A More Rational View of Death

Date Published: 
September, 1896
Original Author: 
J. B. Johnson
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention

As a layman; speaking to those whose professional employment consists in providing and maintaining beautiful resting places for our beloved dead, I have chosen to speak to you by way of encouraging a more cheerful and rational view of death itself. If we can succeed in looking upon death as a friend, as Daniel French has so beautifully portrayed in his memorial tablet to the young artist Milmore, now set in bronze in Forest Hill cemetery, near Boston, and will generally admit that death is not inherently an evil, but next to life itself the greatest earthly blessing, then we might hope to maintain towards it a more cheerful and reasonable bearing. And this is the thesis I hate assigned myself in this paper.

To appreciate the changed attitude of the world in this matter, and es¬pecially with reference to burial places, we should note at least, three periods of the world's history in this respect.
The oldest form of worship was that of deceased ancestors whose spirits were supposed to forever haunt the ancient hearth-stone and tomb, which were always near together. The maintenance of a perpetual fire on the one, and the proper attention and care of the other kept the descendants rooted to, the home of their fathers, and gave to these resting places of the dead a sacredness and inviolableness which has always characterized these spots in all nations, and in diminishing degrees even to the present day.

Following this came the doctrine of the physical resurrection of the dead to an endless life, which was thought to have been the original attribute of the race, and which was lost through the sins of our first parents, which doctrine still finds adherents amongst the less educated and less thoughtful classes, and at one time pervaded all Christendom. This doctrine added, if possible, to the sacredness of the body from which all life had departed, and made its perpetual preservation a thing altogether to be desired and a filial duty which was fulfilled as far as possible. This necessitated a place of repose, pending this wonderful awakening, which should be sacredly preserved in undisturbed entirety from age to age until the resurrection morn, when Gabriel's trumpet should sound and these innumerable graves should render up their long cher¬ished and un-violated dead.

The present scientific age has dispelled both of these doctrines as tender illusions, for which the wish had been father to the thought. We have now ceased to regard the remains of our deceased friends as having any particular significance except as reminders of their living counterparts, and hence the preserving care of, and superstitious regard for these perishing, lifeless organ¬isms, which formerly was a sacred duty, has now become merely a traditional and an entirely irrational custom. It is to be hoped the day is not far distant when cremation, the only rational disposition of the lifeless body, will be uni¬versally adopted in all civilized communities.

Another beneficent result of the more general prevalence of scientific knowledge is that the laws of this present world are coming to be better un¬derstood and accepted as wise and good. It was no meaningless or flippant remark of Margaret Fuller's when she said, "I accept the universe." For ages it has been considered the righteous thing to reject this visible, objective universe as a miserable failure, a vale of tears, a kind of way station where we are forced to tarry for a time in painful preparation for an endless existence in some other world, in which perpetual happiness and joy, or endless woe and torment were supposed to be prepared for all comers.

Now I do not care, as a scientific man, to commit myself for or against any theory of a future life, for the truth or falsity of which I have no suffi¬cient evidence to enable me to formulate an opinion, but the absence of any decided views on this subject does not trouble me in the least, as I once supposed it would. What I cannot know I cannot be accountable for, and hence I choose to shape my course, and would wish all others to do the same, in ac¬cordance with the knowable things of this world rather than the unknowable, feeling satisfied that whatever the future has in store "no evil can happen to a good man in life or in death."

Assuming, therefore, that we may look upon death as a product of natural causes, the same as any other natural phenomenon, and that these causes are found in the fixed, and as we believe the beneficent, laws of the universe, let us examine into it as we would into any other aspect of the workings of na¬ture's laws, to see whether or not it is the hideous monster it is commonly represented.

First we must remember that we must view it as a whole, and not simply in its exceptional or most painful examples. Like any other law, if the con¬ditions of its operation are complied with it must of necessity operate, whe¬ther its action is beneficent or injurious. So with fire, which was regarded by the ancient Greeks as the greatest gift of the gods to man, and yet it may be his most destructive enemy. In fact every law of nature, of which man has learned, may work evil as well as good if its operating conditions are ignored, and yet we call them all wise and beneficent, and thereby we accept the universe, with death included, as a good and wholesome world, when properly understood.

