September 10, 2021, was a day a father won’t forget. It wasn’t the day our eldest learned to walk. It wasn’t his first day of school (that actually came a few days later). It wasn’t the day he learned to ride a bike (“Dad, let go! Let go! I can do it!”). No, Friday, September 10, 2021, was the first time my son saw death.
And not just any death. This was “Grama Sally,” my wife’s grandmother. During trips to Los Angeles, our son had met Grama Sally, hugged her, talked with her, took pictures with her. He knew her. And yet there she was, lying strangely still — too still to be asleep — in a large, beautiful, wooden box, surrounded by flowers, pictures, and lots of tears. I remember his eyes — tiny vats swirling with confusion, curiosity, and fear. Looking around, he knew he should be sad, but he also didn’t understand enough to know why, which made the whole scene more unsettling. Whether you’re a father or a five-year-old, nothing can fully prepare you for moments like these.
I could write a dozen articles about that day, but for now, isn’t it interesting that my son could live five whole years and not be confronted with death?
I started noticing how strangely absent death seems from everyday life when Ray Ortlund quoted a line about the Victorian era (roughly 1820 to 1914), when people talked more freely about death, but almost never about sex. And now, the opposite is true. The line sent me searching for days when death was a more visible member of society.
Grief in American society today is relatively discrete. We talk about “respecting the family’s privacy.” When someone dies, a group of loved ones put on some nicer clothes, attend a brief viewing, then a short service, and finally a burial, often with a reception afterward. All of this might take place in only half a day.
In the 1800s in Britain, however, people grieved very differently — and far more publicly. Widows, in particular, often wore elaborate gowns long after the funeral (sometimes for a year or even two). An entire fashion industry rose around death. This meant that, on any given day, it wasn’t strange to see someone grieving for all to see. Five-year-olds couldn’t avoid the dark clouds walking in and out of crowds. Their kindergartners were forced to ask questions our kids rarely think to ask.
Given how little time and attention (and fabric) we now give to death, should it surprise us that it blindsides us like it does? As a society tries to suppress and hide the reality of death, it inevitably becomes less prepared for it. I, for one, want to be ready when it comes for me — and it will come for me, and you, and everyone you know, unless Jesus returns first. As I help raise three young lives, one of my great burdens is to prepare them to die well.
Could Death Be Better?
When my own death draws near, I want to face it like the apostle Paul. I want to be as prepared for death as he was, so that I can live as fully as he did before he died. We could go to several passages, but Philippians 1 holds up the grave as boldly and beautifully as any other.
As he writes, he sits in a Roman prison, with no assurances that he’ll ever sit anywhere else again. His friends were afraid. After many scares before, this really could be it. “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). While others would have been consumed by worry, regretting all that would be lost and left undone, Paul embraced the prospect of the end, even a seemingly premature end.
A few verses later, he expresses confidence that God will deliver him from prison (verse 25), but that confidence doesn’t come from his circumstances. Everything he could see issued a different forecast. He knew he might die. And that haunting thought did not disturb him.
To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
When you read him, death doesn’t seem like death at all. Hope has somehow drained death of its shadows, of its bleakness. For Paul, death is like the demonized man in Mark 5, who broke through chains, cut himself ruthlessly, and cursed the sky for years — until he met Jesus. Then, people found him “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). Christ does that to death for all who live in him.
When he surveys what life and death offer him, Paul doesn’t merely tolerate and receive the latter; he prefers it. “Gain.” “Better.” “Reward.” He doesn’t despise his life in Christ on earth — “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (verse 22). But he knew enough to gladly trade all he had now for what comes next.
Better Life by Far
Paul, like the rest of humanity, was born enslaved to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). Consciously or unconsciously, we grow up and live under the oppressive, terrifying reality that we will die. And that fear makes people do all manner of sinful and irrational things. Paul wasn’t immune to the dread that terrorizes millions. So what changed his perspective on death? What lens could he possibly put over the grave to see gain?
“Death is only better than life if death means getting closer to Jesus.”
He tells us just two verses later: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Death is only better than life if death means living closer to Jesus. And it does for those, like Paul, who trust and follow him. As we step through the grave, “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). And he will be so stunning, so arresting, so satisfying, that seeing him will change us. “What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Death will introduce us to a glory that will not only sweep us off our feet, but swallow and transform us.
One day, I’ll wake up in a better-by-far world, surrounded by better-by-far sights and tastes and opportunities, and I’ll experience it all as a better-by-far me. A better world, because Christ’s reign will be seen and felt in every inch and breath. Better adventures, because we’ll eat and work and travel and laugh and swim and reign with the one who made it all. A better me, because I will have never been more like him. That’s how death loses its sting. That’s how the prospect of losing all can grow to feel like gain.
Living to Die
This perspective doesn’t merely prepare us to die well, though. It also prepares us to live well until we die. And ironically, while dying well will mean living more fully than ever, living well will mean repeatedly dying to ourselves. Paul can say, “I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31). What does he mean?
He tells us in Philippians 1. “If I am to live in the flesh,” verse 22, “that means fruitful labor for me.” And what would that fruitful labor be?
I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:25–26)
“While dying well will mean living more fully than ever, living well will mean repeatedly dying to self.”
Because he was prepared to die, Paul was freed to live, not for himself, but for others’ joy in God. In other words, he was freed to spend his life preparing people to die well, giving them reason after reason to live for Christ and long for heaven. He spent the little time he had on earth (even in prison!) looking for creative and costly ways to win and mature souls for the next world. He knew that dying well on his last day meant dying well every day.
And so if we want to live and die well, we die, as long as we have breath, so that others might finally and fully live in Christ.