One of the most touching reflections on life and death that I have seen is the movie Wit (based on a play of the same name by Margaret Edson). It is about Vivian Bearing, "a strong woman, a John Donne scholar, a college professor and a cancer patient who is dying. And you are invited to watch her do it" (source).
I watch this movie at least once every year, because despite how difficult it is to watch, "there is an undercurrent of hope in this movie—and it comes through the kindness of strangers and long lost friends" (source).
The film focuses particularly on a poem from 17th century by the metaphysical poet John Donne (please read it slowly and try to understand what Donne is saying):
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.
*Here is a transcription of the most important portion of their conversation, in case the video doesn't work:
While death is significant, it is not and end-all permanent stopping point. Like a comma, it changes the pace as we pause at it, but that is not all there is; we see the comma, and know there is more, and onward we go.
To explain further, I want to include a excerpt from the film. This video shows Vivian reflecting on a conversation she had with her mentor E.M. Ashford. Ashford explains the poem is about a simple human truth:
E.M. Ashford: Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation:
"And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark!"
If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads:
“And death shall be no more” comma “death, thou shalt die.”
Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.
Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause. In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.
This is especially true within the context of the gospel of Christ. Through our understanding of the basic principles of the gospel we see that there is more and that we can move ever onward:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.)Once we have calibrated our direction through belief and devotion to the Savior, a change of pace does not keep us from our destination. We only pause and step through to the next phase. The scriptures explain beautifully how this works:
17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Fatherand the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Nephi 31:17-20)
Even though the verse uses the wording to "endure to the end" it isn't the end, it's only the end of one phrase, a train of thought that then continues.
And this meant to be something to us, which is described well in this story:
I have a good friend that has a daughter. This daughter, we will call her J, has been terrified of water since she was very young. As J grew older she continued to dislike getting wet. She had a particular phobia of putting her head under the water. My friend and her husband did all the usual things, talked to her about it, regularly took her to the pool, did swim lessons but the intense fear remained. As J approached the age of eight her parents became concerned about how J would feel about being baptized. J approached them and told her parents that she wanted to be baptized but she was still terrified of going all the way into the water. They prayed together as a family that J would be able to have the comfort and assurance she needed. As the day grew closer, J was still feeling anxious so they asked a wider circle of family and friends to pray and fast. At J’s baptism, J was afraid but harnessing a huge amount of faith and trust she went into the water and was baptized. A year later I had J in my primary class. We were discussing baptism and J shared that while she had been afraid she felt that God was proud of what she was choosing to do and that gave her strength.
While I think while many of us probably do not have the same sort of fear and trepidation with water that J had, I think a whole lot of us may have a good amount of fear and uncertainty about death. Death is the great unknown. It’s scary. It will happen to all of us and to the people we love.
As I’ve talked to many people about their baptisms, I’ve been impressed by how often many feel filled by the Love of God. There is an outpouring of the spirit. A great sense that God recognizes us in that time and is “well pleased” with our efforts and decision, following the same pattern Jesus Christ established when he began his earthly ministry with baptism. (Matthew 3: 16-17)
Reverse engineering the symbolism, I like to believe that death will be a similar time for us. It will be a time that God welcomes us and receives us with Love and approval.
Historically,many in the Western world have believed that death is a dark night or even worse, a time of fire and brimstone and suffering for even the most helpless and innocent. In our time, I believe there are many that are uncertain or feel that there is an empty nothingness or haunted ghostly loneliness when we die. I believe that what we learn in our experiences of baptism refute these beliefs with an inspiring hope (source).
Understanding and experiencing baptism, at it's core a kind of death and rebirth, can reacquaint us with the "inspiring hope" that can overcome uncertainty and fear. In this regard, death is meant to be the end of our sins, our past life. Death is a kind of progression (as we learn by studying the plan of salvation).
This makes death something different from an end (or even a kind of sleep like Donne's poem says) instead pain, struggles, fear, weaknesses, mistakes and death itself are:
"Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma."