There’s a story about the soft drinks company Pepsi that tells us a little bit about how we respond to death. According to some sources, and Pepsi have never actually denied this story, the company’s popular American slogan: ‘Come to Life with Pepsi’ was mistranslated in China as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life’. Now this is some claim. Certainly, Pepsi’s sales in China didn’t improve appreciably. Having a drink that instantly brings your departed loved ones back to the land of the living was probably seen as something of two-edged-sword. I mean, where would we put them?
Now, as you may be aware I know a little bit about death, because by day I am an undertaker. It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? ‘Undertaker? But what do I undertake? It’s really a euphemism, I suppose. We don’t want to be too specific about the role. The word comes into English in the early Tudor period, and can mean one who works in business, or acts as some form of agent. It’s reassuringly vague. I undertake something people don’t really want to name, and that’s understandable. Perhaps best not to mention it, really. If I’m at a dinner party and someone asks what I do for a living –– my response is usually met with an odd glance: ‘Oh. You’re an undertaker. That must be very…err…’ I probably should say: ‘It’s not about what I do for a living. It’s about what I do for the dead’. But I don’t think that’s quite true. My job is to serve both parties.
The word ‘human’ derives from the Latin word for earth: humus. So we may well take our name as a species from the fact that we bury our dead in the ground. In Ancient Egypt, the departed were known as ‘westerners’, from the deserts west of the fertile Nile valley. If a modern American met an Ancient Egyptian and announced they were from ‘the mid-west’, it’s likely they would be met with – at best – a measure of incredulity. The Egyptians, prior to the development of their formal buildings of interment, buried their loved ones in the desert. If the wind or animals uncovered the dead, they would appear to the living as being remarkably intact, since the dry and hot conditions slowed down the process of decay. When the Egyptians made mummies, they were likely honouring that early experience. In the Zoroastrian faith of pre-muslim Iran, the dead were cleaned and laid out on beautiful towers so the flesh could be artfully removed by vultures. This was viewed as a form of spiritual cleansing. And in parts of modern Indonesia, the departed aren’t considered dead until they are buried. They are mummified, then placed in their old room in the house, receiving their favourite meals every day. Burial only takes place when sufficiently lavish plans have been made for the ceremony. Now, these are ‘undertakings’ I might find difficult to understand, and certainly to perform, but they are, of course, deeply important rituals designed to honour the departed, and to ensure safe transition from one place to another. All these practices required somebody to undertake them.
So how do we feel about death? The second Vatican Council states things in this way
’It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows more acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by the dread of perpetual extinction. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter.
It is something we dread, Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks the audience if it’s better ‘To be, or not to be’. We’ve no idea if anyone in the audience replied, or if lengthy debate ensued. But the hero concludes that death ‘is a consummation devoutly to be wished’. Around the same time, the poet and clergyman John Donne mocked Death in a sonnet that begins ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’. The poet seems to be debating with Death, saying his powers aren’t even especially unique: ‘poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke’. In Donne’s poem, he shows us that our faith can make nonsense of Death. Our bodies might fail, but the poet concludes: ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die’.
If you had a drink that could bring your ancestors back to life, would you give it to them? I don’t think I would because I believe that that moment will happen, just not in this life. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us very clearly the reality of the Christian belief about what happens after death Death, he says, came into the world through one man Adam – in other words through man’s sin, but the resurrection of the dead and life eternal comes through another man, Jesus and only through Jesus – for those who belong to him,Christ the King. We know that Jesus is the one who restores our way back to God, and to life eternal. To steal the slogan of the rival beverage: Jesus is ‘the real thing’. He is the ultimate undertaker, in that through his sacrifice on the Cross he undertook to safely convey us from this life to life eternal. Although our lives can be hard, and sometimes seem impossible, The church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches herself that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose which is beyond the reach of earthly misery.
As St Paul writes elsewhere
‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’.