Carved into a cemetery headstone, directly under a person’s name, are the dates of their birth and death. These dates are separated by a dash. Many have waxed on poetically about the importance of that dash, for it represents the entirety of the persons life. It’s the space where they lived and breathed, rested and worked, laughed and cried, loved and lost. The carved dates separated by the dash serve as a map of reality, “a reduction of what it represents.”
The typical map of a person’s life looks like this:
Span of life.
Remains placed in a location as a way to honor and remember them.
Evidence of the headstone marks such a reality, but the map crafted is but a snapshot of that reality, for the “map is not the territory.”Rather it is a simplification of the complexity of a life lived.
If we zoom in a bit more and examine a life/death map in more detail, we’d see specifics in the terrain. Based on religious affiliation, geographic and cultural location, or situation in time and space, that map would vary. Today, in the context of those who profess to be Christian and evangelical, the life/death map would likely look like this:
Dying process (sometimes tragic, unexpected, prolonged, swift, peaceful, etc).
Death in a hospital or other professional care facility.
Deceased cared for at a funeral home (cremated, embalmed, or simply not seen).
A celebration of life (slide show, favorite songs, and memories shared by loved ones).
Burial or scattering of remains (witnessed by immediate friends and/or family).
This map, while useful and predictable, is inherently flawed, as it remains a static “document” in the flow of a reality that is ever changing. The truth is, “reality cannot be mapped. It is beyond description or any one view. It is not a single static truth, but rather an endless, unfolding mystery.”
To navigate this mystery, Parrish, in The Great Mental Models, suggests examining key components of mental models, or the ways we describe the way the world works. These models shape how we think, form beliefs, and draw analogies.They do this in a simplified and organized way, and enable us to walk around in a problem with a 3-D view. This is accomplished by utilizing various perspectives and examining through different lenses. The more lenses utilized the more likely reality is revealed.
Sadly, with its static rules and policies, the current evangelical life/death map has ignored the changing terrain and failed to adapt to cultural needs. In fact, few evangelicals even think through why the map looks the way it does and what the consequences are of having such a map. Conversely, secular endeavors to reclaim human connection and dignity through death are happening. Living funerals, death doulas, palliative care, and green burials, are but a few ways the death care industry is changing to help individuals holistically embrace death. Organizations, such as Grief Share, help people walk through grief in a communal and loving way.
Still, evangelicals exist in “a culture of entertainment and denial that has sanitized dying and death and put it in a world hopefully far, far away. (This is done through) entertainment. (They) want funerals to mirror church services and church services to mirror virtual lives- fun, interesting, enlightening, moving, and upbeat.”
The “why’s” behind this reality are complicated and nuanced. But if Occam’s Razor is true, and “simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones,”then when the complexities are stripped away, the core motivation of the current evangelical life/death map is fear. We fear losing our identity, our sense of “me.” We fear stepping out of what’s known into the unknown. By living in fear and allowing it to form the limited reality of our life/death map, we actually increase our suffering in death. Consequently, this leaves us more isolated, alone, and afraid. By clinging to the security of the knowns, we are left feeling ill-equipped and insecure in the unknowns.
Maps created out of fear are not useful. It’s important “to remember…a map captures a territory at a moment in time. Just because it might have done a good job at depicting what was, there is no guarantee that it depicts what is there now or what will be there in the future.”
The time has come for evangelicals to reevaluate the life/death map handed to them from generations before. Exploring and understanding the cultural geography and the shifting territory helps develop more useful maps. Implementing different perspectives through various mental models, while also leaning into mystery and creativity, is necessary to create a new way for evangelicals to navigate life and death. For if we truly believe in the holy redemptive grace of God for our lives, then we have to allow that holy redemptive grace to wash over our actual dying and death process, as well. Only then will we be able to envision a fuller picture of the holy reality given to us through Christ.
In closing, may the words of TRH Blue’s poem, “Holy Ground,” be a springboard for exploration, as we move from fear into freedom:
The time will come that you
Run out of map for the road
You’ve been taking to
Get where you go.
And then what?
You step beyond the
Borders of the paper square
You once thought held
The whole world.
You stretch your legs
And run, let new air fill your lungs.
The unknown may be
Filled with unspeakable
Fright, unmatched beauty,
But whatever it holds,
You are free.
You are free, and you
Must keep moving.
Maps don’t lead to
 Shane Parrish. 2019. The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts. Ottowa, Canada: Farnam Street. Kindle. Location 397.
Parrish, loc 397.
Frank Ostaseski. The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Fully Living. (New York: NY: Flatiron Books, 2017) 257.
Parrish, loc 113.
Parrish, loc 137.
Todd Pruitt. 2010. “Evangelicals: Putting the “Fun” back in “Funeral.” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Jan, 14, 2010. Accessed Nov 3, 2019. http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/1517/evangelicals-putting-the-fun-back-in-funeral#.Xb89MC2ZOqA
Parrish, loc 1617.
Parrish, loc 497.
Parrish, loc 485.