By Alejandro Grattan
In Defense of Death
A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times should be of special interest to many of our readers here at Lakeside—and for that reason we make bold to try and summarize Brooks’ outstanding article.
Brooks writes about some experiences involving Richard John Neuhaus, a well-known writer and theologian who had often spoken frankly and extensively about death. Neuhaus was no stranger to death. As a young minister, he worked in the death ward at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, a giant room with 50 to 100 dying people in it, where he would accompany two or three to their deaths each day.
One sufferer noticed the distraught expression on Neuhaus’s face and said, “Oh, no, don’t be afraid,” and then sagged back and expired.
Much later, Neuhaus endured his own near-death experience. An undiagnosed tumor led to a ruptured intestine. He recovered slowly, first in intensive care, and then in a regular hospital room, where something strange happened.
“I was sitting up staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat,” he later wrote in an essay called “Born Toward Dying” in his magazine, First Things. “What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two ‘presences.’ I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that ... And then the presences—one or both of them, I do not know—spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: ‘Everything is ready now.’ ”
That was the end of Neuhaus’s vision, but not his experience. “I pinched myself hard. My wits were vibrantly about me. The whole thing had lasted three or four minutes. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened.”
Most scientists today would say that Neuhaus’s vision was the product of him confusing an inner voice for an outer voice. Neuhaus took it the other way. While most people might use the science of life to de-mystify death, Neuhaus used death to mystify life.
His great theme was the way death has a backward influence back onto life: “We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death.” He became almost indifferent about when his life would end. But the matter wasn’t really in his hands, and everything was ready anyway.
Neuhaus died last week. In his final column for First Things, he wrote again about his mortality. “Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much I hope to do in the interim.”
This awareness of death, and of the intermingling of life and death, gave Neuhaus’s writing an extra dimension—like a metaphysician who has been writing about nature within earth’s atmosphere and suddenly discovers space.
Implicit in all of this, dear Lakeside readers, is that death is not the end but only the beginning. I am not a religious man, but it pleases me enormously to think that this is true. As a long-time screenwriter and novelist, if there’s one thing I loathe it’s an unsatisfying finale.