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Kenneth W. Phifer: Is Death Meaningful?

Summary:
When I left Mormonism for the Unitarian Universalism in 2000, Ken Phifer was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He gave beautiful sermons. I am grateful for his permission to reprint one of them here: “Is Death Meaningful,” his June 10, 2007 sermon. Ken’s sermons “The Faith of a Humanist” and “My Sermon” also appear on supplysideliberal.com. And you will find links to some of my own UU sermons here. Also, Noah Smith has a related guest religion post here on supplysidliberal.com: “You Are Already in the Afterlife.”Below are Ken’s words. Is death meaningful? Is there meaning in the fact that I

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Kenneth W. Phifer: Is Death Meaningful?

When I left Mormonism for the Unitarian Universalism in 2000, Ken Phifer was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He gave beautiful sermons. I am grateful for his permission to reprint one of them here: “Is Death Meaningful,” his June 10, 2007 sermon.

Ken’s sermons “The Faith of a Humanist and “My Sermon” also appear on supplysideliberal.com. And you will find links to some of my own UU sermons here. Also, Noah Smith has a related guest religion post here on supplysidliberal.com: “You Are Already in the Afterlife.”

Below are Ken’s words.

Is death meaningful? 

Is there meaning in the fact that I shall die and you shall die and almost all life forms shall die?

Is there meaning in the decay of the flesh and blood and bone of which we are made, in the end of brain wave activity, in the cessation of breath?

Was the Talmud right when it declared that “whosoever speculates on these four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world—what is above? What is beneath? What was beforetime? And what will be hereafter?”

How shall we answer Lev Tolstoy’s question: “What is the purpose of this strife and struggle if, in the end, I shall disappear like a soap bubble?” 

In Philip Roth’s recent meditation on death, Everyman, he reminds us that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death,” and that intensity, that inescapable fact of our existence, “overwhelms everything.” 

Knowing from a fairly early age onward that we shall die, that I shall die—I was six when my two year old cousin who bore my name was run over by a car, and even before that I was surrounded by death because I was born in 1938 and tales of war and dying filled the air around me as the Second World War began and then our nation became involved and families I knew in my church sent men off to fight and some of them did not return alive—knowing from a fairly early age onwards that we shall die, we grope, inadequately, for some sort of reason for this cutting off of life. We struggle for meaning in the face of that which seems to negate meaning.

If I am not alive, how can there be meaning? If those I love are taken from me, how can there be meaning?

Milan Kundera, in his novel, IMMORTALITY, comments that “to be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet we have never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. We don’t know how to be mortal.” 

We don’t know, that is, how to live with death, how to find meaning in what seems to destroy meaning. But we have long tried to do so.

One hundred thousand years ago or perhaps even longer ago than that, human beings began to treat their dead with reverence. Bodies were not left to rot where they fell mortally wounded or mortally ill. They were buried. Rituals were created to honor the dead and ease the sorrow of the living. The continuing connection of the living and dead was asserted, and ways of remembering those who had gone were established. Every known human society has such rituals, and they are at the very least an attempt to place meaningfulness in the context of death.

Among ancient peoples, death was usually considered to be an abrupt, unnatural end of life which would otherwise have continued naturally. Those who did die—by violence or because of a disease caused by magic—simply continued existence in another realm, but one in which the bodily needs of this existence went on. That is why so often food and clothing and religious artifacts and weapons and other necessities of daily life were buried with the deceased. Death was more change—from one mode of existence to another—than it was the end of existence. 

The first evidence we have of humanity understanding death not just as inevitable but as final, the cutting off of existence, is found in the 3500 year old Epic of Gilgamesh. In this epic, the king of a Mesopotamian city seeks immortality only to be forced by the gods into a painful recognition of his mortal limits.

Across the centuries since then, numerous efforts have been made to address the question of human meaning in the face of death. The answers have ranged from the darkly pessimistic to the glibly optimistic. 

Many of the Mediterranean peoples, noting the hardships and corruptions of this life, assumed that such misery would continue for almost everyone after death. The Elysian Fields of the Greeks, the direct ascension into heaven of such figures as Elijah and Jesus among the Hebrew people, and other tales of a glorious life post mortem were exceptions to the dismal fate imagined for most human beings.

For all but a few very special people, death was a gateway into a continued unhappy existence.

