Thanatopsis: A New View of Death

The title of a well-known poem by William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis" literally means a "meditation on death", a subject I have given considerable thought to over the years.

“Thanatopsis,” the title of a poem by William Cullen Bryant, literally means ”a meditation upon death.” While I am not morbidly preoccupied with death, I have considered deeply the possibility that I too may experience this polar opposite of life, should the Lord tarry. Certainly I have thought about death on countless occasions since my diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2000. For the past eight weeks, I have been participating in a nutritional clinical trial related to prostate cancer at the OSU Medical Center, where I provide periodic blood and urine samples. Prior to Christmas, I went to have a blood sample drawn on the same day that I attended funeral services for a church member who passed away with pancreatic cancer within a short time after her diagnosis.  As I participated in the clinical study, I recognized with gratitude the timeless truth, “But for the grace of God, go I.” Each time I attend a funeral, whether as a clergy member participating in the service or simply as someone attending, I thank God that the homegoing service is not my own.

Now that I think about  it, my thoughts turned toward death at a time long before my cancer diagnosis. Oddly enough I recall one of the presentations I offered in an oral interpretation course taken as an undergraduate was a collection of poetry and prose centered on death. Poetic works included John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge without Music” along with “Go Down, Death” by James Weldon Johnson while the prose pieces that I recall were a passage from I Corinthians 15 and an excerpt from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” I don’t recall the circumstances behind my selecting death as the theme for the works that I recited, but I simply remember that I was impressed by the works which lent themselves well to oral recitation. That particular class made me more aware of power of the spoken word to move an audience when the word spoken is recited in an artful dramatic manner.  The skills that I learned in reciting literary works by other authors, I developed to an even greater degree when I began to write and recite original works. 

A number of my poems touch upon the subject of death, as I make known my views in the last stanza of “Songs Since” a work discussing the influence of music in my life:

 

  All is a song, a noted writer said,

And I too sing my song and hold no strife.

Instead of a just a dirge drummed for the dead,

I sing a mighty melody of life.

 

I note a parallel between Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge without Music” and this poem:

Song of Triumph

And having disarmed principalities and powers,

He made a public spectacle of them openly,

triumphing over them in it.

Colossians 2:15

Death, I will not succumb to your dull drum,

Nor march in cadence to your muffled dirge.

Though toward a common end all flesh must merge,

Your lifelong lament I refuse to hum.

 

Though I endeavor to compute the sum

Of all my days that toward this end converge,

Death, I will not succumb to your dull drum,

Nor march in cadence to your muffled dirge.

 

My pace in double time defies the plumb

Line dropped before life’s final tide shall surge.

I have hope even death can never purge.

Though my heart may be pierced, my brain go numb,

Death, I will not succumb to your dull drum,

Nor march in cadence to your muffled dirge.

Watch, Fight & Pray: My Personal Three-fold Strategy to Combat Prostate Cancer

A few years ago as I was walking to the mailbox, I noticed a dead mouse on the sidewalk leading up to our condo. It had probably been deposited by a cat that may have tired of playing “cat and mouse.” When I saw the mouse, I went to the garage to find a broom and small plastic bag, into which I scooped the dead animal before tying the ends of the bag. In the trash receptacle in the garage was a large trash bag from the kitchen, holding the deposits from earlier in the week. As I completed the task, I thought of the passage from I Corinthians 15:54-55, which is often read at memorial services:

 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O Death, where is your sting?

O Hades, where is your victory?” 

The situation with my disposing of the dead mouse was a graphic illustration of the phrase “swallowed up in victory.” At the memorial service for another church member, I had used the illustration of using the all the water in the Pacific Ocean to wash down a nitroglycerin tablet which is remarkably small, a fraction of an inch in diameter and height.

