Remember Death. Enjoy a Life of Hope.

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We’re often told to focus on the positive things of life. Entertaining negativity for too long can keep us from living our best life now.

Perhaps this is why our culture is so confused about death.

On the one hand, with our Netflix selections and the latest gaming fads, it would seem we’re fascinated by death. On the other, we’re terrified to even let our children visit the bedside of their dying grandmother, for fear the experience will negatively affect them.

Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope
Matthew McCullough
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Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope
Matthew McCullough
Crossway (2018). 192 pp. $19.99.

Ignoring the certainty of death doesn’t protect us from feeling its effects throughout the lives we’re living now. But this avoidance can hold us back from experiencing the powerful, everyday relevance of Jesus’s promises to us. So long as death remains remote and unreal, Jesus’s promises will too.

But honesty about death brings hope to life. That’s the ironic claim at the heart of this book. Cultivating “death-awareness” helps us bring the promises of Jesus from the hazy clouds of some other world into the everyday problems of our world—where they belong.

Modern people are comfortable being entertained by death, so long as we don’t have to seriously encounter the reality of death.

Cultivating Death-Awareness

In Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, Matt McCullough—pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee—has written a much-needed book that drives us to recognize the reality of death, and, in turn, find the key to a life of godly hope.

McCullough clearly states his purpose: “This is a book about death because wisdom comes from honesty about the world as it is. I want to help us number our daysto remember deathas a form of spiritual discipline. I want to show from the Bible the illuminating power of death-awareness for the lives we’re living now” (17). For McCullough, becoming more aware of death can deeply shape the whole of our lives.

Modern people are comfortable being entertained by death, so long as we don’t have to seriously encounter the reality of death.

Remembering death often—not pushing it aside, shielding ourselves from it, or facing it only after losing a loved one—leads us to a new kind of spiritual health, rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. McCullough writes, “The ironic claim at the heart of this book is that the best way to enjoy your life is to get honest about your death” (22).

Our current cultural formation, however, lacks the depth and power to produce hope, since the reality of death has been “pushed to the margins of our experience” (32).

This is a fairly modern phenomenon. Just two generations ago, Christians lived with a clearer awareness of death. In his award-winning book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch recognizes our forebears’ wisdom:

They understood that the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve, and there are no exceptionsonly those who do it well and those who don’t. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment. (25)

In other words, how we face death shapes us to face the whole of life.

Gospel of Hope

For McCullough, the Scriptures routinely force us to encounter death. We’re brought to consider the frailty of our bodies and the limits of our strength, whether we’re reading the Psalms, Jesus’s words in the Gospels, or the clever-yet-cryptic teaching of Ecclesiastes. Such reading cultivates death-awareness, and “we must allow death-awareness to break down life-on-our-terms before we will ever connect with the promise of new life in Christ” (80).

Regular engagement with Scripture leads Christians to honestly confront death, see our need for Christ, and trust our permanent place in God’s family.

How we face death shapes us to face the whole of life.

In the final chapter, “Grieve in Hope,” McCullough concludes that this radical honesty about death must lead to grief. “Honesty is no end in itself. Honesty about death is merely the first step. Honesty should lead us on to grief, and grief should lead us on to hope” (170).

It’s not good enough to simply become more conscious of death through sheer acceptance, or to become fascinated by death. True death-awareness leads the believer to see themselves in Christ, trusting that ultimately “what happened to him will happen to us too in time” (178).

Embodied Practices

Early in the book, McCullough addresses Christians’ capitulation to our culture’s avoidance of death. This capitulation is particularly strong in American evangelicalism, with our preferences for “celebrations of life” and “graduation services” instead of proper funerals, as well as the absence of the corpse in these services.

While McCullough’s point is valid, a stronger critique could’ve introduced ways Christians can reclaim appropriate practices that go beyond merely growing cognitive death-awareness and lead us into a deeper understanding of embodiment. More evangelical churches need to be encouraged to re-adopt, or adopt for the first time, practices and rhythms that put a value on our physical bodies.

For instance, church leaders can adopt and approve “official” funeral services and practices for their congregations. This could ensure funerals remain first and foremost a worship service that bears witness to the bodily death and resurrection of Christ, preventing the gathering from becoming simply a remembrance of a life. More regular practice of the Lord’s Supper and baptism would lead our communal relationships of faith to engage body, mind, and heart. In many evangelical traditions, the retrieval of laying on of hands (James 5:14; Heb. 6:1–2) for the sick and dying would lead us to both remember death more acutely, and help impress on us the power of one another’s physical embrace. Still more, a concerted ministry commitment can be made to make sure people who are sick, aging, or even dying are regularly present in our corporate life. They remind us that the different stages or the afflictions of our bodies don’t diminish our meaningful presence within the community of faith.

While McCullough mentions the communal relationships of Lazarus’s family (John 11), most of Remember Death’s charge and emphasis is steered toward the individual and her ability to become more cognitively and spiritually aware of death. But Christian fellowship helps each of us remember death well, particularly when we’ve lost our way or when we can no longer remember for ourselves.

For those facing death or losing the ability to remember, it’s all the more necessary to lean on the embodied and communal practices of the church. Years of remembering death through a growing death-awareness is certainly important, but so also are the sacraments and our relationships that train our hearts and bodies to die with living hope, even as our hearts and bodies fail.

Remember Death is a helpful and much-needed addition to a list of important books written on death in recent years, from both Christian and also secular perspectives. It’s a book particularly helpful for elders, encouraging them to think deeply about death as they encounter it in the Scriptures, preach sermons, prepare for funerals, and provide pastoral care.

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