The Graveyard Schools the Schoolyard: Contemplation of Death for Education in Life

History records that King Philip of Macedon,

father of Alexander the Great,

charged one of his slaves with a unique responsibility.

graveyard

The monarch instructed his vassal

to awaken him each morning with these words,

“Philip, remember, you must die.” 

It is the brevity of life together with the longevity of death that gives one just cause to pause.  Perhaps this idea was on the mind of George Bernard Shaw who famously uttered the line, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.”  Other famous lines echo a similar maudlin sentiment:

  • Ring around the roses, Pocket full of posies; Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.  Children’s rhyme originating during “The Black Death”
  • Ninety-five percent of the people who died today had expected to live a lot longer.  Albert M. Wells, Jr.
  • There was a time when I thought I would live forever.  But I found it necessary to change those plans.  Harry Kellerman
  • I’m not afraid of death.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  Woody Allen

Far from being morose, the above statements about death are more matter-of-fact.  Powerful senators who open the purse-strings to their state desire buildings and bridges named for them; monuments erected in their honor so they are remembered after death.  Others simply indicate “100 places to visit before you die.”  Then there is the “bucket list”: a metaphorical reference to accomplishments the common person desires to do while they are living.  William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” expresses the essence of self-focus in the face of death, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”  More gentle, though no less unnerving lines were uttered by Emily Dickinson in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me.”  The poet says she had to “put away my labor and my leisure” while referencing another, “To ponder little workmanships / In crayon or in wool, / With ‘This was last her fingers did,’ / Industrious until.”  And one would be remiss to bypass well known lines uttered by Shakespeare through Macbeth

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty earth. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.  It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5)

I have placed these statements about death in front of my classes.  Do we go out with a bang (Henley) or a whimper (Shakespeare)?  Are we to simply acknowledge the inevitable, wordlessly entering Death’s carriage (Dickinson)?  And we would also deliberate the horrors of yet another writer, Edgar Allen Poe.  For years I would read “The Conqueror Worm” to my high school students as we pondered human purpose.  Lyric, haunting lines identify an intruder upon life’s merriment.  A bloody maggot gorges “on human gore” as Poe laments

Out—out are the lights—out all!

And, over each quivering form,

The curtain, a funeral pall,

Comes down with the rush of a storm,

While the angels, all pallid and wan,

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

Has humanity nothing more to deliver than to quiver as slithering, the Worm feasts?  Perhaps Camus’ acknowledgment of certain death in The Stranger is enough: “something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me.”

But Yahweh will “swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8) in spite of death’s sting and enemy status (1 Corinthians 15:26, 55-56).  At the moment, death not only silences but causes others to forget us (Psalm 6:5)—both small and great (Ecclesiastes 2:16).  Neither is there an opportunity to praise Yahweh in death (Psalm 88:10).  Yet, Scripture’s clarity about death is matched by its clarity about hope.  Both testaments anticipate not simply another life but a sure hope of eternity (Job 19:23-27; Psalms 16, 49, 73; Philippians 1:20-26).

While confident about life after death (Hebrew 2:14-18), I am always concerned about how death impacts life.  While we accept death’s inevitability (Hebrews 9:27) we nonetheless should discuss it (Mark 8:31; 9:31).  We suffer with those who have “lost” loved ones (John 11:33-38).  As we age, we “look back,” evaluating our lives (2 Timothy 4:6-8).  Jesus, as always, turns the discussion on its head, confronting those more interested in earthly than heavenly justice.  In Luke 13 Jesus sidesteps the political and cultural ideals of the day to pronounce that awful news today should make us consider our demise tomorrow.  Responding to human defined disaster, Jesus proffers this idea: we are living on borrowed time.  Our view of afterlife should drive us to have the right view of this life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic The Cost of Discipleship, lived what he wrote: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”  Bonhoeffer lived under the dictatorial hobnailed boot of Adolf Hitler.  As a Christian minister, Bonhoeffer wanted peace.  But as a Christian minister, Bonhoeffer also knew he must stop evil.  Bonhoeffer’s numerous attempts at ending Hitler’s life, ended his own two weeks prior to the Allied liberation.  It was Dietrich’s commitment to life’s purpose, that brought his life to an end.

