I’m not really afraid of dying. All those years of being taught that “to die is to gain” have obviously done their work. At the same time, it is a poignant exercise to read the posthumous memoirs of a dying man. I remember my first funeral. Although I don’t recall the name of the poor, deceased honoree, I still see the reactions of the living vividly. I was under ten at the time, and the funeral home in Franklin, Pennsylvania was in a very somber mood. The man, who had been a friend of the family, “was not a Christian.” Having been buffed and rubbed in the Fundamentalist tub from my earliest days, I didn’t realize that what was meant was actually that he hadn’t been an active member of our particular church. Nevertheless, as a child, you get deeply impressed with these kinds of things. “I’ll never go to the funeral of a non-Christian again,” I remember my mother telling a friend. “The minister couldn’t find anything comforting to say.” While funerals are sad occasions by definition, this one left a crater that is still fresh over forty years later.
Christopher Hitchens is someone I found through his book God is Not Great. I don’t have time to read magazines, and I hadn’t read any of his previous works, but he raised some extremely valid points in this diatribe. My wife recently bought me his final oeuvre, Mortality. I felt as if I were back in that funeral home. It is not that I still hold to the odd belief system of Fundamentalism—of this my regular readers will have no doubt—but it is the forlorn feeling of reading the words of someone dying who hopes for nothing. Yes, it may be Stoic, and even noble. Certainly it seems far more worthy than visions of living in opulence with lots of available virgins with whom to toy while angels strum their harps overhead, but the certitude that one’s final days will be nothing but prolonged suffering—ouch! Maybe there isn’t a heaven, and if there’s a hell there’s something morally wrong with the universe, but doesn’t some residue of a human life remain? Even if it’s just the memories, the marks that we’ve made on others’ minds, don’t we somehow survive? Dying without hope nevertheless feels like milling about in that doleful crowd of specific Christians years ago.
Hitchens does offer a chapter in his final words devoted to those Christians who responded to his cancer with an unholy Schadenfreude, trying to torture the thoughts of a dying man with the promise of an eternal hell after experiencing a temporary hell of cancer treatments. This chapter made me sick. Anyone who so completely misses the message of compassion that suffuses the Gospels can hardly claim the designation Christian, I would insist. No one, no matter what their eternal plans, has the right to try to fracture anyone’s tenuous tranquility to make their own crown shine a little brighter. Such weekend warriors likely imagine that they are defending their fragile God, but in reality they are demonstrating that some of the criticisms of Hitchens were very well placed to begin with. No religion will live up to its full potential until it succeeds in the most basic practice of all—treating all people with respect and dignity. Until then, death has the final word.