor less.

With the certain assurance then that we are but dust and ash, we can ask ourselves if the gift of our mortality is not only enough, but more than enough?  And if so, as the psalmist says, how then shall we “number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom?” (Psalm 90:12)


Mortal, can these bones live?

The biblical tradition is certainly full of life and death struggles; including plenty of stories of murder and mayhem. There are great mythic tales of the dead being raised or renewed to new life.  The prophet/priest Ezekiel, preaching to the exiles after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, gives an expansive image of a valley full of dry bones, and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live again?”  (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Rattling bones are then reconstituted with sinew, flesh and the breath of life. But context is always essential when giving authoritative weight to anything as important as scripture. And so, lest we read too much into the story and miss the point, the prophet provides his own interpretation. “Then he said to me,” Ezekiel explains, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

The familiar passage is not about the reconstitution of one’s mortal nature, but the assurance of an enduring legacy left to those who still draw breath.

Okay, but what about those who nonetheless wonder about our own individual mortality? What about those of us who have felt as though we were as good as dead at one or more times in our life?

The Lazarus Factor

Like the Ezekiel passage, the fanciful story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John’s late gospel must be read in the larger context. Jesus himself is portrayed performing death-defying miracles, despite the fact he does so at his own mortal peril. “Rabbi,” his disciples question him, “the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  (John 11:8)

The Jesus character in John’s gospel heightens the story’s suspense, delaying his arrival until Lazarus is dead and buried.  The same Jesus character refers to mortal death as mere slumber, from which he has the power to awaken his old friend; whose mortal body has already begun to decompose.  On one level — like all the miraculous tales that are spun in the gospels — it’s all about believing what is unbelievable.  Standing before the mourners, Jesus calls to the dead man in the tomb, “Come out!” and Lazarus stumbles out.

But Lazarus’ temporary good fortune only seals Jesus’ own permanent fate.  As soon as word spreads of such a life-giving gesture Jesus performed, the religious hierarchy could only see the deadly ramifications for the descendents of those same Israelites Ezekiel had envisioned being raised up seven centuries before!

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ …  So from that day on they planned to put him to death.  [John 11: 45-57]


The Lazarus Effect

The Lazarus factor produces what I like to call a Lazarus effect. And that effect has less to do with exactly how one mortal man was brought back to life, only to one day face his inevitable earthly demise all over again.  Instead, the greater miracle is about the gift of days extended to Lazarus following his first “little death” until he dies once more, once and for all.  It begins from the moment Jesus both calls and commissions him with the words, “Lazarus come out!”  And then – as if to be sure none of those observing such a feat miss the larger point — he commands them, “Unbind him, let him go.”

Though raised from the dead, Lazarus has not been unbound from his mortal nature. But where will Lazarus go, and what will he do with his new lease on life? How will he choose to live out his remaining days; freed to choose blessings that remain possible in our mortal nature, or the tragic choices that despoil and pre-empt such a gift?


Though raised from the dead, Lazarus has not been unbound from his mortal nature. But where will Lazarus go, and what will he do his new lease on life? How will he choose to live out his remaining days?


Numbering Our Days

Ninety-four year old Norm Hendrickson, a retired postal worker from Upstate New York, was recently in a limousine on his way to a wake for his late wife when he simply stopped breathing. When the limo arrived at the mortuary, the funeral home staff hastily placed him in a casket beside the urn containing the cremated remains of the woman he’d been married to for sixty-six years; and who had suffered with Parkinson’s Disease for several of the last years of her life.

Their daughter Merrilyne reacted quickly to the sudden change of venue, placing a light-hearted sign for arriving mourners, which read, “Surprise – it’s a Double-Header – Norman and Gwen Hendrickson – February 16, 2013.”

“Oh, that doesn’t surprise me,” one mourner remarked, “He wanted to be with Gwen.”

A somewhat similar, but painfully poignant story is dramatized in the French film, Amour (nominated for five Oscars this year). Described as an end-of-life love story, it chronicles in tedious and stark detail the journey an elderly couple undertakes; when Anne and George struggle to cope with a debilitating condition that befalls her, slowly stripping away any semblance of what the rest of us would want to call a real life. One critic writes, “Though the prognosis is terminal, the couple’s commitment is eternal. That’s why the movie is called Amour.”  Not so.

Spoiler alert: Though the couple’s love for one another is clearly expressed so tenderly and laboriously, it is not eternal. George’s occasional phantom remembrances of his wife in better days are only that. Nothing endures beyond the blunt reality of their shared mortality. To imply otherwise suggests a kind of sentimentality that borders on disrespect for the dead; the deeper truth George and Anne face so courageously, and to which they inevitably succumb.

Together in death — as in life — is our common story. We try our best to simultaneously live with each other, put up with each other, relish, and cherish one another; only to all end up finding our own way to the grave, one way or another.


Together in death — as in life — is our common story. We try our best to simultaneously live with each other, put up with each other, relish, and cherish one another; only to all end up finding our own way to the grave, one way or another. 


It’s no surprise it leaves everyone asking and wondering, believing or disbelieving, discounting or proclaiming the idea there is something else, something more. And, every generation seems to find their own way of wrestling with our mortal nature.

