One of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, a loving father and husband, shockingly fell to his death alongside his friends and young daughter. It’s not surprising that we’re all reeling from the death of Kobe Bryant. But the intensity of our grief is noteworthy.
Some approach this phenomenon—the public mourning of a celebrity—with cynicism: “They didn’t even know that guy!” “People die every day!” “Why are these people so upset?”
While I don’t share the cynic’s impatience, I do share his curiosity. Why does the death of a public figure so deeply wound our collective psyche?
Attempts to Avoid Death
One book I find helpful in answering this question is Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity. In it, ethicists Joel Shuman and Keith Meador argue that death is being exorcized from our collective imagination:
In contemporary North American Culture, no less than any other, health and medicine tend to be viewed through particular ideological lenses. One of these is a scientific and technological optimism that sustains the tacit belief that science may one day altogether deliver us from sickness and death and every other limitation lace on us by our bodies. Increasingly, we see a long, vigorous life as our inalienable birthright and medicine as the protector of that right.
Viewing health as a right—rather than a gift—affects not only our view of life, but also our view of death. Whereas death has been a part of everyday life for most of human history, modern man has relegated the entire process of dying to specialists: from hospice workers to funeral directors.
Of course, avoiding death is a fool’s errand. However hard we try to keep it at bay, it sneaks in: at Halloween, in gory movies, with the death of a beloved celebrity. We are then harshly summoned back to a sharp reality of this fallen world: we all die. You can turn your eye, but you can’t turn your being.
Guardian of Life
Historically, the church has been a space where man can process death in a context of hope. The ubiquity of church graveyards in antiquity testifies to the fact that, when seen through the lens of the gospel, death isn’t a thing to be feared. The dead can be among us precisely because we will soon be among them as we await the resurrection.
But for all of the gyms and playgrounds under construction on church properties today, when was the last time you heard of a…