Theresa: Thank you very much for these thoughtful comments. This existential notion, that we make of life what we choose, does seemingly require a radically different approach to death.
In the Christian paradigm (also represented in Tolstoy's work), humans descend (or are expelled from the Garden and forced) into the physical world. This physical world is not “free” of constrictions; rather it is full of them. To begin with, human life is bound by time, extension, causality and mortality. Existentialism, at this point, would have to agree. But where Existentialism seems content (or authentic from its viewpoint) is at this level of constriction. Outside of recognizing the requirements of temporality, physical extension, causality and mortality, Existentialism suggests that life (within this matrix) is what you make of it. This is at once, terrifying, dreadful and lonely, and honest and liberating. We sure can see this in Tolstoy’s work.
But the other great Western paradigm, monotheism (represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam), contends that we are not existentially free but that existence is bound by another layer of reality—the divine. Thus, time becomes a mechanism (an instrument) by which we pass through various phases in life to arrive at a relationship with God. Extension, that is to say the physical dimensions as we know them, are certainly restricting for humans but for the divine represent an opportunity to “speak more directly” to humans; namely, through miracles, which are suspensions of the physical laws of nature. Causality, cause and effect, is a mechanism whereby the divine judges us, it is the opportunity for divine justice and the ultimate judgment in which the good are rewarded and the unjust are punished (or at least “not favored” in the case of Judaism, which does not have the “damnation” paradigm of either Christianity or Islam). Mortality is an opportunity to recognize the fragility of our human form, and its temporary nature, and to embrace God. In this way, as William Lynch suggests in “Christ and Apollo” mortality becomes “the discovered weakness (how clear and finite it is)” and thus “becomes a gate to the infinite”—namely a relationship with God. This “bridge or gate,” mortality itself, is the thing which introduces to us the possibility of the immortality of the soul (via a relationship with God). I think that you are right to suggest that this tendency is also present in Tolstoy’s work.
Thus, in the end, it seems that we have Tolstoy contending with two incredibly powerful ways of understanding death—philosophical existentialism and monotheism (in this case, Christianity).