Death has two aspects. The first one is its biological component. We witness the decomposition of an unstable chemical mass that can no longer maintain itself. An outpouring of body fluids and a deplorable and irrepressible organic breakdown destroy all composure and propriety. After having spent a lifetime expelling repugnant by-products, the human body—an ideal of physical beauty for all artists—ends up transforming itself into something repulsive.
Throughout life, we struggle to prevent the body from becoming repulsive. We employ baths, perfumes, ointments, medicines, hygiene products and medicine to give the appearance of stability and permanence. We struggle to give the impression of perennial and incorruptible life.
Death comes and exposes the most hidden, deepest and most characteristic reality of our bodies. We begin to decay long before life is completely extinguished. All these characteristics of death make us see the body as sordid and repellent.
However, death has another aspect by which this eminently human event becomes the most remarkable and even the most august fact of our lives. Death pulls us out of everyday vulgarity. We leave the web of trifles that usually make the fabric of our ordinary lives. Death brutally puts us face to face with the tremendous mystery of our eternity, showing us that every person’s life is an epic story—that was either frustrated or accomplished.
Thus, death rises above its sordid and repellent aspect. Indeed, its squalor contributes to making it grander by its tragic magnificence. That is why death has inspired the most sublime masterpieces, from Greek tragedy to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Who cannot grasp that heroism, which can dignify and ennoble man the most, has close affinities with death?
Hence, humanity has always surrounded death with somber solemnities and pomp full of gravitas. We owe this tribute to ourselves and death. The Church has specially revealed to us the most profound meaning of life and death. Her funeral ceremonies represent the just and appropriate splendor honoring the suffering of souls. She thus provides us with valuable lessons for the meditation of the faithful.
The preceding article was originally published in Legionário on January 10, 1943. It has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. -Ed.
Photo Credit: © Bill Chizek – stock.adobe.com