Union Ridge Church

May 18, 2023

by Reverend Dan on May 17, 2023
Lots of people have asked about the field in which I’m doing my post-graduate work. It’s called “Thanatology.” That word comes from the Greek word “Thanatos”, which means “death.” Therefore, it is the study of death and dying. (Not the medical part: I’m not smart enough for that. Instead, it’s the psychological and theological issues associated with death and dying.) It enables me to hopefully be more effective during post-death grief counseling. Fun stuff, huh?!

Actually, it’s very fascinating to see the progression of the perspective of death through the years. And it’s vitally important to our faith because, depending on the version of the Bible used, there are almost 400 times the word is used or referenced, and it plays into the story in the Bible from beginning to end.

During the Middle Ages, death was common as plagues and the infant mortality rate soared. By the Victorian era, mourning (the process which encompasses grief) was quite often a lifetime process during which the mourner wore black for the remainder of his or her life. Then came Sigmund Freud and his book, “Mourning and Melancholy” and everything changed. It only takes three words to sum up the book: “get over it.” He felt that the goal was to sever the ties with the deceased as quickly as possible. But then Freud’s daughter died, and he realized you never “get over it.” He wrote a letter to a friend and expressed how wrong he had been in the book. The problem was, over a million people read the book; only one person read the letter until it was recently discovered. The next big moment in the study of death came from a lady named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, “On Death and Dying.” It was the seminal work for the psychology of death for many years and many today are familiar with the “five stages” of grief she uses: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The issue that appeared over time with this approach is that the stages appear linear, moving from one to the next, when the reality is that people bounce back and forth between stages. By the end of her life, even Kubler-Ross said, “this has gotten out of hand.” People had made the stages dogmatic by trying to keep them sequential. The method I like the most is from a gentleman named William Worden. His is a 4-step process that allows time for each step in the process to be explored. (No two people grieve the same because there are so many outside factors involved – relationship to you of the person who died, how the person died, age of the person, your age, how your family of origin coped with death when you were young, your faith, etc.) Worden’s steps are 1. Accept the reality of the loss; 2. Experience the pain of grief (this one is multi-faceted); 3. Adjust to life without the deceased, and 4. Find ways to connect to the deceased while re-investing in life.

OK, that was a long (and probably boring) set up for a little study I did. I took a local paper for a week and found the most amazing thing. Of the 24 people listed in the obituary section that week, only 3 died! Now, all 24 were deceased, but there were 16 who passed away, 2 who earned their Heavenly reward, 2 who went home to be with Jesus, and 1 who gained her wings (bad theology, you don’t become an angel when you die.) We are still a culture and society that looks for ways to soften the blow of death. We subconsciously think that we can lessen the pain of death by using euphemistic words. But we can’t. Death is a natural part of life and pain is a natural part of death. Readjusting to life without that person is hard. But to begin to reorient to life, we must face death, for as scripture says, we cannot “put on the new until we take off the old.”

Even as Christians, we will grieve because we have been separated from someone we love. But we are also reminded to “not grieve as those who have no hope.” Our hope was bought on a Friday afternoon on Calvary’s hill, and at an empty tomb on Sunday morning. “Death where is thy sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.”