Birth and death are the brackets of life which enclose us in the present. They are, however, quite different — birth exudes potential; death offends it, bringing life to a bitter and abrupt conclusion. Try as we may, even the best embalmers fail to restore the beauty of life.
It is taboo to talk about death, that is, until it is foisted upon us. Having looked into the face of death three times in the recent past, I have a few observations. The first instance was a stillborn child. I met baby Iris in an isolette beside her sleeping Mother, wrapped in a blanket with a cute little hat on her head. Looking down upon this precious baby, now dead, I was struck by death’s irreversibility. It destroys our hopes, dreams, and longings. Unnatural and grotesque, death — especially this sort — is a nightmare.
Much different by comparison, the second encounter with death struck a 94-year-old woman who happened to be my beloved Grandmother. She died with peace and dignity, surrounded by family and friends. I am told that before her final breath, Grandma was talking to deceased relatives as though they were at the foot of her bed. Perhaps the most poignant moment occurred at the funeral when my five cousins and I carried her casket into the church. Six Italian boys, whom Grandma once carried into their little sleeping bags after a long night of dancing the tarantella, now carefully bore her body to its final resting place.
The third instance of death happened closer to home when I learned that my wife had experienced a miscarriage. The words of Job 1:21 welled up within me, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Death, even when it is in utero, is a wound to the living.
Responding to Death
When I visited baby Iris, I was greeted by her Daddy, a young man whose wedding I officiated. He escorted me to the isolette and asked, “Would you like to see our beautiful. daughter?” I must confess, even though I have sat beside several dying congregants as a pastor, this was too much to bear. After a deep breath I silently prayed, “God, please give me a timely word for this Dad.” I then looked him in the eye and stated, “One day, when Jesus returns with healing in his wings, the light of his presence will illumine the face of dear Iris. On that day she will look at you with a smile as wide as the horizon and call you ‘Daddy.’ Now is the time for grief, tears, and indescribable loss, but the day is coming when God will wipe away our tears and make all things new.”
Does theology matter? You’d better believe it. In such moments it means everything. Such was also evident at Grandma’s wake service. The associate pastor from her Catholic parish offered a homily: “Because Grandma was a good person, we can be sure that she is in heaven. And since she is now in heaven with Jesus, she serves as our connection to God. Therefore, we ought to pray to Grandma and let her bring us to Jesus.” It was a theological (and pastoral) train wreck.
Thankfully, I had been asked to conclude the service. It turned out to be the longest benediction I’ve ever given in my life: “Dear family and friends, there is one name under heaven by which we are saved, Jesus Christ. There is one Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus. And let us be clear, there is one name in which we dare to approach Almighty God in prayer; it is the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The relevance of theology is most evident when we find ourselves before a loved one staring at her coffin.
The Opportunity of Death
When the friends of Job visited him after his children’s death, they missed an opportunity. They started well by joining their tears with his and then sitting on the ground for seven days and nights without speaking. Such empathy and economy of words is always appropriate in the midst suffering. “I am sorry,” is usually the best response. “I know how you feel,” is typically not. An arm on the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek, these are the gestures that comfort. To simply be present, sitting quietly and available to listen, is perhaps the greatest gift that we can offer. Job’s friends managed to do this for a week. If only they had continued.
After an appropriate period of quietness in which the grieving person overcomes the initial shock of death, we ought to offer an expression of hope. It may sound cliché to unbelieving ears, perhaps even presumptuous; but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the antidote to grief. In Job’s words:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth,
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
When death — the intrusive stranger — steps into our world to claim its due, we have no human recourse, no defense. The Grim Reaper’s sickle, however, only reaches so far. Yes, all of humanity is exposed to his blade, but there is One who has overcome the sickle. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus conquered the Reaper’s claim, robbing death of its sting. Now, through his shed blood and resurrection, men and women in Christ have the audacity to look upon caskets with hearts that are simultaneously aching and full of hope, knowing that today’s grief will eventually recede before the realization of eternal life.