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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Death in the Time of Plague

postcard from ancient Rome to the 21st c.

Last night the wife said,

Oh, boy, when you’re dead,

You won’t take nothing with you but your soul—


~ The Beatles, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”

It is clear to me by this point in the pandemic that what, collectively, we most fear as a society is death. This is understandable, of course. But we don’t seem to fear economic ruin, loneliness, or existential despair with the same intensity.

I think part of the reason is that, in a post-Christian, post-religious world, we are not really prepared for death in any significant way. We postpone it in a sort of absolute psychological and existential procrastination. Even our funerary customs attest to this. When my grandfather was a boy in Ireland in the early 20th century, wakes were held in the family home, the coffin and its passenger set up in the parlor. Now, the body is often in absentia at the funeral. But habeas corpus.

In the medieval and early modern periods, meditation on the Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell) was an integral part of life. Like now, death was always present. Unlike now, people didn’t look away in horror and fear; they meditated upon their own lives and ultimate destination. In a secular milieu, one that denies the spiritual realms and dismisses religion as superstition, there is no reason to think about the Last Things. With no afterlife, we have only to preserve the present life. I think this imagination informs our care of the elderly—medicine has developed ingenious ways to keep the body alive, though the soul may hang in abeyance for years (as in the case of those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s). We simply don’t know how to die.

William Shakespeare and his contemporaries dealt with plague on a regular basis. Often during the height of his theatrical career plague would visit London. At the time of the Great Plague (1605-06), it is estimated that 100,000 citizens of London died, about a quarter of the population, statistics that place our own in pale perspective. People in early modern London were on familiar terms with death. We are not. Instead, we outsource death.

In Twelfth Night, in many ways one of his more theologically-informed plays (along with Hamlet and Measure for Measure), Shakespeare ventriloquizes on the Last Things as the clown Feste catechizes his grieving mistress Olivia:

CLOWN. Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.

OLIVIA. Can you do it?

CLOWN. Dexteriously, good madonna.

OLIVIA. Make your proof.

CLOWN. I must catechize you for it, madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.

OLIVIA. Well, sir, for want of other idleness, I’ll abide your proof.

CLOWN. Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

OLIVIA. Good fool, for my brother’s death.

CLOWN. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLIVIA. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

CLOWN. The more fool you, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.—Take away the fool, gentlemen. (Act I, Scene 5)

Scene from Trevor Nunn’s wonderful film version of Twelfth Night.

Recently, physician Zach Bush has been upholding precisely this ethos—and even extends it to the death of the human species. For Bush, we are at a tipping point, and if we don’t change our habits of living, he thinks we may be facing extinction. And soon. But that’s not the worst thing that could happen (he asserts) because the end of life is not the end of Life. There are more things in heaven and Earth, comrades, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Of course, the idea of belief in the afterlife manifests upon occasion in our culture, though often in the context of meditations on the Christian mystery, palimpsests from a previous age. In Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) tells Judas he isn’t afraid of dying: “Death isn't a door that closes, it opens. It opens and you go through it.” The idea also pervades Terrence Malick’s recent film about conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter martyred by Hitler’s regime, A Hidden Life.

We do not know how to die; nor do we even want to consider it. The great philosophical and literary traditions all attest that learning how to die is the key to learning how to live, from Stoicism to Buddhism, Vedanta to Existentialism, and particularly in Christianity, the central figure of which was led like a sheep to slaughter.

We have much to learn.

A song from Twelfth Night I wrote when the world was young and recorded with The Corktown Popes a few years ago. Features a blistering fiddle solo by Alan Jackson’s sideman, Ryan Joseph.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

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