'Thanatopsis: A View of Death' by William Cullen Bryant
A Young Person's View of Death
When I was young I was afraid of death. I was afraid when someone died in my neighborhood. When I heard that someone had died I ran home, jumped in bed and covered my head because I did not want death to find me.
That was years ago and as an ordained minister, I now preach funerals, deliver eulogies and stand over coffins and commit bodies to the grave. I preached my own brother's funeral and took part in the services of both my parents as well and having preached the funeral of several extended family members and others.
What happened between then and now? What made the shift in my thoughts about death and dying? What got me to take another look at death and to understand that death is not contagious like the common cold? What made me see that because someone died in my neighborhood doesn't necessarily mean that I will die also?
Courses About Death
Now I know about death and dying. Now I know what the Bible clearly states will happen to us at the time we take our last breath. I have taught an Eschatology course many times where I have taken my students through the sequence of death and dying. For you see, everybody will live eternally at one place or the other where it is the place of bliss or the place of torment. Additionally, I teach the Book of Revelation so all our thoughts about death are biblically based.
I am no longer afraid of death because Jesus took the sting out of death. I am no longer afraid of dying because Jesus took the victory out of the grave. I am homesick for heaven because the Bible says that's the way all Christians should be. We should say every day, "Come Lord, Jesus" according to Revelation 22:20.
Meaning of "Thanatopsis"
I began seeing the shift in my thinking even before I became a minister and studied about what happens at the time of death. In college, I was an English major and required to take courses in English Literature, Romantic Literature, American Literature, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. It was during my American Literature class that I was introduced to the poet William Cullen Bryant who at the age of 17 wrote "Thanatopsis," a poem that people couldn't believe he wrote because of it deep and profound meaning.
"Thanatopsis" means "a view of death."The title comes from the Greek word "thanatos" meaning "death" and "opsis" meaning "sight." Some people translate it as "Meditation Upon Death." I like to call it "A View of Death." And to make it more personal, I refer to it as "My View of Death."
Famous Lines from "Thanatopsis"
Even though William Cullen Bryant wrote "Thanatopsis" when he was 17, he did not write the introduction and concluding lines until ten years later. In fact, I like those lines so much I'm requesting those lines to be put on my tombstone because they summarize my view of death.
William Cullen Bryant says we are to so live that when it is time for us to die, we should not fight it, but welcome it. We should not be afraid like a slave at night in a dungeon. Instead, we should be sustained and soothed with an unfaltering trust as we approach our grave like one who wraps the covers from his bed around him and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Like Bryant, I believe death should be a wonderful experience!
Last Lines of Thanatopsis
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.