In chapters 11-13, Augustine begins to contemplate death. He has some nice pithy statements: “I know this: that no one has ever died who had not been going to die eventually.” “Death is not to be deemed an evil when a good life precedes it; nor is death made an evil except by what follows death.” Many Christians died terrible deaths in the sack of Rome but Augustine argues that the manner of death does not matter – what matters is the kind of life the dying man or woman lived and where they are going after death. Death is only truly terrible when it leads a person from a terrible life into the second death, the death of the soul. For the Christian, death leads to the glorious presence of God, and so even a terrible death is redeemed.
Those who have died and left unburied do not suffer any shame or further pain beyond death. Humans bury their dead for the sake of those who survive, and God values the rites of burial because they show that those who perform them value the resurrection. Like Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection makes death bearable.
I hear and say that one kind of death is better than another – “well, at least he died peacefully”, or “whew, what a terrible way to die.” And those statements reflect something true, to one degree, I think. But the peace or the terror is ours, the survivors’. A peaceful death makes me hope that I won’t have to endure much pain in death and a terrible death makes me fear for my own death, because I fear pain. As Augustine argues, the most terrible deaths are those that lead to the great tragedy of the second death. To focus on the manner of death may reflect that we have put our energies into our own comfort or peace. Death is always an interruption and intruder in God’s good creation. But, for the redeemed, it leads us one step closer to resurrection. I’ll give Augustine the last word today: “Those who are of necessity bound to die need not care greatly by what means they will eventually die, but into what place they will be brought by dying. Since, then, Christians know how much better was the death of the godly pauper licked by the tongues of dogs that that of the impious rich man clad in purple and fine linen, what harm did those terrible deaths do to the dead who had lived well?”