To offset the gloomy view of death as a transition to further suffering, four types of theories were brought forward. They were developed in many different cultures across many centuries, but all of them in one way or another offered comfort in the face of death. Death would not be just another round of suffering, but something a little or a lot better than this life.

One set of theories argued that death is the end of pain, the end of suffering, the end of any kind of unpleasantness. Epicurus, for example, argued that death should cause no worry because death is the “deprivation of sensation…(It) is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us, and when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Death may not be sensation but it is also not misery. Death in this view is eternal rest, eternal peace, eternal unknowingness.

A second and very popular set of theories was first stated by Plato. It involves a dualism of the body and the soul. The soul, Plato believed, is temporarily united with the body in this earthly existence. When the mortal flesh has ended its day, the soul is set free. This freedom is a genuine liberation, and is very pleasurable. Modern versions of this dualistic notion are found in the writings of Kant, Bergson, and William James.

There were people who believed in the resurrection of the body. Various Greek mystery cults, for example, held such a view, and the Jewish group that was so instrumental in shaping Rabbinic Judaism, the Pharisees, had a doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Christianity, of course, in almost all of its creed, has from its earliest days held to the conviction that the body will be resurrected at some future point. 

The fourth type of belief about death that was designed to show that death does not destroy meaning is reincarnation. Hinduism and Buddhism are the two most prominent religions that embrace such a doctrine, but there are others, especially among indigenous peoples. It is a simple and compelling idea: How we live now helps to determine in what form we live in the next life. It could be human or animal or in some religions even vegetable. The point of all these transformations is for us to grow spiritually. Death is the mechanism by which we are transformed so that we can grow, eventually to be released from the cycle of growing and all its cares and responsibilities. We shall have attained Nothingness/Oneness/Nirvana.

These are the four main ways in which humanity down to the 20th century has asserted either that death does not destroy meaning or that death is part of a meaningful process by which we are able to go on with some form of conscious existence.

For more than a century, these traditions have been under attack, not because better ideas have been brought forward but because death has come to seem not just horrifying but random, not just needless but in such numbers as to render meaningfulness impossible. 

The poet and critic Sandra Gilbert, in her extended meditation on death, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, writes of the transition to another way of looking at death, from expiration to termination. She describes how the 19th century looked at death as an expiration, a breathing out or breathing one’s last, breathing out the soul into another realm of spiritual existence. Termination, on the other hand, is an ending, a cessation of everything.

Gilbert along with many others charts the change from expiration to termination as following the path of our dreadful modern wars. The Civil War began the shift in understanding, 600,000 dead in a huge charnel house of grievous agony and slaughter of brother against brother. Almost for the first time, the murderous nature of war was captured on camera. It was hard to romanticize war—that is, give it a meaning in glory and sacrifice-- after seeing its terrible toll in stark photographic outline.

The First World War added an unspeakable misery to western consciousness by showing us the ease with which huge numbers—millions, in fact—could be killed for no reason worthy of the name. Then came the Second World War with its 60 million soldiers and civilians dead, the new strategic assault on civilians at Guernica and Dresden and Tokyo and Hiroshima, the Holocaust. Death was so ubiquitous, meaning was stripped from it. What has come since has not comforted us—Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and too many other killing fields.

Wallace Stevens captured this new mood of death as termination, a final closing out of possibility and hope, in his poem, “The Death of a Soldier.”

The Death of a Soldier

by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction. 

Last September, in a weekly column called, ‘Life, With Cancer,’ Lauren Terrazzano, a Newsday reporter dying of cancer, wrote: “I have seen people like my grandfather live simple but happy long lives. He died when he was 93. On the opposite end, in my job as a reporter, I have seen 3-year olds die at the hands of abusive parents. Nothing really makes sense when it comes to death.”

Is Terrazzano right? Does death really never make any sense? Is death the path into meaninglessness?

For some of us, the traditional answers suffice to bring us a sense of purpose and comfort in the face of death, whether the stoical view of death as eternal rest or the Jewish view of a Messianic Age where lions and lambs lie down together or the Christian and Muslim view of eternal union with God in paradise for the worthy and eternal suffering for the unworthy in some form of hell or the Hindu and Buddhist understanding of reincarnation into another life along the road to spiritual Enlightenment and Oneness. These views are well known and need no further elaboration.