In Columbus, Ohio, a young and perky hospice volunteer who confesses she’s “passionate about death” now facilitates conversations in emerging communities known as “Death Cafés.”  (As we all know, human beings seek community any way we can.)

Over tea and muffins at a local Panera Bread eatery, informal groups gather to talk about anything and everything related to death and dying.  Starting in Europe a number of years ago, such ad hoc gatherings have sprung up in dozens of locales around our country. “The goal is to raise death awareness with the view of helping people make the most of their lives,” says organizer Lizzy Miles.  “People figure out what death – and life – should be all about.”


The Virtual Boneyard

As the Facebook phenomenon has evolved and aged, it was bound to lead to this recent headline: “Dead Profiles Create Vast Virtual Cemetery.”

Since whatever lands on the worldwide web stays in cyberspace for an internet eternity, what happens to one’s online identity that goes on existing in ones moniker and account when it survives ones own mortal demise? Unless friends and family can access your secret password close your online account, follow explicit rules on Twitter or Blogger, or make use of such sites as MyDeathSpace.com, there is a part of you that could conceivably “live” forever; as long as someone, somewhere, has a Wi-Fi connection, that is.  So, fear not, right?


A Fitting Death

So-called death education is nothing new, of course. Understanding how one’s death is a part of – and not the antithesis of – one’s life can be instructive.  Once one has fully reckoned with one’s mortality – that we are finite beings composed of water, wind and sod – there is clarity to what the hours of the day, and days of our lives might best comprise.  Some accept it with morbid resignation, while others believe it’s but a grand prelude to something else. But if one lives long enough to consider such things, there is also the opportunity perhaps — extended again and again — to consider a third alternative, and appreciate the mixed bag and blessing of mortality itself.

More than three decades ago, I built pine coffins and wooden urns for a brief time; as part of a variety of alternative funeral products and services meant to get people comfortable talking about end-of-life choices while they were still very much alive. The first sarcophagus-shaped wooden box I assembled was my own. Made of simple knotty pine, with shiny brass screws and hemp rope handles, I carved my own initials into the lid, “J.W.B.”

When it was done I thought I should make sure of the fit. So I crawled in and lay down. I placed my hands over my chest and closed my eyes in repose. I first thought to myself how the hard wooden cross braces on the inside of the box stuck into my shoulder blades and weren’t all that comfortable.

Then I chuckled slightly to myself, as I acknowledged the fact the next time I lay there my physical comfort would not be such a serious consideration. Now if only I can hold on to some faint smile when I come to the end of my days.


Mortality as Tragedy or Blessing

It would seem the circumstances surrounding the nature of our death often determine whether it is seen more as a tragic loss, or a blessing, a relief and release. We arbitrarily decide when a younger person gets short-changed; or with longevity and a prolonged lingering that leads to eventual release, when one is able to strike a good bargain with a longer life.

Children have a life to live, we say; and parents should not outlive them. No one should have to suffer the indignities of decrepitude or pain in order to get from this side of the grave to the other.  No one should take the life of another before “their time;” or at least suffer the consequences if they do.  We execute people for killing other people to deter them.  But all of that happens nonetheless, all the time.

When someone succumbs to their own death after what has seemed to have been a relatively long life it can be seen as a blessing; especially if the alternative may only be one of diminished capacity and quality of life.  But so-called mercy killing is taboo. There may be something unfortunate about any death that usurps the possibility of anything more. But death is truly tragic when it occurs in violent circumstances where there exists the possibility to do otherwise, and we choose not to do so.

For example, the slaughter of children in a country addicted to a mindboggling stockpile of weapons that are so easily used to kill is truly tragic as long as we choose to allow their unchecked proliferation. But if we as a nation survive our own such self-destructive behavior long enough to consider an alternative to such a tragedy of our own making, we might find ourselves unbound – like ‘ol Lazarus — from the shrouds of death to live another day.


If we can survive our own such self-destructive behavior long enough to consider an alternative to deadly tragedies of our own making, we might find ourselves unbound – like ‘ol Lazarus — from the shrouds of death to live another day.


Mortal Fear, or Mortal Faith

Faith and fear are classically posed as our antithetical options. Clearly, there are those who live in mortal fear there is nothing more to us than our mortal nature. Some of those folks may cling to something they call faith, in the hope there is actually something more to us than our mortal nature.

There are others of us who instead live in mortal faith. It is not only the simple acknowledgement that this is really the only kind of faith we mortals can realistically have.  It is also a willing trust that not only says this is it, that’s all there is, but furthermore that’s OK, and more than OK.

There is the mixed bag and bargain from the first breath we take, till we breathe our last. It’s a mixed bag for sure. But it might be the height of human hubris and folly to make anything more out of it than there is. Is it enough? Is it more than enough? Is the gift of mortality, the waxing and waning of days sufficient blessing in and of itself?  If so, how then shall we live?


A Mortal’s Prayer:

 From earth we come, and to earth we return; formed of water, wind and sod. For breath of life and length of days, let us humbly accept our mortality; with gratitude for whatever compassion and affection we might bear one another, until we each come to our journey’s end. Amen.


© 2013 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to wordsnways.com

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