To Dust We Shall Return

To Dust We Shall Return

Jay D. Green

“For He Knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

Psalm 103:14

All things considered, I think I’m doing a better than average job accepting the cold reality of death: the certain, inexorable demise of my mortal body.  As I age, I can see that I’m getting progressively slower, creakier, and flabbier. I no longer remember names or references as crisply as I once did. I’m now wearing bifocals, and even then, find that I sometimes strain to read. And I’m nearly resigned to the fact that middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom will soon become a permanent feature of my life. Each day onward, I grow a little bit closer to my own death.

I’m also pretty attuned to the reality of death in my community. I attend my share of funerals each year and notice that I have trouble keeping a regular stock of sympathy cards on hand. My wife and I make a daily practice of scouring the obituaries in our local newspaper, both out of morbid curiosity and a candid recognition of death’s ubiquity and persistence. As we pass the gut-punching milestone of 500,000 fellow citizens dead at the hand of a raging pandemic, we’ve all been given opportunities aplenty to stare, long and hard, at the fragility of life.  And the closeness of death.

Like so many of you, I am a historian and a history teacher. Aside from the possible exception of healthcare workers and morticians, is there any other profession more well acquainted with the dead? I spend my days with the dead, recalling their actions and quoting from their speeches and memoirs. I follow their tracks of birth certificates, tax records, and rap sheets like bread crumbs on a journey toward building stories that reanimate the past and reframe the present. My familiarity with the dead—and therefore my acceptance of death’s reality—seems clear and straightforward.

But it occurs to me that I may be fooling only myself. 

In his magisterial 1973 book, The Denial of Death, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker famously argued that nearly every feature of human civilization has been constructed as an extravagant ruse designed to suppress the knowledge and reality of death. And as Western society has grown more technologically sophisticated, safer, and more efficient, so has our success at insulating ourselves from the cold certainty of death. From vast “anti-immortality projects” that promise to eliminate the effects of aging and decay, to practices that “tranquilize [ourselves] with the trivial” as we stare hour after hour at the dark abyss of smartphone scroll, Becker suggests that we’re always, everywhere actively suppressing and denying the inevitable fact that death awaits.

While we historians might well assume that our unique relationship with the dead places us in a different category, I’m not so sure. Historical study, in its own unique way, suppresses rather than embraces the reality of death as it promises to confer on the dead a significant brand of immortality. Every time we deliver a lecture or write a monograph, we pledge that the dead live on through our efforts at preservation and through the power of historical memory. And so, our relationship with the dead doesn’t tarry for long on the reality of their deadness, but settles fully and existentially in the past presence of their living, breathing selves. Even in death, we experience and present them as living, breathing souls.

Don’t get me wrong. The work of historical preservation and memory is good and deeply valuable. I believe in it! I don’t subscribe to the cynicism of another Becker (no relation), historian Carl Becker, when he stated, “All historical writing, even the most honest, is unconsciously subjective, since every age is bound, in spite of itself, to make the dead perform whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” No, I’m not saying that historical study is merely a collective form of denial we use to placate our deep-seated fears of death. But neither do I believe that historical study, in itself, develops in us an honest, healthy relationship with our own mortality. 

For that, we need to go elsewhere.

Henri Nouwen once observed that our lives our bound up with temptations to believe and demonstrate that we are relevant, that we are powerful, and that we are spectacular; temptations each in their own way devised to help us avoid thinking about our frailty and our mortality. But we are assured in Scripture that we rest in the arms of a genuinely powerful, eternally relevant, and gloriously spectacular Father who “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). 

Dear Lord, in this Lenten season, help us learn anew to rest in your loving arms, and to walk with humility in the knowledge that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. 

Jay D. Green, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Covenant College where he has served on the faculty since 1998.  Among other publications, he is author of Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (2015).  He is past president of the Conference on Faith and History.