A Pitiful Brightness

Does death bring us darkness? Or does this world, with its dim shadows and bleak moments, bring darkness? What brings us to real light?


Not too long ago, I attended a funeral service on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a young man who had died suddenly and tragically. The church was an especially dark one, and the service was long – over two hours. When I finally reemerged into the light with the other mourners, I got a dazed, disoriented feeling: one that instantly reminded me of how I would feel as a kid after watching a Saturday matinee. My mother or some other parent would typically drop me and a friend off at the cinema for the noon show, and by the time we staggered out at two (or four, if it was a double-feature), I’d have become so accustomed to the dark that the blazing daylight came as a shock. Not only had my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the movie house, but my mind had too. Emerging back into the reality of that larger day was like being pulled roughly from one world into another: one that I’d temporarily forgotten existed.

My eyes still adjusting to the blazing early summer afternoon, I got into a cab and started down Fifth Avenue. It would have been uncomfortably hot if a steady breeze hadn’t been blowing down from the north of the city, making the trees of Central Park dip and sway as if filled with a life of their own.

Watching that play of air and light in the trees of the park as my cab moved slowly downtown, it struck me that I was looking at a kind of summary expression of everything that the young man whose service I had just attended was supposed to have left behind. When we die, after all, we leave the bright, sun-dappled world of the living and go down, down, down into the dark. From Ecclesiastes (“For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness.”) to Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night…. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”), a tradition equating life with light and death with darkness stretches back thousands of years. Death, according to this tradition, is the ultimate tragedy – the abduction of a person from the world of light and life and their immersion into a world of night.


But of course, there’s another side to the story as well: a side that, even in the darkness of the service I’d just attended, was hinted at several times in passages from scripture that said just the opposite of what Ecclesiastes did. According to this tradition, it’s our current, daily world that’s the dark one, and far from plunging us into further darkness, death does precisely the opposite, pulling us out of the pain-and-shadow-filled drama we’ve been caught up in and back up into the light-shot realms of a heavenly region where we find, to our surprise, that we are much happier and more at peace than we ever were on earth.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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