What Must Be Taught About Death?

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…”

Revelation 6:8a


“There is a Reaper, whose name is Death,

And, with his sickle keen,

He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,

And the flowers that grow between.”

The Reaper and the Flowers

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


“The Doctor said that Death was but a scientific fact:”

The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Oscar Wilde


These and many others are the words that have been written about the reality of death.  To every man it is grim reality and is one that is thought of as little as possible.  Against death, which is the last enemy for the Christian, man has a constant battle.  For natural man the great goal in life is to create a society in which destruction, misery, pain, and death are eradicated; and yet, the reality of death stares every man squarely in the face every moment of his life on this earth.

The terrifying thought of death for natural man causes him to be concerned with the concept at every level of his existence.  Even a periodical or professional journal like the Elementary School Journal published by the Department of Education of the University of Chicago features an article discussing the subject of death.  In this article by Jeanne Marie Hair in the May, 1965, issue struggles with the reality of death.  In this article entitled “What Shall We Teach About Death in Science Classes?” the writer makes a bold attempt to consider death as a cold objective fact but one cannot fail to detect a basic personal concern with the reality of death.

The writer indicates that the subject of death is definitely avoided by the educator.  “Even though the belief is widespread that education should be a vital experience and preparation for all aspects of life, the end of living is neglected in the study of the life cycle.” She suggests in this brief statement throughout the article that education refuses to concern itself at the elementary level with the fact of death. She also suggests that death should be studied as an integral part of preparation for life and all its experiences.

Several possible reasons are given by the author of the article to explain the avoidance of death in the public school program for instruction.  They are briefly summarized as follows: 1. Death is not considered an appropriate topic for consideration by the youngsters in the school programs.  2. Death is avoided because of religious overtones.  3. Death is avoided because of misgivings that undue morbidity would intrude into the treatment of the subject.  4. Death is not discussed because of psychological repercussions.

The author also gives several reasons why she believes death is an important topic in the school curriculum.  1. An understanding of the life cycle is not complete without an understanding of the characteristics, role, and necessity of death.  2. An understanding of the nature and significance of death is important to conservation and to ecological (comes from ecology, the biology dealing with the mutual relations between organisms and their environment) and health concepts.  3. An understanding of the scientific facts is needed to eliminate or prevent debilitating superstitions and fears in situations involving death.  4. Understanding and appreciation of life and living are increased and sharpened by conscious contrasts and comparisons to death and dying.

It is decidedly true that the child cannot help but observe death.  He sees it all around him.  The baby bird falls from the nest and dies.  The flowers wilt and the petals fall to the ground or blow away.  Each fall the leaves turn brown and fall to decay upon the ground.  He may experience the sudden death of a brother, sister, Mother, or Father.

The question that the writer posits, however, is what to teach about death.  Is it a subject which by its very nature must be left undiscussed? Is death such a negative reality that the educator and the scientist has no rational answer for its reality and its verified existence? Is it because the scientist lacks the tools and instruments to find an answer for the cessation of existence that he refuses to discuss this reality? Are the children too young to face stoically this reality and must they be sheltered from a discussion of this reality?

To me as a Christian educator this seems to be the very nature of the problem.  The scientist, who relies on his science for every answer has no answer for the purpose of death.  He only knows that death occurs; he knows that it is final; he knows that it sit he end of organic tissue; he knows that he cannot bring that which is dead back to life; he sees the tissue break down and in his attempt to save it he is only and always frustrated.

But here we read of an educator who wishes to teach what she can about death.  She says that certain scientific facts are needed by the individual child to eliminate the fears that accompany death.  Knowledge of these facts, she would argue, will make it possible for a man to go through life with sound mental hygiene and come to the end of life and not be afraid.  The child she says will also understand and appreciate life if he compares it with death.  He will undoubtedly get the most out of life if he knows what he must expect when the end of his biological existence must come.

One feels instinctively that the writer of the article from which we quote is immovably lodged between the horns of a dilemma.  To treat the subject is a must but how to do it and what to say is the problem.

Many other things seem to have a purpose and can be given some plausible, teleological answers by the secular scientist and educator but the purpose for death is a conundrum to them.  The weakness and the destructibility of the biological organism are the only answers they seem to have.  Questions concerning the characteristics, role and necessity of death will be categorically answered in terms of physical weakness and cessation of conscious existence as a person.  Historical and evolutionary process simply demands a continuous cycle of lives.  Some will possibly say that some must die so that others may live.  This is part of the inevitable process.  The Christian educator is not stranded in the waste-land of inevitability.  He also faces the fact of death but for him it is no conundrum.  He can explain the reality of death from a biological point of view but he answers not in frustrated disgust, or stoical indifference.  His answer is rooted in theological fact.  His answer is rooted in theological fact.  His answer is rooted in revealed truth.  He says: “The first man, Adam, fell.  When he fell we all fell and whole creation with him into physical and eternal death.

The great mystery of godliness is legacy of the Christian educator.  He receives grace to believe, to understand, and thereby to know that death is not the end; that there is a great purpose in the dying of mankind.  For unsaved, reprobate man death means everlasting destruction and perdition; but for him, who has been redeemed in Christ, death has been swallowed up in victory.  The last enemy death has been defeated by Christ, the captain of the redeemed Christian.

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.”