What Is This Thing That Men Call Death?

“If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). So inquired the anguished Job. On this one fundamental question hang much of the hopes and fears of mankind. And how one answers it will largely determine not only how one approaches death but also how one lives life.

The passing of President Gordon B. Hinckley has moved Latter-day Saints to reflect more deeply upon the meaning of death and its implications for how we live our lives. Death is not the final stop on life’s path but a mere gateway that leads to an eternal course that we continually shape by our choices. President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles likened the long journey of human life to “a grand three-act play” in which the first act is a previous pre-mortal existence with God, the second act is the trial of this mortal life, and the third act is a glorious future of eternity. Such a broad vision of life endows each moment with eternal significance.

During President Hinckley’s recent funeral, the choir sang a hymn that he himself composed titled “What Is This Thing That Men Call Death?” There is no doubt how he answered Job’s question. Echoing his typical brightness and optimism, the hymn proclaims that death “’Tis not the end but genesis of better worlds and greater light.”

Accordingly, Mormon funerals are typically marked by an atmosphere of hopefulness and peace. They generally are not burdened by the inconsolable grief and despair so often seen in other funerals. Latter-day Saints who mourn the death of loved ones are lightened by the assurance and understanding that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers. In addition, some might be surprised by the lack of formal ritual in these funerals. The commemoration service is conducted by a lay minister and features heartfelt tributes and comforting music. Moreover, the basic format, tone and length of President Hinckley’s funeral are typical of what might be seen in the funerals of regular Church members.

Regarding the undaunted way in which Latter-day Saints confront death, well-known literary scholar Harold Bloom proclaimed the following: “What is the essence of religion? … Religion rises inevitably from our apprehension of our own death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of all religion. … Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Joseph Smith.”

Most important, this affirmation of life in the face of death arises from faith in God’s abundant mercy. Joseph Smith taught that God is “more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.” It is on such a foundation that the fears of death can be reconciled with the hopes of life.

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