In life, “nothing can be certain except death and taxes.” Usually when people quote Mr. Franklin’s famous words during this time of year it is in a complaint about giving money to the government. While many tax themselves greatly to find ways to get out of paying one’s full duty, none of us can cheat death (unless we are Elijah, who didn’t die but rode off to heaven in a flaming chariot).
I am learning a lot about death in Malawi. For Malawians, death happens on a daily basis. Last Monday, the Masina family told me one of their cousins had just died from Malaria. She was two. Later that day I found out that one of my colleagues at the theological college lost his wife. She was 57. Africa is the only continent in the world where the life expectancy is still under 60 (I read today that in Swaziland it is 30…I turn 30 in a month).
As I sat with my friend Vasco at Mrs. Chikoti’s funeral we talked about the high mortality rate. He told me that there are hundreds a day in Lilongwe alone. He also said funerals are expensive and a burden to most families. He said, that before he would be able to actually mourn and grieve his father’s death he would be expected to take care of all those coming to the three day service.
The National Aids Commission did a study and found that, for a poorer family, a funeral costs between 120,000-140,000 Malawian Kwacha ($800-950). That’s a lot of money when you make less than two dollars a day. Wealthier families spend as much as a million kwacha ($6,700) per funeral. Many people here spend more on dying than they do on living.
I didn’t grow up where someone I knew died every other week. One in seven African children die before the age of five. Those that die have brothers and sisters. On Thursday a friend told me there were ten children in his family, there are now five. He just turned 29. Everyone here deals with death from a young age.
I preached this morning on Jesus’ death (an odd feeling—while most of the churches in the world were celebrating the Divine King’s Jerusalem entry, I was asked to preach on His execution…). Jesus may have conquered death, but He still had to die. Before we can approach the empty tomb we need to come to grips with the magnitude of Jesus’ death. And before we can know what the power of Christ’s resurrection means for our own lives we have to come to terms with our own suffering and our own death.
During this last week, while I was thinking about death, I read an article written by Donald Miller. When Don’s book Blue Like Jazz blew up in the pop Christian scene, I’m not gonna lie, the pretentious theology student in me was a little turned off. But then I read his A Million Miles in A Thousand Years and I was taken aback by his desire to live a life that is worthy of a story. In this article he asks if we know how to trust God with our lives, but also with our death.
I’m not sure if anyone knows all there is to know about death. But my Malawian friends are teaching me a lot about how death is an unavoidable part of life.