For many, though, the ancient answers do not satisfy and there is no sure answer that does. Edna St. Vincent Millay spoke for the confusion and the courage of many in her “Dirge Without Music.”

Dirge Without Music

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. 

There is a tension in many of us between the knowledge of our mortality and our resistance to that knowledge. If we cannot fully or even partially agree with Cardinal Basil Hume that “to go through life and think there is nothing after death…is a totally inhuman thought,” we also do not find it especially comforting to dwell on Bertrand Russell’s matter-of-fact statement that “I believe that when I die I shall rot and nothing of my ego will survive.”

Where and how can we find meaning in death given what we know of life, given the human propensity for violence, given our own inability to accept answers that our forebears found sensible, given what we know of the world and how it works?

Whatever our answer, it must be asserted with modesty. There is no hard evidence about death, only our gaze upon it from without. All statements about death are statements of faith. I want to make two such statements.                                                                                                       

First, in an age of relativity, death remains an absolute. An individual may believe in God or not believe in God. An individual may believe in good and evil or not do so. An individual may accept the theories of science about the Big Bang and Evolution or imagine other explanatory schemes for the way the world came into being and the world as it is now came to be.

No individual can deny death.  The fourth century Chinese sage Zhuangzi spoke of death as simply part of the endless cycle of change, flux, what is now becoming something different. Life and death are the rhythm of the universe, the forms of being manifesting in alternative ways. Death is a reality, the most real thing we know.

Not that we do not try to deny death’s ultimate claim on us. Martin Heidegger noted that when we use the phrase that every human being is mortal, we silently add to it, “but not I.” We spend most of our waking and sleeping hours not focused on the reality of death. But it never leaves us.

Sooner or later—and in our media saturated age, it is likely to be ten minutes from now—death will enter our lives. It could be a tv or radio broadcast about the Sudan or the Middle East or an earthquake or a hurricane. It could be a parent or child or friend who receives a bad diagnosis. It could be strange symptoms of our own that cause us to wonder if this is the moment when we get the Bad News.

In a period of history when all the epistemological foundations have been eroded, when all the wounded languages of authority are radically at odds with each other, we are all forced to agree on one fact, the Fact of Death. Death is our Absolute.

That is my first assertion. My second is this: death is necessary.

Death is necessary if life is to be in the form that we are and that we know. To form the complex elements that our bodies are made of requires the death and explosion of stars, sending the atoms that comprise us our way. Robinson Jeffers was right, “the tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars.” Single celled life forms endure without death, but I suspect they do not have nearly as much fun as we do!

The whole process of change, of mutation and the development of diversity, depends on one generation dying to allow for the changes to spread to more than just the individuals in whom they have first occurred. This requires death, our leaving in order to make room for future generations. 

Jalaja Bonheim states this more graphically: “Life did not intend for us to be inviolable, but to be used for fodder for its workings. We are meant to be chewed up and digested and transformed into the blood and sinew of the world.”

So it is that 60 million of us perish each year around the world. We humans are not alone in our dying. Millions of animals and insects and plants also die every day. We are not alone when we die because life is constantly changing into death everywhere. Transformation from one form into another is the nature of the universe. Death is the mechanism. Death is necessary.

Two things we know for sure about death: death is an absolute, perhaps our only absolute, and death is necessary in our world and for us to be as we are. 

Grounded in these two facts, I believe that death points us towards meaning, and does so in at least three ways.

First of all, death forces us to take life seriously now.

It is certainly typical of human beings to put off till tomorrow almost anything that is not absolutely required for survival today. We forget or deny so easily that we shall not live forever. We do not always remember that we do not have all the time in the world to do the things we want and need to do: to love our family and friends, to pursue justice, to improve our skills, to learn something new. All we have is this brief interlude between birth and death that to the longest-lived among us will seem short.

When we older folk lament that youth is wasted on the young, we are in part expressing our own regret at not using the abundant energy of our younger years in more fruitful and significant ways. We older folk know in our own bodies and in the loss of too many friends and relatives that death is always near. When we are young, that is not always clear. To be young is to feel immortal, even if we are not, to feel the energy of the universe, to feel that we can accomplish anything: world peace, an end to hunger, justice for all; to feel that we simply cannot die.

