Re-internment of Bishop Constantine (Essensky) at Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.

The Fear of Death: Worldly Paralysis or Call to Repentance?

by Erik C. Young

Below we offer a brief exhor­ta­tion to over­come the sec­u­lar pho­bia of death and suf­fer­ing that per­vades every cor­ner of mod­ern life. 

Euripi­des is quot­ed as say­ing, “No one can con­fi­dent­ly say that he will still be liv­ing tomor­row.” Our inevitable con­fronta­tion with this truth is anath­e­ma to mod­ern soci­ety — an evil that is not to be enter­tained. The inevitabil­i­ty of death is a specter that hangs over us and whose loom­ing we can­not eas­i­ly ignore.

It is our expe­ri­ence as sur­vivors that informs our out­look on death. Per­haps we have child­hood mem­o­ries of loved ones who passed away. It may be that as young chil­dren we didn’t ful­ly com­pre­hend what death meant beyond the obvi­ous real­iza­tion that our loved one would not be around for us any­more. For some of us, death may be some­thing we didn’t per­son­al­ly encounter until we were adults. In any case, our sense of loss will be more acute as an adult because we may bet­ter grasp the dura­tion and per­ma­nence of that loss. Per­haps we are affect­ed by news reports of tragedies befalling total strangers half a world away. In any case, we respond to death with grief, guilt, depres­sion, anger, and, in some cas­es, a sense of relief. What does this expe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor con­tribute to our fears of dying? It reminds us that our time is com­ing. We have come to fear the prospect of death know­ing that there is no way to escape it. So, why do we spend so much of our finite life try­ing to escape the inevitable? If any­thing is to be over­come here, it is the world­ly fear of death, not death itself. 

Our expe­ri­ence of life is phys­i­cal. The mate­r­i­al world is full of delights that sat­is­fy our appetites, if only tem­porar­i­ly. When the ser­pent offers Eve the fruit of the Tree of Knowl­edge in the Gar­den of Eden, we are told that the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleas­ant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.1 The fruit that was for­bid­den by God was also cre­at­ed by God. Its mate­r­i­al val­ue was estab­lished in its abil­i­ty to sat­is­fy hunger, please the sens­es, and pro­vide wis­dom. All of these attrib­ut­es of the fruit are the very aspi­ra­tions of the human per­son. These are the things that make life worth liv­ing. It is dif­fi­cult, then, to under­stand that all of these good impuls­es to nour­ish, take plea­sure, and under­stand, can be evil if they are mere­ly self-indul­gent. Nour­ish­ment is good until it becomes glut­to­nous. Plea­sure is of mer­it until it becomes hedo­nism. The pur­suit of under­stand­ing is com­mend­able up to the point it is prideful.

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Death is an expe­ri­ence com­mon to all peo­ple. It is, per­haps, the most ful­ly human expe­ri­ence we under­take. Thus, the effort to avoid or escape death is inhu­man. St Peter of Dam­as­cus wrote that the fear of death is “con­ducive to repen­tance.” St Syme­on the New The­olo­gian sees the fear of death as the means to the “renun­ci­a­tion of self-will” and the impe­tus to becom­ing “the ser­vant of all.” Even the rejec­tion of aging is inhuman.

A virtue of the Ortho­dox Faith is that it affirms life in all of its stages and forms. Even in the decline of health and vital­i­ty, the human body is alive and may avail itself of the gifts life offers, among them the gift of fel­low­ship. In this way, death is always a com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence. The Church has enshrined rites that call to mind our fel­low Chris­tians who have fall­en asleep in the Lord. The Ortho­dox funer­al ser­vice is a ser­vice of remem­brance but it is also a reminder that our loved ones are only sleep­ing and that we have an oblig­a­tion to pray for them and remem­ber them. We don’t ask that the dead rest in peace. We ask that their mem­o­ry be eter­nal because we are the means of keep­ing the mem­o­ry of the dead as a per­pet­u­al prac­tice. It is the com­mu­ni­ty of the faith­ful in the local parish that car­ries the weight of remem­ber­ing the dead.

As a hos­pi­tal chap­lain, I have come to see my week­ly encoun­ters with death as a sacred gift. To be with a per­son as they make the tran­si­tion from life to the unknown realm of death is a holy moment; a moment preg­nant with divine mer­cy and grace. St Peter of Dam­as­cus says this: “Already I am dying. For Christ con­trols both life and death. Why do I wor­ry and strive in vain?” Christ tells us to take up our cross and fol­low Him. The dis­ci­pline of tak­ing up our cross begins with iden­ti­fy­ing our cross. For many of us, it is an unnat­ur­al, unholy fear of death that par­a­lyzes us and com­pels us toward self-will.

In the funer­al ser­vice, St John of Dam­as­cus writes, “What earth­ly sweet­ness remaineth unmixed with sor­row? What glo­ry on earth con­tin­ueth unchanged? All things are more fee­ble than shad­ows, all things are more decep­tive than dreams; yet one moment, and Death shall take away them all.” Even in the sor­row­ful depths of grief, our funer­al ser­vice reminds us that the joys of life can­not with­stand the stroke of death. The sat­is­fac­tion of plen­ty; the ecsta­sy of laugh­ter; the plea­sure of embrac­ing our loved ones; the exhil­a­ra­tion of achieve­ment; all of these things do not, and can­not, endure. Death brings an end to it all. But death also brings an end to the sor­rows of human suf­fer­ing; the despair of lone­li­ness; the grief of loss. Death inau­gu­rates a new hope that God will “raise me up accord­ing to Thy like­ness, that I may be fash­ioned in the for­mer beau­ty.”2 This is our hope and a panacea for all earth­ly ills. Pre­pare now for your death so that you may face it brave­ly and be found wor­thy of the prize when your con­tend­ing is finished.

About the Author

Erik C. Young is an adjunct pro­fes­sor at Olivet Nazarene Uni­ver­si­ty in Bour­bon­nais, IL and a chap­lain at St Mary’s Hos­pi­tal in his home­town of Kanka­kee, IL. He is a ton­sured read­er at Annun­ci­a­tion Greek Ortho­dox Church.


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