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Death, and the necessity there exists for understanding and reflecting on its
consequences to the soul ;-with the unfounded and conflicting ideas which many persons entertain of these.
“ As the light leaf, whose fall to ruin bears
UNLESS We believe that death puts an end for ever to our conscious existence, the most important business of our mortal lives is to consider as deeply as we can what may befal us after leaving this busy world ; and to prepare for our departure before we go hence, and be no more seen among men upon earth. What then, strictly speaking, is the change called DEATH, and what are its consequences ? Many will wonder at the ignorance that could prompt such questions, which they will be able to see no difficulty in answering ; but deeper inquirers, who think well before they attempt to decide, and have knowledge sufficient to be aware, in some degree, how much they have only imperfect ideas of, or know nothing concerning, will see that the first involves a conception of what, (physically speaking,) the life of the body depends on, or, in what it consists; and that the second has been greatly disputed as to its immediate result, even among eminent divines.
Death has been likened to a leap in the dark, but it is much more so than it might be, if revelation was diligently studied; for this sacred record enables us in a great measure to pierce what is usually called the gloom of the grave. One cause of our trembling when on the brink between life and death, is the uncertainty of the instant consequences to the soul. Although confiding in a resurrection and future immortality, some fear a temporary annihilation, as it were, which they suspect must precede it, to continue till the last trumpet shall call bodies again into existence ;-whereas, if they firmly believed that death will be no gloomy region to their souls, but one of life, light, happiness, and sociability, without an interval of oblivion and nothingness, the awful time of departure would be contemplated by the penitent believer with less dread when supposed at a distance, and met with more fortitude on its visible approach.
The darkness of death is probably all on this side of its portals ; that is, we are here in a great degree of mental obscurity, or uncertainty of its state ; but it need only be thus in so far; not involved in the total ignorance which those feel who make no inquiries.
As our great duty here is to prepare for death, it cannot but be of assistance to us, to contemplate its first consequences to our rational faculties, and it must highly conduce to the earthly happiness of those who endeavour to do well, to believe their future rest and peace will commence, not at some long distant time, but whenever life shall quit their frail earthly frames.
And swift fly the hours of all mortal sojourning,
Till the order shall come that we life must resign;
To the place of their rest—then why should we pine ?
Many strange ideas have been connected with the term death. In the East, it is thought to be under the superintendence of an invisible Being called the angel of death. Others have personified it into various mere fanciful shapes and figures. Death is more immediately occasioned by the body's being deprived of what may be called a subtile essence, which seems to emanate from that great source of nervous energy the brain, and to pervade every part by means of the nerves, constituting animal life.
It has been already shown that when the Almighty said to Adam, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," this could only refer to his earthly body, for his soul was not made from the dust, and does not therefore sojourn in it for a time, or during death, as the body does, but was and is in its nature immortal: hence Solomon's observation,-“then shall the dust return to the earth as it was ; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.”* When mention was made of the dead being in their graves, only their bodies were meant; death being spoken of as only killing and destroying these, and thereby setting the soul free from the trammels of mortality, as shown in the words of the text just quoted, and in those of the ancient sage Baruch "for the dead that are in their graves, whose souls are taken from their bodies—”+ The death of man, therefore, merely signifies a separation of his soul and body, and the dissolution of the latter for a time (by the deprivation of animal life) while his soul continues to live. A definition of mortality, to which I beg to call particular attention, and that it may be borne in mind throughout the ensuing discussions.
“ If death,” says Sherlock, “be our putting off these bodies, then the resurrection from the dead is the re-union of soul and body; the soul does not die, and therefore cannot be said to rise again from the dead; but it is the body, which like seed falls into the earth, and springs up again more beautiful and glorious at the resurrection of the just.”I In this illustration, the vitality of the seed or embryo plant is not destroyed though its outward form decays. The germ of the seed, or life as it were of the plant, continues, and in due time reanimates its revived and changed body,—thus forming a very beautiful and appropriate simile or illustra
• Eccles. xii. 7.
+ Chap. ii. 17. Practical Discourse on Death, chap. II. sect. 1.
tion of the death, committal to the earth, and resurrection of the body of man.
“When we have learned to distinguish the organization from the principle of thought, the mere change of place of the particles of the organic frame, which is all that constitutes death relatively to the body, no longer seems to imply the dissolution of the principle of thought itself, which is essentially distinct from the organic frame, and by its very nature incapable of that species of change which the body exhibits ; since it is very evident, that what is not composed of parts, cannot by any accident, be separated into parts."*
We are so framed, for wise reasons, that death is dreadful to our apprehensions, and therefore he has been called “the king of terrors,”—“our last enemy.” We connect with the hour of our departure hence the idea of extreme pain and agony, because perhaps it is unknown to us. But, whatever it be, the fear of merely suffering the agony of dissolution might be conquered by reason and reflection as we often see it conquered by high passion. It is the consequences of death that inspire the greatest terror. Whither does it conduct us? Of what nature are those new scenes into which the disembodied spirit is introduced ? What shall be our fate in those unseen mansions, which we shall enter through the gate of dissolution ? These are the subjects of doubt and anxiety, which chiefly arm death with terrors to our apprehension. What can effectually allay those terrors ? Nothing but the assured hope of a better life, to begin as soon as the life that now is, shall end.
How few live as if they were to die. They are content to let that event come upon them as unexpectedly “as a thief in the night.” They grapple with their final foe, not merely unprepared, but absolutely incapacitated for the struggle, and then wonder and wail at their being overcome and “ trodden under foot.” Where is the man who dares assert that on his death-bed he is certain to continue to believe, (if he ever really did so) that he shall sink into nothingness?
* Dr. Brown's Lectures on the Philosophy of Mind, Lect. 97.