In 1980 Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for poetry.  In his acceptance speech, Milosz spoke about the importance of literary freedom against the slavery imposed by earthly dictators.  Reading the speech recently, I was reminded why Milosz was such a believer in reality: he, like Bonhoeffer, had lived through the horrors of World War II.  Here is the line that struck me hardest: “Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever.”[1]

Milosz’ demand for the dead makes demands on my life as an educator. We are connected again to Milosz’ insight that we owe a debt to those who have gone before and those who will follow.  How we view death will affect how we teach about life.  Ecclesiastes 9 constructs a positive response to death; one that leads toward positive instruction.[2] Shaw was right: one out of one submits to the grave (9:5).  But while standing in the funeral home, verses 7-10 chart a course for proper living.  This is no carpe diem moment as some commentators have expressed.  Solomon’s now or never approach is solidly linked to The God of Life: He approves what we do.  God-given life is a gift.[3] So as not to miss the point, Israel’s teacher-king uses the imperative—“Go!”

Ecclesiastes is my favorite Bible book.  I take every opportunity to teach The Almighty’s four enjoyments in our terrestrial traverse.  Under His auspices we are to enjoy contentment (9:7), comfort (9:8), companionship (9:9), and confidence (9:10).  Eating and drinking marks the fullness of a life, including satisfaction with celebration (9:7).  In a hot Middle East environment, white clothes and deodorizing oil were considered soothing items of refreshment (9:8).  Security and solace are formed in human relationships; unity in marriage sets the standard (9:9).  Making sure to cover every eventuality, Solomon ultimately claims assurance in “whatever” (9:10).  An all-inclusive injunction comprises all human abilities (“hand”), opportunities (“finds”), energies (“might”), production (“work”), strategies (“planning”), data (“knowledge”), and skills (“wisdom”).  And what prompts the student toward a God-centered view of life?  We will all die (“to the grave where you are going”).

Among my many Solomonic mantras heard in classes over the years, I would mention four practical insights that death affords me as a Hebraic-Christian educator.

Opportunities As the final notes of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” were still hanging in the air, I would press my students to get serious about living life now.  “The time will come,” I would begin, “When you will feel The Bosses’ song.  You will have to put off the desire to live in the past.”  Another refrain from Ecclesiastes instructs:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (11:9-12:1).

One of the greatest movie lines comes from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”  Echoes of Bonhoffer, Milosz, and Solomon ring in my professorial ears, “If we all die, what opportunities must I take to honor The God of the living and the dead?”  And I put the question to my classes.  What openings exist to display your God-given gifts now and preparation for Providential prospects for the future?  How will you utilize your youth to benefit Heaven sent days of life?  When you are strong how will you prepare yourself and others around for the days of weakness to come?  And will you develop a relationship with God when you are young that will see you through all your days?

Questions The True Grit website prompts eternal questions through Johnny Cash’s song “God’s Gonna’ Cut ‘Em Down.”  What happens if we don’t see justice immediately?  Can we find justice in this life?  Does the afterlife provide ultimate justice?  If there is no afterlife, what hope can be had for justice in this life?  If justice is elusive in this life, on what foundation will ethics be built?  I discovered that questions about our future always helped establish a better understanding of our present in the classroom.

Queries begun in my earliest teaching days prompted death curricula in my classes, including field trips to funeral homes.  I organized panel discussions on end-of-life ethical issues.  I read passages from books like Bridge to Terebithia, Katherine Paterson’s response to a neighbor child’s death, as well as the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who.  Movie clips tattooed student senses about life and death, including All Dogs Go to Heaven, What Dreams May Come, City of Angels, Meet Joe Black, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell, Final Destination 1-3, and The Sixth Sense. We have contrasted Tuesdays with Morrie and As I Lay Dying. And, as a Bible teacher, I countered the Egyptian belief about death which is not much different than what people believe now, 3500 years later.

Solomonic words in Proverbs 27:1 still apply today: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”  Over and over I repeated James’ idea, “your life is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (4:15; see Job 9:25; 14:1; Isaiah 40:6-8).  My teaching addressed the shortness of life by the length of our appreciation.  Remembering that each day is a gift from God, our questions should turn to answers.  We should show compassion, give generously, use things wisely, understand good comes from bad, and remember God holds the key to the door of the future.

