Death Smells Like Catfood
In a rest-home in Rhode Island, there is a cat. In of itself, that is nothing too exciting, but this cat - Oscar - has a gift that almost seems unbelievable. He purrs, miaows, gets hairballs (presumably) and enjoys sleeping by the fire. But Oscar the cat also has the uncanny ability that seems straight out of a Stephen King novel. Oscar can sense death.
Adopted as kitten from an animal shelter, Oscar grew up in the dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, an aged-care home that describes itself as "pet friendly". But the staff and doctors noticed that Oscar would make his own rounds, sniffing and observing patients, before curling up and sleeping next to one. Within a few hours, that patient would pass away, and Oscar would get up and leave.
Within the first four years, Oscar had accurately predicted 50 patients deaths, with few false calls in the mix. Several different experts have weighed in on how Oscar is able to sense death, with some suggesting it is an ability to smell a death-chemical, that humans have not observed yet. Regardless, now when Oscar is discovered sleeping with a patient, the staff will call the family and encourage them to come and be with their loved one.
Rage Against The Dying Of The Light
So, what would you do if you awoke tomorrow to discover Oscar at your door? How would you respond to the news of your impending end? A scratch, a pitiful miaow - and suddenly your mortality is staring you down. What would be your response?
This question is one that we love to ask each other when we're sitting around a campfire or trying to really get to know someone. We ask, "What would you do if you only had a year to live? A month? A week? A day?" Suddenly, the air fills with places to see, activities to try and relationships to foster. When this question is asked, we get a glimpse into our own priorities, values, passions and dreams that we hold dear for this life.
Underneath all this, however, is a deeper belief. When faced with our own mortality, our response is to cram as much of life in as possible. We decide that we will live "Life Squared" - everything in life turned up to 11. Adventure, exploration, experiences and sensory pleasure - we pursue them, because deep down we believe that death is the end of all that is good about life. With this belief firmly in mind, we seek to get as much good as we can, similar to a child at a buffet restaurant, being told that they are leaving in five minutes.
The finality of death - and the end of all goodness - can be seen in Dylan Thomas' famous poem to his dying father. He urges his father to carry on living, pleading, "Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." More than a lament at the loss of his father, this poem is a reflection of the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Death is something to be shunned, ignored - and when it sneaks into our lives, it is something to be raged against.
The Dead Centre of Town
For much of human history, however, death has been a much more central aspect of life. With disease, war, famine and ineffective healthcare, death was almost an everyday experience. In the Middle Ages, time was measured in saint's days, which commemorated the days when spiritual leaders had died. Traditionally, the centre of each village in Europe was defined by the church - which was surrounded by a graveyard of community members who had gone before the living members. Instead of death being seen as the end of life to fight against, death was seen as a part of life that shaped the way humanity lived. In fact, according to much medieval theology, the very purpose of life was to prepare for death and what followed.
With death as an ever-present reality, the focus of many churches was on Christ as the one who tasted death on our behalf. Ecclesial art shows the Christ's death and resurrection as a centre point to the faith community, often surrounded by Jesus' proclamation - "I am the resurrection and the life!". Similarly, the comfort of Paul's writing - "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" - is almost palpable in this age. With death on the doorstep, the comfort of the one who had died for us was a under-girding pillar to Middle Age's existence.
In 1610, the Anglican priest and poet John Donne was struck with a major existence. Thinking he had the plague, he wrote a poem to death - and the difference between his belief and that of Thomas' is striking. In it, he states that we will get pleasure from the rest of death, and as soon as the best people die - they await the redemption of their bones and the delivery of their soul. The climax of the sonnet ends with a triumphant note - "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be no more, death thou shalt die!". Death was not to be raged against; it was to be accepted and met with the confidence that there is more to come.
Movies Are Better Than Previews
I want to be clear - death is not a good event. The Scriptures are full of laments and misery at the onset of death or the death of a loved one. We are not called to whistle through the graveyard, or offer trite comments to the grieving. Anyone who has lost someone dear to them will know the cruelty of death, and the ineffable welling in their soul that cries, "This is not right!". We were made for much more than a life that ends in death.
But death is not the end. There is more to life than this - and if the Christian story is to be believed, then the life-after-death is somehow more real, more true and - excusing the poor grammar - more good than this one. Trying to cram in more of life into our current existence because we fear the end of it is like trying to watch more movie trailers because we know they will end as the movie starts. Movie previews are great - but movies are even better!
What happens in life-after-death is shrouded in some mystery, with the Scriptures giving us merely a glimpse of the life that awaits. But it is a mystery that beckons us onwards and is an adventure that awaits. It is described as a new beginning, a new heaven and earth - words that inspire the imagination and then begin to shape the way we live now.
Understanding our mortality shouldn't lead us to fearing death, but should call us to living lives that are rich in a future sense, as we seek to prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead. It is a mystery that is soaked in faith, hope and love, and that is the life that we are called to embark on now.
As we do, we too can sing along with Paul, ""Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" - and thank God for how he transforms not only life, but death as well.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.creativate.co.nz) who used to own a cat named Ziggy. Somewhat ironically and tragically, he has died.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html