We tarry then, too many of us and all of us in some ways, and youth flies.

When death intrudes upon our lives, we are brought up short, suddenly realizing all that we should have done: to discipline ourselves and develop better habits, to use our time more wisely, to have taken care of those we love more fully and joyously, to have used our talents in more creative ways.

Guilt at our slothfulness almost invariably accompanies the experiences of dying and death, our own dying and death or the dying and death of someone we love.

It is when we come to full consciousness of death—our own and that of others—that we realize that we cannot postpone the search for goodness and beauty. We cannot put off doing deeds of kindness. We cannot hesitate about plunging into the depths of life to find out who we really are. We cannot avoid facing our own selves.

We have all known people who have hidden themselves, hidden their abilities, hidden their desires—perhaps we have done so—until death intruded upon their lives: the death of a parent, a mate, a close friend, or their own diagnosis of a mortal illness. The fact of death wakes them up, wakes us up!, brings them alive, gives them a purpose and an energy that even they never knew they had.

Like ducking one’s sleepy morning head into a basin of cold water, confronting death can be bracing. Even the most reckless or lethargic of us can be charged with a new commitment to responsible living when we see death face to face.

Such an encounter teaches us an important lesson: that immortality is not about an endless stream of days and hours and minutes stretching into infinity. Immortality is about the depth of this moment. It is about living fully in what Karen Armstrong calls “the Eternal Now.”

If time stretched out infinitely before us, what difference would it make when, or even if, we ever did anything? There would always be a tomorrow on which we could turn our lives around, stop being indolent, start doing good. Death reminds us that the only life we truly have is the life we live today, in this moment.

Petru Dumitriu has it right: “If we are conscious of the divine nature of every happening and of every fact, then everything is miraculous.” Every moment of life then becomes full of meaning. Our lives become full of meaning. 

Death as the end of all conscious existence drives us back into life to find or to create meanings to satisfy our hungry souls.

Another way that death points us towards meaning is that it shapes the way we think of life.

Death as the absolute and necessary fact of our existence demands of us an answer to the question: how shall I live in the face of my eventual, all too soon extinction? How we answer that question tells a great deal about our character, our integrity, what we think life is all about. 

How we answer that question describes our philosophy of life, our religion as it were. John Bowker has pointed out, in his study of the meanings of death, that religion began as “an assertion of value in human life and relationships which does not deny, and is not denied by, the absolute fact and reality of death.” Issues of love and trust and loyalty, issues of caring and faithfulness and hope are all bound up in the way we address death, and thus in the way we address life.

Emily Dickinson faced the fact of death and said gently “That it will never come again/Is what makes life so sweet.”  And Wallace Stevens said that “Death is the mother of beauty,” because it teaches us to value the sweetness of life to which Dickinson refers.

But let us take not just the poet’s words, because poets can do tricks with words that may deceive us. Let us look at the life of Nancy Mairs. Nancy Mairs is a woman in her middle years who has contended with multiple sclerosis for several decades. She has been declining in  health for some years. Her husband, George, has had several bouts with cancer. In the midst of these maladies that keep both of them on the edge of mortality, they have also struggled with each other’s adulterous ways. Her description of the pain they have caused each other is almost unreadable.

She knows that facing death frankly is necessary if we are to understand and embrace life. She writes with disdain of “the terrorism of cheerfulness” by which some people feel that they can “grin their way out of death.” That is no more possible, she says, than grumping your way into it.

Mairs recognizes a hard but profound truth: “thoughts of death can darken one’s spirit, to be sure, but they also deepen it.”

That is why and how she can say to George when he reveals his adulterous affair of several years standing as he also tells her of the return of his melanoma, “I can safely promise you that…I will always love you.”

It is out of the depths of her spirit that she is able to see that love, not rage or fear or a sense of defeat, is the strongest, wisest answer we have to the question of death, and the best way we have to live, even when love is very painful and very hard to practice.

When George asks how she could ever believe him again after his infidelity, she tells him that she prefers to do so, because that affirms his goodness. “Belief,” she writes, then “becomes an act of love.” This remarkable love story of a couple who for years have every day faced the prospect of death has been strengthened by their encounters with death. Death has taught them about love.