Probably the great argument in favor of death as a law of the universe is that hereby only can the race make progress. With the ancient belief in a golden age when man was perfect and immortal, no improvement was possi¬ble and hence death was not a necessary condition, but with the newer and now prevalent view of the evolution of the human species, progress can only come with infinitesimal gains from generation to generation and all our sup¬eriority to our less progressive "poor relations" lies in this evolution through innumerable births and deaths.

Prof. Fiske finds a very strong support in this doctrine of the "ascent of man" in the long period of infancy of the human species. How much this de¬veloping period of childhood is fostered and stimulated by the fear of the death of the child on the part of the parent, he does not indicate, but if death did not exist we can all see how much this developing care of parents would be relaxed, and how the race might at once begin to degenerate. If death is then an essential condition of human progress, it must be pronounced good and not evil, and it is therefore a friend and not an enemy of mankind.

The subjective effect of this law on the individuals also most wholesome, when it is not regarded as evidence of divine wrath or displeasure or of an incomprehensible caprice. Remove it from the category of special provi¬dences, and it can be calmly viewed as the working out of the effects of nat¬ural causes. It must be regarded at times, however, as an unfortunate, sad, and pitiful result of the operation of a most beneficent law. These are the cases of "untimely death" to overcome which but stimulates the race, and which are rapidly being eliminated with the progress of science and the spread of its teachings. Even here death must still be regarded as the unex¬pected visit of a friend, and not as the stealthy stroke of an enemy. If we would all conscientiously contemplate the friendliness of death, not viewing it with fear and trembling as the great arch enemy of mankind, and as meanly stealing upon us as a thief in the night, but as coming quietly and in the most friendly and helpful way, leading us into the great unknown from which we have nothing to fear if we are not afraid to live, then we would not only welcome it when it comes to us, but we would regard the vanishing from mor¬tal sight of our friends with a greater resignation and comfort. As a friend goes to a far country to live, as a loved daughter marries and leaves the home of her parents, as a child goes from its home to be educated, so should the bearing away of our loved ones by death be regarded.

Yes, in some respects we may say this last journey has its consolations which the others lack. We all admit there are many things more to be dreaded than death, and so long as we live some of these may possibly come to us, but when our dear ones are once confided to the care of this last friend, we are certain no further harm can come to them.

It is one of the unaccountable facts that while death has always been so feared and dreaded by the well, it seems to be always welcomed by the dying. The friendship for this unseen visitor then manifests itself, on the part of the passing spirit, and why then should we not also call Death our Friend? Surely, in a very true sense, those departed souls are nearer to us after this vanishing from outward sight than when clothed in flesh and blood. Proxi¬mity of body is no proof of commingling spirits. When the outward body has passed away then we feel that we can possess our friend entire and our spiritual communion with the ideal and real friend is perfect and continuous, and nothing can now occur to break this perpetual bond and shaping influence.

The ever-present knowledge that death will come to us sooner or later is probably the greatest of all stimulants to noble endeavor. Were we certain of a continuous existence here we would always be inclined to delay action and await the development of events. As it is, we feel that no time must be lost or wasted-that the present is all that we are sure of, and that every pas¬sing moment must be consciously utilized to help complete the work of a life known to be short and which may end at any moment. We are thus changed from indifferent drones to working members of the human hive, with the result that our own and future generations will receive some good thing or some added pleasure as a result of our having lived at all.

We also thus develop our own personality, and if an immortal existence awaits us when the friend of all mankind calls upon us, we will be certain to receive in some form a further reward for our faithful services here. The blessings of death are therefore constant and perpetual, both here and here¬after, and if occasionally a few times in every life we are thereby stricken down by grief, and a sense of loneliness and loss almost overcomes us, we should be reasonable and remember all the benefits we and the world derive from this same Friend, who will one day call in turn for us.

