Death, feared by all, is a step that everyone must take.
Let us consider some meaningful examples as a meditation on death. They will help us to understand better this terrible step that all must take.
In an elegant room of a beautiful eighteenth century French house full of ornaments, delicate trimmings, silk hangings and upholstered chairs, an old man is dying under the canopy, of an enormous bed.
He is a thin wasted man. Very intelligent, even genial, but impious and sarcastic, he had a truly diabolic ability to ridicule his adversaries. He used that power especially against the Church and Her Divine Founder, Whom he would refer to only as the "Infamous One," Who must be crushed.
This philosopher had all that life can offer: money, pleasure, prestige. He was even idolized by many.
He knows he is going to die and has already received the visit of two priests. However he refuses to confess his errors and asks them to leave him in peace.
His body is completely covered with sores, his throat is on fire, and his soul is in despair.
Still lucid, he recognizes that the Church is the truth and Jesus Christ his salvation. But he refuses all graces, he hardens his will in evil. He knows the end that awaits him, and Hell already opens in front of him.
That end arriving, he “dies furious, blaspheming with despair, cursing his friends, scratching his flesh, and eating his own excrement.”
Saint Thérèse, the Little Flower of Jesus
Let us now turn towards a poor, unadorned infirmary. It is the infirmary of the convent of the Carmelite nuns of Lisieux, France at the end of the nineteenth century.
A young 24-year-old nun is near death.
Stricken with tuberculosis, Thérèse's struggle with death has been long and sorrowful. She is short of breath and feels suffocated. Her soul is enveloped in a mortal aridity, no longer feeling the consolations of the Divine Spouse to Whom she consecrated her life and Whom loves with an ardor that consumes her more than the illness. The Divine Savior sends this supreme trial to this heroic soul.
The smile on the dying face of Saint Thérèse is a sign of eternal joy.
According to the custom of the convents, the rest of the nuns surround her. Among them are her three blood sisters: Pauline, Marie and Celine. Pauline (Mother Agnes of Jesus) was her guide, her "little mother." Marie (Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart) was her affectionate godmother who prepared her for First Communion. Celine (Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face) was a twin soul of her own, with whom she identified most closely and who was especially open to her doctrine of the “Little Way,” or “Spiritual Infancy.”
Her cousin, Marie Guérin (Sister Marie of the Eucharist), the Superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague (who made her suffer so much), and the rest of the professed nuns are also near her deathbed.
All pray fervently and suffer at seeing the suffering of their dying sister. Finally, in an apex of pain, Thérèse raises herself slightly in her bed, looks toward an indefinite point in the room, angelically smiles, and, in an ecstasy of happiness, delivers her virginal soul to God.
Photographed immediately after death, that paradisiacal smile is still present on the lips of that nun who had wanted to be a contemplative, a missionary, a warrior and a new Saint Joan of Arc. That smile is the beginning of Heaven.
Finally, let us consider a small Palestinian house. It is composed of walls of layered rocks and has a flat roof, as was the style in this region that so seldomly sees rain.
In a simple, rustic room, marked by an indefinable cleanliness and elevation, a seasoned and venerable old man struggles with death on a meagre bed. Unequalled majesty and sweetness emanate from him.
Because of the ideal conditions surrounding the death of St. Joseph, the Church made him the patron of a good death.
On one side of the bed is a young Man, robust but not coarse, with such harmonic facial features that about him David prophetically exclaimed: "Thou art beautiful above the sons of men" (Ps. 44:3). It is obviously Jesus Christ standing next to the bed of His foster father.
On the other side is a middle-aged lady whose beauty is enhanced by her maturity. To her are applied the words of the Canticle of Canticles (4:7): "Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee." This is Mary Most Holy.
We are in front of Saint Joseph, being aided in his final moments by Our Lord and Our Lady.
There cannot be a more efficacious or consoling support or a happier death for this glorious Patriarch, husband of the Virgin Mary and therefore true, although not carnal, father of the Divine Savior.
This is why the Church named him the patron of a good death.
How Death Shocks Us
Let us enter into another kind of consideration.
Our most intense instinct is the one of self-preservation. When suddenly threatened, our whole body goes into a state of alert. Our breathing changes, our vision becomes intensified and all our senses focus on forestalling the danger that can put our life at risk.
Under the intense emotion caused by danger, a man can do things for himself or a loved one that he normally could not do. He will throw himself from a flaming building, leap over extremely high walls, cross swollen and raging streams, run enormous distances or throw himself in front of a car to save a loved one.
All this is instinctive. It precedes thinking and leads to rapid, efficient and fulminant action.Such intensity shows that, naturally speaking, man sees life as the greatest of all goods. Moreover, he is so attached to life that he is disposed to make the greatest sacrifices and concessions to save it, at times placing it above any other value.
This is why when a man puts the defense of country, a noble cause, principles, virtue or, especially, the Faith above his life, it is an expression of high moral detachment and heroism. When he puts the love of God above life, he becomes a martyr, a saint.
Thus, on the purely natural level, without considering grace and divine assistance, man fears death more than anything else, and feels distressed even in face of its remote perspective.
When man views death with supernatural spirit, however, he knows, despite the violence of the separation of the soul from the body, that death is the door giving access to the future life and the glory of the blessed. He then regards death with eyes full of faith and hope.
Death, the Wages of Sin
Saint Paul teaches us: "For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
"Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned" (Rom 5:12).
Death has a note of punishment. That is why it is so dreaded and causes so much suffering.
Naturally speaking, man should not live forever. He is a composite being, formed of a spiritual soul - which is immortal - and an organic body - which is perishable. The soul gives life to the human composite being. When the body collapses - through illness, wear and tear or accident - it loses its capacity of union with the soul. The two elements of the human composite being separate; the soul enters into eternity and the body enters into corruption, turning to dust, from which it was created (cf. Gen. 2:7), until the Final Resurrection when it will unite once again with the soul.