Nancy Mairs writes: “Coming to death, then, is a conversion experience, a turning away from old angers and infidelities, a turning toward this moment, and this moment, and this, and this. Death has moved into our household—not a welcome guest, oh, no, our courtesy doesn’t extend that far…and its presence, far from rendering us morose, has made us spiritually alert and vigorous. One might almost say we need death in order to live this fully.”

Michel de Montaigne wrote that “one who would teach us how to die would teach us how to live.” Nancy and George Mairs fit that description very well.

How and what we think of death profoundly influences how and what we think of life. As the Mairs instruct us, death can add rich layers of meaning to our lives.

A third way in which death points us towards meaningfulness is by asking of us the question: what did you do with your life? How have you contributed to life? Of what use were you? In answering this question, we shall learn much about what life has meant, at least for us. The sooner we begin to answer it, the clearer and more firm the answer will be.

Because death ends our existence, it matters to us that in some way in our brief span of days we have made a difference. That is part of the anguish and the glory of being human. More than any other condition or event in our lives, death places the question squarely before us: what good have I done? How have I helped? Did I change my world for the better even a little?

Lewis Thomas, in an interview he gave a few weeks before his death, spoke of the importance of usefulness in comprehending life and death. Being useful, he suggested, is far more important than obtaining goods or knowledge. “Contemplate the times when you’ve been useful, even indispensable, to other people,” he said. In that contemplation can be found a plenitude of meaning.

John Lithgow, the actor, in a Commencement Address he gave at Harvard a few years ago, cited usefulness as one of the essential qualities of the happy and successful people he knew. Montaigne thought the value of a life lay in the use that is made of it. Meaning can be found in doing things that help other people, doing things that beautify the world, doing things that need doing.

Consider the experience of  Sadie Virginia Smithson.

She was a seamstress in Johnson Falls, Virginia, who grew to young girlhood before she discovered that she did not belong in the upper crust society of her small town. Upon graduation from high school, she was denied admission into the Laurel Literary Society, the pinnacle of high society in Johnson Falls.. She was turned away because she took in sewing and her father ran the livery stable.

She decided to save her money, take a trip to Europe, return and write a paper about her experience, which a century ago was still a bit unusual for a young woman. This would be the means by which she would be welcomed into the Literary Society. The ladies would want her to come and read her paper there.

When she had saved enough, she took her trip, only to have war break out shortly after her arrival. Being driven from Belgium to Paris in the grim late summer of 1914, she came upon the scene of a battle just concluded. She heard a man moaning for water, and then others crying out in pain. She leapt out of the car and began to offer what succor she could to these wounded and dying men. Refusing to go on with her party, she stayed there, as she later put it, “holding Hell back all night.”

She told her story to a sympathetic listener on the voyage going home. This new friend said that she would surely be invited to join the Laurel Literary Society now, to which Sadie Virginia replied, “But you don’t understand. I’ve been face to face with war and death and hell and God. None of the things I once thought important matter now.”

“What does matter to you, then?” asked her friend.

“God and love and doing things for folks.”

An encounter with death brought a new dimension of meaning into the life of Sadie Virginia Smithson, a dimension of usefulness that gave her life a meaning it could not otherwise have had.

Death points us towards the meaningfulness to be found in usefulness. 

As a public speaker since I was 12 years of age, I have learned that talks of any kind, certainly including sermons, have a soporific tendency for some folks that simply cannot be resisted. Indeed, I recall a young man once telling me that he slept better listening to my sermons than he did at night in his own bed! For this reason, I have made it a practice briefly to recapitulate what I have said so that sleepers will have a chance to evaluate my remarks as well as those who managed to stay awake.

The question of this presentation was: Is death meaningful?

I suggested that that question is fundamental to our humanity, and that for at least 100,000 years we have given various answers to it. Those answers began to change in the last century or so. Wars now made more horrible and more visible because of modern technology drained the faith of many people in the traditional answers to the apparent senselessness of death.

Two facts remain through all the centuries: that death is for humanity and almost all life an absolute and that in our universe death is necessary.

I believe that, regardless of our theology, death drives us towards meaningfulness in three ways.

Death forces us to take life seriously right now. 

Death shapes the way we think of life.

Death reminds us that meaning is found in usefulness.

In these ways death is revealed not as the negation but as the beginning of all meaning.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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