Three people on our isolated island community died over the long Labor Day weekend. In a place like this, where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else, that’s a tremendous amount of tragedy. What do you do when one person dies? You do what you usually do; visits, funerals, songs, eulogies, food, memories, and lots of grief. What happens when death meets death? Americans aren’t used to this. Now we’re getting into refugee country, natural disaster land, or war zones. We need time to deal with our grief before we move on to dealing with the pain of someone else. Middle-class Americans don’t deal well with multiple deaths.
I’m not a big fan of euphemisms, especially the ones we use for death. No one just “passes away.” Life is too precious a thing to only let go and cease to exist. No, at the very least, we stop fighting. Life is a struggle. When the battle ends, we die. Eventually, fatigue takes over. Death, with its sting, find us when we least expect to be found. When that happens, we die. The medicine stops working, the chemo fails, the drugs go too far, and the alcohol is more than any of our organs can handle. Death calls the last shot. Whether alone in a nursing home or on a bathroom floor where your corpse will be found in a few hours, God seems absent. Where in these moments of hopelessness and abandonment can we insert a few memorable lines about hope and resurrection?
Eventually, that’s going to fall to me. I’ll be asked to give a degree of structure to what Christians believe, God’s role in the afterlife, and the resurrection itself. I should do this as quickly as possible. We’ll need to sing, pray, and do a few other things too. No pressure, no rush. Of course, by the time I stand up, the initial shock is almost gone. The scene will have moved from the nursing room or bathroom to the local church sanctuary. We will all look our best. Gone are the signs, smells, sounds, and language of death. Instead, at a funeral or memorial service, we see the indications of life draped in black. We confuse life with death. Death is the one word we are reluctant to speak at funerals. How many times do we hear someone other than clergy use the word “dead” or “death in a memorial service? It doesn’t happen. Death is absent as we talk about the dead. If we leave death out is it because we believe we make room for God? Even in the presence of the most powerful language the church can muster to talk about the reality of the resurrection, we’re still afraid to acknowledge this reality: we’re all going to die.
God becomes present in the opening words of the Service of Death and Resurrection. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read these words. I know, within the next week, I’ll read them at least twice. It gets harder to say them each time. It is hard to utter them without weeping. This is because I wonder if we have any idea what we’re saying. Has the meaning become entirely lost?
Dying, Christ destroyed our death. (Death looks very alive. Have you seen what alcohol and opiates are doing to communities? Death destroys people.)
Rising, Christ restored our life. (Resurrection is life, it is all around us, in every sunrise, sunset, and newborn. None of us have a handle on resurrection because none of us can come to terms with death. Resurrection is, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, life finding away.)
Christ will come again in glory. (I don’t care how you come. Just do it.)
Richard Lowell Bryant