Among the great spirituals created by the African-American churches in the South is one that compares death to a train. The same train, it says, that called for my father and my mother and my brother is whistling at the station for me. This train makes only one-way trips, for it is traveling to the land of glory. But the anonymous composers of the hymn did not try to describe that destination in detail. Neither did St. Paul. About the certainty of death there is no disagreement. St. Paul, however, told his hearers they should not try to imagine what life after death would be like. He did say that he himself longed to be dissolved and be with Christ, but he also called death the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26).
There is no quarrel with that judgment nor with Erasmus’s observation that the road leading up to death is often harder than death itself. On the other hand, St. Paul did not recommend avoiding anxiety by barring the door against any thought of that last enemy. In The City of God St. Augustine, contrasting the fear of death with the hope of resurrection, made this distinction in a tough sentence: The weak and cowardly shrinking of the flesh is one thing and the well-considered and reasonable persuasion of the soul quite another.
For millennia, therefore, Catholic Christians have during the month of November emphasized, at least indirectly, these considerations about death by remembering their deceased and commending them to the divine mercy. Prayers for the departed surely seem particularly appropriate this autumn, when the war in Iraq is confronting Americans every day with death in a particularly poignant form. Dying is usually associated with aging; but in the Iraq war, as in any war, death wears the face of youth.
This is not to say that the U.S. military forces have a monopoly on death in Iraq. Estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians, young and old, who have been killed by violence since March 2003 vary widely from a low of 50,000 to a high of more than 600,000. Even the smaller figure is terrible enough, and those Iraqi dead must be remembered in the prayers that are made with special intensity this month. Indeed, as the great 20th-century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner put it, Christians have the duty of hoping for the salvation of every member of the human family, since God wills the salvation of all through Christ.
All the same, it is only natural that Americans should grieve especially on this All Souls Day in 2006 for their young war dead. As of Oct. 1, the cut-off date for the statistics cited here, 2,700 men and 64 women in the U.S. military services have been killed in Iraq. All but 180 of these died after Saddam Hussein was deposed. Of this total, 17.2 percent were between the ages of 18 and 20, and 60.2 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30. None of them had been drafted; they had all enlisted in the armed forces or had joined the reserves or the National Guard. Many were married, and about 75 percent of the overall number were neither black nor Hispanics. Each week brings further fatalities.
To say that this mournful record prompts many people to think about death is not to say that all will think the same way. It may be the case that most men and women, at some point in their lives, have had at least a faint intimation of or hope for immortality. Nevertheless, it can reasonably be argued that the deepest division within humanity is between those who believe that death is not an ending but a beginning and those who do not believe this.
There are, then, two ultimate images for death. Winston Churchill is reported to have once said that he believed death only means entering upon some velvety cool blackness. Christians, however, believe, as the first preface for Masses for the dead says, that in death life is changed, not ended. For believers, therefore, the image of death is not that of darkness but of dawn and an entrance upon an unimaginable and divinely bestowed fulfillment.
Although the Gospel does not reveal what life after death is like, it does reveal what life in this world should be. Death is a clear, albeit astringent teacher of two primary lessons. All men and women must strive for purity of heart and ask for pardon when they fail; and they must strive always to be kind to one another.
It is sometimes said that people who hope for another life are liable to be indifferent to the problems of this life. The Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World firmly rejected that criticism: The expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one (No. 39). Elsewhere in this passage the council said that we do not know the time for the consummation of this present earth, but we do know that with death overcome, the children of God will be raised up in Christ. On All Souls Day and every other day, this is the faith that sustains hope.