Although it often seems as though lives were cut short in the midst of their allotted tasks, leaving them uncompleted, yet often the real benefit of a life comes only after it has ceased to exist. Then it is that the character wrought out in life is distilled into a spiritual influence which may accompany, pervade, and shape a thousand lives, as could not have been done by the em¬bodied soul. If a feeling of incompleteness accompanies this influence, a thousand minds are stimulated to carryon what one had begun, and so the works grows and spreads by the death of its originator, as Christianity itself did when its founder was called away before his work had scarcely begun.

Then why should an air of gloom, of mourning, of somber sadness per¬vade everything connected with death and the grave? Surely the dead are not honored in this despairing inaction. We honor them most by cheerfully lending a hand to complete the work they had begun, and to fill the void their departure had left in our midst. In this way we too may worship our ancestors, and to a much greater profit than in caring for their tombs and in ministering to the supposed wants of their departed spirits. Other losses are not to be repaired by mourning over them, then why should this be any ex¬ception to our common rule of conduct? There is but one answer to this question. It has become so fixed and universal a custom to do so that we should be considered heartless to abstain. To be strictly honest, one must admit, I think that this is the case. No customs are so hard to change as those relating to death and burial. In these respects we are still in the bar¬barous stage. In these affairs, most pre-eminently matters of the heart, of private or individual concern, we act as though we took council only of public opinion and had no personal interest in the subject. We either affect a sad¬ness and grief we do not feel, or we coarsely parade before the gaping crowd our crushed and bleeding heart-strings. In other matters of the heart we maintain our privacy intact from our nearest and dearest friends as modesty and delicacy, and a due regard for our own self-respect require, but in all matters relating to death in the family, the conduct of funerals, and our mourning habits, we are bound absolutely to a series of customs at once irra¬tional, barbarous and oppressive.

But, you may say, why should we be told again of these things which we all know and have long deprecated? I don't know that I can give you a good reason, and probably I should apologize to you for bewailing before you a state of things you would all gladly join with me or anyone else in correcting. Perhaps it is because I have felt that you as a class of men, charged with car¬ing for our places of the dead, may possibly do a little to impress upon the public in an unconscious way perhaps, the feeling that death is a friend and not an enemy.

I believe, however, you are all trying to do this. I am sure it is not with your approbation or advice that our cemeteries look so much like charnel houses. You surely do not favor bedecking them with broken shafts, ghastly marbles, and weeping willows. On the other hand, I am sure you are doing all you can to banish these from our "Cities of the Dead," as they are now very properly called and to bring in the place of these emblems of sorrow the brightest of flowers and the most cheerful foliage; the most beautiful and in¬spiring trees and the most restful and inviting landscapes; and in place of iron fences and stone vaults give us glassy waters and shady walks. Give nature a chance to cheer and sooth the disconsolate and wounded hearts which venture here to be again near the remains of their loved ones instead of wounding and crushing them anew with skulls and cross-bones, lifeless mar¬bles and ghastly sepulchers.

What I wish to see, therefore, in all matters pertaining to the final de¬parture of the visible forms of our friends from this world is a general recog¬nition of the following facts:

1. That all people should try to add to our common happiness, improve¬ment and good cheer, feeling sure that the more we succeed in bringing heavenly happiness into this world the more likely we are to find a happy heaven in the next.
2. That death is the great friend and benefactor of the race.
3. That it comes only in accordance with the working out of wise and beneficent laws, and never as a special judgment; or by accident or through blind caprice.
4. That it should be received and respected as a friend and not reviled and hated as the insidious skulking foe of all mankind.
5. That all matters connected with death and burial should receive a more private, and therefore a more natural and cheerful treatment.
6. That the minds of those who mourn should be turned to the future rather than to the past, since looking backward, except to range a course forward is always profitless.
7. That the lifeless bodies once inhabited by our friends should be re¬duced to their earthly elements in the most rapid and harmless manner pos¬sible.
8. That if these material remains are preserved in the bosom of Mother Earth, it be in spots unobtrusively marked in beautiful parks, where earth and sky, flower and foliage, lawn and lake, birds and butterflies shall each and all bring healing and joy to the crushed and bleeding hearts which will resort thither as a thirsty traveler to rippling waters.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention
Held at St. Louis, MO
September 15, 16 and 17, 1896