Histories Get Low, starring Robert Duval, explains how one event can change a life.  In his search for redemption, Duval’s character throws himself a funeral party before he dies.  If nothing else, the brevity of life should shout the need for absolution and reconciliation.  When I taught students how to study biblical genealogies a redemptive connection was always made to their own ancestors.  In an effort to capture life before death, assignments throughout the years included interviews with parents and grandparents.  Writing one’s own obituary prompts students to wonder, “What will people say about me after I’m gone?”  Young people need to hear Hebraic-Christian teaching which resonates through Chris Young’s song called “Voices.”  Family member statements daily run through his mind.  And how many times have I rehearsed Acts 13:36 to a class?!  “David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died.”  I would simply affirm the truth, “We serve at the behest of The Living God.  And my hope is that future generations will say about me after I’m gone, ‘He served his generation.’”

Legacies In a Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Italy outside the entrance to a chapel primarily used for the burial of monks, two frescos face each other on opposite walls.  One fresco pictures Death on a horse, trampling people under hoof while striking a man with a sword from behind.  The other image shows a person in various stages of decomposition while one man implores others to consider the grave.  Both murals reminded monks then and us now, death will find us and we must be ready.

Readiness drives my teacher mindset all these years through the anonymous motto, “It is better to build children than to repair adults.”  It is not what we leave behind as much as who we leave behind which is important.  When people ask me about my teaching life, invariably I talk about my students.  “When I am 89 and a half, my hand trembling on a cane, drool dripping off my beard, I want someone behind the lectern who has a clue!” my half-smile tirade would begin.  “YOU are the reason I teach!” pointing to student-filled seats, “There will come a day when you will read about my death and I want you to remember what you were taught and your responsibility to teach others.”  My professor’s legacy is not build on publications but my pupils.

A few years ago my pastor asked me to participate in a teaching dialogue.  I was asked why my vocation as an educator was important.  I declared my belief that the education of young people was imperative because of our impending death.  I am compelled to read, study, think, write, and teach because my voice carries the voices of others to the next generation.  C. S. Lewis, in an interview shortly before his own death, said,

The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty.  The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though the world would last a hundred years.[4]

Czeslaw Milosz said our lives should be lived as a debt to the dead.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave his life so that other lives might be saved.  Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 and 15 offers these compelling lines: “I know that there is nothing better for people, than to be happy and do good while they live—this is the gift of God.  For God will call the past into account.”

In the end, I believe the graveyard schools the schoolyard.

Mark awakens every day thinking, “I have one more day to give.”  This essay will appear in Integrite: A Faith and Learning Journal (Spring, 2011).  Mark is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary.


[1] http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1980/milosz-lecture-en.html

[2] For this practical essay, I am drawing from my personal exegesis of the passage without scholarly notation.

[3] The refrain “life is a gift of The God” runs through Ecclesiastes (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20; etc.).

[4] C. S. Lewis, God in The Dock (Eerdmans, 1994): 266.

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7 comments

  1. Mark,

    I greatly benefit from your web site. I do wish you had it set up for an RSS feed or an e-mail subscription so I would know when you have posted a new article.

    Thanks.

  2. Karl and Christel, I’m glad that the writing is beneficial. As with everything we read, to acknowledge our responsibility to follow through on what we know is paramount.

  3. My friend, while I loved this: “Jesus proffers this idea: we are living on borrowed time. Our view of afterlife should drive us to have the right view of this life,” the same could be said of many other “clippings.” This is no meandering read; it calls for serious musing! Thanks for the depth of thought.

    Karl is right, we need to get the RSS feed rockin! I can help with that 🙂
    Blessed are your students.
    Tommy

  4. mark,

    I don’t know how I wandered in here but I am glad I did! Thanks for a though provoking essay and some great insight. Just yesterday i was reading in Leviticus 21 and the injunction that “no one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his virgin sister …” (21:2-3). I immediately wrote in the margin “What a sobering reminder of the brevity of life this would have been. All family members would be intimately acquainted with death and reminded to make the most of their days. Oh, how our modern culture insulates us from reality.”

    Thank you for inspiring and sobering and launching your students into significant lives. What a privilege we have as educators, and what a responsibility!

  5. Hi Marty. I’m glad you’re glad! Thanks for your comment from Leviticus (my “second favorite” Bible book after Ecclesiastes!). As an OT prof I love The First Testament and its practical implications for life. I’m grateful for your encouragement and kind words. It seems to me that we should connect for encouragement and possible future connections for students at Crossroads. From your blog, it looks like we all could use a few choice words from a chosen rebel! Peace to your house during Resurrection Day and every day. (meckel@crossroads.edu)

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