10/31/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

What If Death Is Nothing to Fear?

We filed out the church doors to the memory garden where a small hole had been dug. The minister laid my parents' urn into the hole and invited family members to place a spadeful of dirt on it. As I nudged the shovel into the dirt pile, then poured soil onto the urn, the thought hit me:

If this is all there is, it is enough.

I have not been trained to think this way. The creeds of my faith tradition proclaim a belief in "the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." I'd recited this for years without thinking much about it. Suddenly, from what I'd always considered the opposite view, comes this word of hope.

And the word tells me this: death is nothing to fear. Even better, embracing that statement can change the way we live.

The fear of death lurks deep within our psyches, and we're unlikely to eradicate it. In some cases it's useful, as when a life-threatening illness jolts us into adopting a healthy lifestyle. Ultimately, though, there is little to fear from our own death, as the adherents of many worldviews can attest:

  • For those who believe in a blissful afterlife, death is deliverance into that realm. We are transported into greater intimacy--even oneness--with God.
  • For those who believe in birth, death, and rebirth, physical demise is but a single point in a continual cycle: a shift of one's immortal essence to the next life (as in Hinduism) or an event in which I do not die, because there is no I to speak of (as in Buddhism).
  • For those who believe in no hereafter, death becomes an eternal sleep, a cessation of consciousness. Once you're dead, you don't know it. So what is there to fear?

Meditating on these assertions and others like them can cause our fear of death to subside. To paraphrase St. Paul, death loses its sting.

Why does this matter, beyond the obvious reassurance it delivers? It matters because removing death's sting throws open our capacity to live fully--to take risks that will lead us deeper into life and enable us to live into our fullest potential.

This is important because what we do is important. Granted, each of us is only one person among billions. But flip that around, and you see that each of us is one person, with one set of insights and values and contributions to make. In the grand scheme of things, those contributions are tiny but not negligible: what we have said, what we have done, how we have made people feel--all of these inevitably find lodging in the hearts of others, influencing them and those whom they know in a ripple effect.

The ancient sage Ben Sira conveyed this in his "let us now praise famous men" poem, when he shifts from kings and generals to "others" of lesser repute:

Of others there is no memory;
They have perished as though they had never existed;
They have become as though they had never been born,
They and their children after them.
But these also were godly people,
Whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their wealth will remain with their descendants,
And their inheritance with their children's children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;
Their children also, for their sake.
(Sirach 44:9-12)

I once heard a story (undoubtedly apocryphal) of a visit to Baltimore by Mother Teresa. Upon arriving at the airport, exhausted from the endless flight, she asked to be taken to the city's poorest residents so she could bring the love of God to them. "That's not a good idea," her host said. "You need your rest. Otherwise you'll get sick."

"So?" Mother Teresa replied.

"Also, the neighborhood is very dangerous. We can't guarantee your safety."

"So?" the saint replied.

"Dearest Mother, if you go there now, you may die."

Mother Teresa thought a moment and said: "So?"

Liberated from concern over her own demise, Mother Teresa could do what she was called to do--serve the poor--with total abandon to the God who called her.

We can follow her lead. When the fear of death loses its thunder, we are free to fulfill our own calling, become our best selves, and do what we can for our species and our planet. Then, at our own end, we can approach death not with terror, but as a handing off to the future and to God.