Friday sermon: The Mysteries of Death

By Babatunde Jose

Death is the inevitable reality of life, and the two phases of life and death constitute an inescapable law for all beings. Confronting death at a fundamental level is an inevitable spiritual undertaking that helps us to live more profoundly and more meaningfully.

As the Latin phrase memento mori – remember that you must die—suggests, we grasp the true meaning of life only when we honestly face the reality of death. Two and a half millennia ago, the desire to overcome the basic human sufferings of birth, aging, illness, and death motivated the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to abandon his princely rank and undertake the search for truth.

The thought of death, the inescapable reminder of the finite nature of our existence, weighs heavily on the human heart. However limitless our wealth or power might seem; the reality of our eventual demise cannot be avoided. During our lives, we experience transience as the sufferings of birth (and day-to-day existence), aging, sickness and finally death. No human being is exempt from these sources of pain; mutua ba magani!

It was, in fact, human distress—the problem of death—that spawned the formation of religious and philosophical systems. Shakyamuni, in his accidental encounters with life’s sorrows, glimpsed a dead body and was inspired to seek truth. Plato stated that true philosophers are always engaged in the practice of dying; and Nichiren (1222–1282) admonishes us to “first study death, then study other matters.”

Modern civilization has attempted to ignore death. We have diverted our gaze from this most fundamental of concerns, attempting to drive death into the shadows. For many people, death is the mere absence of life; it is blankness; it is the void. Life is identified with all that is good: with being, rationality and light. In contrast, death is perceived as evil, as nothingness, and as the dark and irrational. The negative perception of death prevails. We cannot, however, ignore death.

Today, many issues demand a re-examination and re-evaluation of death’s significance.

One of such issues is the mystery of death. Why do some have a premonition of death and predict death in parables. There are so many stories of circumstances surrounding the death of some people that make our skin crawl and send jitters up our spine and send us wondering if there are not more to the mysteries of death.

Iya Lekan’s brother had been health challenged for some time and this has necessitated his being hospitalized several times. After his last discharge, he was placed on expensive medication that promised to ruin his family. However, in recent months, he had seen a bout of respite from his illness and the family had hoped that the worst was over. During the last Ileya festival he even travelled to the village to celebrate Sallah. Two weeks ago, his sisters visited hm and they met a new person bubbling with life. They engaged in all forms of discussions about hope for the future and he promised to host the next family gathering. Three days later they received news that he had passed on. No doubt he knew the end was near, but he had to create a diversion and put the mind of his people to rest. There have been so many Iya Lekan’s brother in life. The question is: Do some people know they are about to die?

Pa Jimo had been sick for a while and his beloved son sent him across the border to Porto Novo in Benin Republic for treatment. While he was there, he was under the care of a French doctor. One day Pa Jimo sent words to his son that he was well and ready to come home. Among other requests, he asked that the driver should come and pick him on a particular day. On the appointed day, members of the family should be notified of his arrival and converge at his home for thanksgiving and reunion. He instructed that a ram must be slaughtered for the purpose of the festive occasion. Pa Jimo arrived home on the appointed day to the welcome of all and sundry and the home was in a festive mood. That evening, the old man told his wives that he needed to take a short nap and that he should be awoken at a particular time. At the appointed hour, they went to his room to wake him only to meet his dead body on the bed. If this death is not mysterious, it is inexplicable.

Both stories are just a glimpse from the book of life and death. The mysteries  do not lend themselves to scientific explanation or analysis. There is the story of an Alhaja who called all her children together for a family meeting. She was hale and hearty before going to bed. In the morning after saying her prayers, she had Ovaltine and a slice of bread and died sitting on the mat she had used to pray. I am sure we all have stories to tell. They are inexplicable and unscientific, but they do happen. They form the mysteries of death.

We cannot, however, ignore death. Today, many issues demand a re-examination and re-evaluation of death’s significance. These include questions about brain death and death with dignity, the function of hospices, alternative funerary styles and rites, and research into death and dying by writers such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

We finally seem ready to recognize the fundamental error in our view of life and death. We are beginning to understand that death is more than the absence of life; that death, together with active life, is necessary for the formation of a larger, more essential whole. This greater whole reflects the deeper continuity of life and death that we experience as individuals and express as a culture. Our central challenge is to establish a culture based on understanding the relationship of life, death, and eternity. Instead of disowning death, we would thereby confront and correctly position it within the larger context of life. No doubt there is a lot we still do not know about the mystery of death. But one thing is certain, man comes from somewhere and at the end of his sojourn returns hence to the place. Both the Bible and Quran are unanimous on this: Ina lillah wa ina ilehi rajiun. Quran 2:126 and in the Bible we read: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In our science class we read that: The fact that matter is not created or destroyed in any chemical or physical change is called the Law of Conservation of Mass discovered by Antoine Lavoisier in 1785. No mass is lost, because during a chemical change, atoms are not lost or gained, only rearranged. Spiritually, when we die, we only translate into another consciousness.

God does not tell us why this spirit returns to Him, just that it does. This may be the way God preserves the characteristics of each person until the resurrection or what we have been told is the Day of Judgement.

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend


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