Another illustration came to mind as I thought of the small rodent about 4 inches long inside the small plastic bag that had been stuffed inside the 13-gallon trash bag that would be tossed into a dumpster that would compress hundreds of similar-sized trash bags, all of which would be taken to a massive landfill encompassing several acres. I could see that in the same way the dead mouse would be swallowed up when it eventually found its way to the landfill, even so to an even great degree, “Death is swallowed up (utterly vanquished forever) in and unto victory,” according to the Amplified Bible. I rejoiced as I saw how God illustrated in such a striking manner just how inconsequential death, the last enemy, has become because of Jesus Christ’s triumphant defeat of him “who has the power over death, that is the devil.”

I Corinthians 15:57 offers this assuring reminder:

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The disease cancer takes its name from the constellation "Cancer" symbolized by the crab, hence the name "Old Man Crab" refers to cancer.

Of course, the blues poem “Final Victory” that introduces Watch, Fight & Pray, captures the essence of our perspective on death and the ultimate triumph over the last enemy when we shall experience the reality of the “Final Victory”: 

 Final Victory

I Corinthians 15:53-57 & Romans 8:37-39

Old man crab is mighty sneaky,

            always creepin and up to no good,

Old man crab, is mighty sneaky,

            always creepin and up to no good,

That low-down dirty rascal,

            Messin with folk all round the neighborhood.

One dark day old man crab came callin,

            Crawlin in like some uninvited mouse,

One dark day old man crab came callin,

            Crawlin in like some uninvited mouse,

That nasty dirty devil,

            Sneakin in the back door of my sister’s house.

First you first attacked my mama, old man crab,

            You tried to pinch her with your greatest fears,

First you first attacked my mama, old man crab,

            You tried to pinch her with your greatest fears,

But she didn’t want no she-crab soup,

            You tried to served with pain and bitter tears.

You may have come to our house, old man crab,

            But I’m sorry, you can’t stay.

You may have come to our house, old man crab,

            But I’m sorry, you can’t stay.

Whatsonever in the world you may do,

            Everyday we still gonna watch, fight, and pray.

Nothin’ low down on earth, old man crab,

            Or nothin high up in heaven above,

Nothin’ low down on earth, old man crab,

            Or nothin high up in heaven above,

Not even death, your creepin pardner,

            Can ever separate us from God’s love.

So git out my face, old man crab,

            I got your number, don’t you see.

So git out my face, old man crab,

            I got your number, don’t you see.

You may win this li’l biddy battle,

            But we show-nuff got the final victory.

Some say our Savior’s comin in the mornin;

            Some say in the midnight hour or high noon

Some say our Savior’s comin in the mornin;

            Some say in the midnight hour or high noon

I got a feelin He’s comin back

            To gather us together soon . . . and very soon.

The olive wreath is a symbol of victory, a crown given to those who "run their best race and win it."

Many times as I “walked through the valley of the shadow of death,” I recalled Psalm 118:17 from the Amplified Bible:

I shall not die but live, and shall declare the works and recount the illustrious acts of the Lord.

 Often I think of a spiritual that succinctly summarizes my thoughts regarding death at this time in my life: “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”

 Ain\’t Got Time to Die by Romanian \”Accoustic Choir\”, conducted by Daniel Jinga

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Thanatopsis: A New View of Death”

  1. Ebony Rabe Says:

    Thanks for this post. I literally agree with what you are saying. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so may possibly this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

    • Dr. J Says:

      Thanks, Ebony,

      I appreciate your taking the time to comment to my post. I pray that my words will also minister to your father, as they have ministered to you.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Lonnell Johnson

  2. Jersey city locksmith Says:

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

    • Dr. J Says:

      Thank you for the kind comments. I do know how you ended up reading my blog. Nothing happens by accident, but all things happen by divine Providence. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Lonnell Johnson

  3. A Birthday Blog: The Great Adventure Continues « Dr. J's Apothecary Shoppe Says:

    […] regarding my diagnosis with prostate cancer and how it impacted my view of death in the blog “Thanatopsis—a New View of Death. Since childhood I have thought of life as one "Great Adventure." In reflecting upon my […]

  4. Gary Says:

    Praise God! We do have the victory, ultimate victory, and even now, immediate victory as we lead all thoughts in victorious procession captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5, 2:14).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: