Current advances in science have meant that medicine has been able to prolong life, but not enhance its quality; very often medicine succeeds only in postponing death. This has given rise to the act of “euthanasia,” by which, rather than a good death, people mean a good path toward it, and claim “the right to die with dignity,” which, according to the egotistical way we humans tend to reason, confuses dignity with the absence of discomfort and with not needing others.
Without going into the merits of the question. We simply observe that the situation described has also changed the way we view the end of an individual’s life; we view death more as a “leaving” than an “arrival.” It would do no harm to question the second aspect.
Still, the traditional term “rest” survives. But this “rest” is conceived as falling asleep (so deeply that one is no longer even able to dream), rather than as genuine fullness, as rest in nothingness rather than “eternal rest.”
The body: prison or splendor?
What has been said suggests that before we try to look, albeit summarily, at that “arrival” conceived as fullness, it would be good to devote some prior reflection to the body and its natural deterioration (which seems to contradict what has been said). Here, too, we will encounter the classic dialectic that pervades the whole human sphere. Indeed, the Platonists in their day spoke of the human body as a prison, the prison of the soul. Today our idolatry of youth and admiration for its promise (so seldom fulfilled), together with our fear of transience (regarding which we prefer to close our eyes), have led us to despise the disciples of Plato and to conceive of the body not as a prison but as an expression of the soul. So we have coined that recurring aphorism that I do not “have” a body, but I “am” a body.
As is often the case, non-incompatible half-truths (“subcontrary,” some have called them) are at issue here. Some Greeks held bodies in awe. This is attested by Praxiteles and Phidias and their views about ideal sculpture: whether it should be encompassed under seven or eight heads, and whether breasts should have one shape rather than another. But life then was much shorter. We should also be aware of just what those who declare that we “are” our bodies are actually saying when we are faced with the possibility of living in wheelchairs and in diapers. Not for nothing did the psalmist pray, “Do not cast me away when I am old, do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (Psalm 71:9).
So we should add rather than contrast. But how difficult it is for we Westerners to think and feel dialectically! Our latent Cartesian mode of thinking always makes us seek “clear and distinct ideas,” which can only be fragments of larger, more complex and more global truths. Matter is not evil, as Plato teaches us; but it is inert and must be animated. The body may be an expression, but it is also a prison. From here arises the question raised by the idea of death as liberation: that is, whether we should be content with death as liberation “from,” or whether there is any possibility of speaking of death as liberation “for,” based on the intuition or suspicion that there may be a beyond. The experimental sciences cannot answer this question, because it exceeds their competence; and both those who affirm and those who deny this possibility face the question :how do you know?
Death: exit or goal?
We can rephrase this fundamental question with some splendid verses that José María Valverde dedicated to a Marxist atheist friend: How could that Marxist friend, loving father, / not want for himself the clear alienation / of loving and being loved after death?
Valverde calls death “alienation,” choosing a typical Marxist word. Yet he turns that Marxist term upside down, employing it not in the usual sense of “depersonalization,” but in the sense of something that is “alien,” unexpected. This shows the clash of two experiences that we know well and that would not seem compatible: an “eternity” glimpsed in love and a “transience” that is experienced in daily life.
An example of this distinction comes to us from a practice that is as mindless as it is widespread and ineradicable: the care of graves, involving flowers and cemetery visits. Let us analyze it briefly. Both believers and non-believers (albeit for different reasons) must recognize that nothing real of the deceased remains there; the expression “the remains” seems rather instructive to us. To take a famous example in Spain, the fact that Francisco Franco was buried in the so-called “Valle de los Caídos” (Valley of the Fallen) may indeed have been execrable. The statement that “Franco had to be taken out of there,” while expressed in semi-literate language , reflects that unconscious obsession that “something remains,” which is at odds with the Lenten expression of the ancient liturgy, “thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Today in the West we no longer prepare food for the dead to eat, although it is still the case in some cultures. But we are left with the unshakable belief that there remains not only a memory but also some presence there. It is this curious belief that justifies a patient 32-hour wait in line to “bid farewell” to a Queen of England who is no longer there, but who, one wishes, were still there. Perhaps, with Pascal, we could say that the heart has reasons that reason does not know; or that the feelings of affection and admiration opens wide to us chasms in which it is easy for us to lose ourselves. They are not real chasms, but are far from mere absences.
What we have said so far leads us to believe that the resolution of this clash of opposing experiences, which can be found through reason alone, will never be found. This holds true for us in the West, following the path of a philosophy that affirms the existence of an immortal soul, conceived as “infused” by the Creator into the body and not as springing from the body itself. This is not only because of the dualism implied by such a philosophical response, but because the prison of space in which we are immersed prevents us from thinking outside of that space. .
It may be, then, that the real answer to our question lies not in the concept of immortality, but of resurrection. For Christians, it is encountered in that Pauline affirmation of a “transformed bodiliness” as a gift and revealed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20). For those for whom the Christian faith does not ground hope, the answer may come from an intuitive hope arising from a sense that all the mortalities of this life fail to erase that inkling of eternity that we so often have. In other words, in this field all mere knowledge is equally insecure; there remain the paths of a hopeful faith or hopeful wager whose foundation is unknown but which is not irrational. As an example we can use the claim of an otherwise very rational man like Theodor Adorno: “The thought that death is the absolutely ultimate cannot be thought through to the end.” Yet there is something very important here: in both cases, it is “a trust that does not imagine.” In fact, our limited imagination always damages true trust: “we shall live, love and rejoice,” said St. Augustine, and nothing else is needed.
What is important to note is the role that authentic love occupies in these different positions . We call it “authentic” because it is about love “as a free gift, not as an interested appropriation.” It is about the gratuitous love that so often surfaces in us when a person has died and we regret that we did not behave better toward them when they were alive. Or the emotion that surfaces when we think of loved ones who are gone and we almost feel that we love them more than before, now that they can no longer be our rivals or opponents .
A stuttering ‘don’t-know-what’
We recall an aphorism by Gabriel Marcel: “To love a person is like saying: you will not die.” The same idea is expressed by a beautiful Catalan song, “We will miss your smile, because you are gone, but we are still left with something of yours, glimpsed in this heart that now guards the searing pain of your departing.” Despite the experience that our loves are always fragile, precarious and transient, love always conveys a coup d’éternité, as a famous film has it , and it conveys it precisely because it is a love “stronger than we are.” On the subject of songs, let us not forget the zarzuelan aria, “The river that flows to the sea cannot turn back; so also my affection….” Nietzsche also sensed something similar when, peremptory as ever, he had his Zarathustra shout that “all pleasure wants eternity.” Simone Weil in fact corrected him when she noted that instead it is unjust pain that claims a restorative eternity.
Perhaps this rarely happens, at least in an open way. But when it does happen, it conveys this bare hope that we earlier called “intuitive” or “yet unfounded.” Instead, when it is a hope founded on someone’s promise – in the Christian case, on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ – we know very well that we do not possess the experience and certainty of what we believe: this is what our faith consists in, which is other than material certainty, and Jesus already called blessed those who believe without having seen. We also know that this faith has consequences in our lives. These consequences do not correspond to those images of judgment being followed by the reward of Paradise or condemnation to Hell. In fact, John of the Cross tried to improve on those faulty expressions in a much-quoted sentence: “In the evening of life we shall be judged on love.”
But we can rephrase those inadequate expressions better by asserting that faith in the resurrection transforms human life into a kind of self-manifestation or “conscious pregnancy,” The human person, in everything he or she does, “makes himself or herself.” Thus is fulfilled that brilliant insight of Greek wisdom, “Become what you are,“ which in fact is also found in the New Testament: “We are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2). This is as a result of the lived experience in Jesus, who, being the Son of God already in the Incarnation, came to be fully Son in his resurrection.
Consequences for this life
All of this definitively changes the value of human life. Simone de Beauvoir explained that the reason for our interest in humanity is that “we have nothing better.” This is the logical argument from non-belief. In the light of Christian faith, a different foundation can be added that carries more weight: the reason for humanism is that human life has divine value, has received from the incarnation an “everlasting dignity,” as the Church’s liturgy proclaims. This involves practical consequences that we do not always realize.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” these are words spoken in the context of an experience of surrender, trusting totally and not wanting to know anything else. Take the example of Etty Hillesum, who, on the train to Auschwitz, trusted totally in God as her rock. Our later years are a complicated train and we know where it takes us; but they are in no way comparable to the trains that headed to Auschwitz, crammed with Jews. Therefore, if life is like a conscious pregnancy in which you end up giving birth yourself, it pays to consciously prepare oneself for this end in which you deliberately give yourself away. In the event that death, as happens in life despite medicine , catches us suddenly or in unconsciousness, it is good to get used to constantly renewing this acceptance. It is also necessary to do so with tranquility and confidence.
As an appendix
To encourage further reflection, we quote more of Etty Hillesum’s words. They are from her Diary and can give us an example of the hope we have set forth in this essay: “The possibility of dying is inserted in my life so absolutely that, as it were, I have enlarged my life with death by accepting death, destruction, of any kind, as part of this life. I do not want to hand over a part of this life to death out of fear, without accepting it. It is precisely this non-acceptance and these fears that cause most people to settle for a fragment of life so miserable and mutilated that it can hardly be called such. It sounds almost paradoxical: if we do not accept death into our lives, we do not live a full life, whereas if we insert death into our lives we enlarge and enrich it… It is so simple: it does not require deep reflection. Suddenly death entered my life, big and simple, and it did so naturally, almost silently…. Lately I have been feeling it with increasing intensity; even in my smallest daily activities and perceptions a hint of eternity creeps in.”
Etty also teaches us another way of giving ourselves to death. When it comes to loved ones and their departure, we can come to transform it from a loss into a gift. Although she had asserted countless times that she could not have borne the absence of Julius Spier (S.), after his untimely death she wrote gratefully, “It was you who freed my strength, you who taught me to pronounce God’s name naturally. You were the intermediary between God and me, and now that you are gone my path leads directly to God and I feel that it is good. Now I will be the intermediary for everyone I can reach” (September 15, 1942, at night).
And the next day, “Should I make a sad or solemn face? Am I perhaps sad? I would like to join hands and say: my dears, I am so happy and grateful and find life so beautiful and meaningful. That’s right, and I say this as I stand by the bed of my friend who died prematurely, and as I myself may be deported at any moment to a strange land. My God, I am so grateful to You for everything. I will continue to live with that part of the dead that lives forever and awaken to life that which is dead in the living, and thus there will be nothing but life, one great life, my God” (September 16, 1942).
In the end, there is nothing left to those who wish to express something that is so great as to be unutterable due to our human smallness, except poetry. Little did Etty know at the time that, a little over a year later, she would join S. as she entered a gas chamber in Auschwitz, naked yet at peace. But all the more we can say it: what we give, when we really give it and it is not snatched from us by force, we never lose. It is the great mystery of love.
 In her famous Diary, Etty Hillesum thought rather differently about dignity: “Suffering is not beneath human dignity. That is, one can suffer in a manner worthy, or unworthy of man. I mean, most Westerners do not understand the art of pain, and so they live obsessed with a thousand fears” (July 2, 1942) (E. Hillesum, Diario, Milan, Adelphi, 1994, 136).
 Cf. C. Casalone, “The Italian parliamentary debate on ‘assisted suicide’” in Civ. Catt. En., February 2022 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-italian-parliamentary-debate-on-assisted-suicide/
 The Pauline expression of the “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44) is also ambiguous, at least for us today, but tries to say something about it. Cf. J. I. González Faus, La Humanidad Nueva: ensayo de cristología, Bilbao, Sal Terrae, 2000.
 To show that this is not mere irrationality, but only goes beyond reason , let us cite the following fact: for a long time the existence of the ovum remained unknown; reason and science argued that only the male was fertile. Only some Greek poets, thanks to some insight into reality, suggested that the woman also brought something to the foetus that she was not a mere seedling ground. Eventually science proved right those who had previously seemed ill-informed l. Indeed, the problem with science is that no matter how valid it is, it is always partial and incomplete.
 T. W. Adorno, Dialettica negativa, Turin, Einaudi, 2013, Kindle edition, pos. 6725. Adorno adds, “If death were that absolute which philosophy has in vain positively evoked, then everything would be absolutely nothing” (ibid., pos. 6732). But as a thinker who does not want to forget Auschwitz, Adorno quotes shortly afterwards a line from Walter Benjamin (from The Elective Affinities), “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us” (ibid., pos. 6833).
 X. Boix, La vall del riu vermell (1971).
 The reference is to Un uomo, una donna, by Claude Lelouch (1966).
 The zarzuela is similar to operetta. Here the reference is to Los de Aragón, a one-act opera with music by José Serrano and libretto by Juan José Lorente.
 F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, IV, 12.
 Cf. J. I. González Faus, “Mística y verdad; solidaridad y belleza”, in E. Bea (ed), Simone Weil. La conciencia del dolor y de la belleza, Madrid, Trotta, 2010, 87-94.
 Cf. St. John of the Cross, Words of Light and Love, 57.
 Γένοι ̓, οἷος ἐσσὶ (Pindar, Pythian Ode II, 72).
 In Christmas Preface III.
 Devotion in other times suggested doing so through the frequent recitation of the prayer to St. Joseph (patron saint of the good death). Today, more conscious alternate ways can be found.
 E. Hillesum, Obras completas, Burgos, Monte Carmelo, 2020, 815-818.
 Id., Diary, op. cit., 196.
 Ibid., 200.