There is a Scripture that says “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.” There is something about the hope that Christians express in the face of the death of a friend or loved one, that is unique and expresses the heart of our faith in Christ. But I am becoming suspicious, after attending funerals of two of my friends’ mothers, that we in American charismatic Christianity may have inadvertantly developed a culture when it comes to our death rituals, that has the appearance of presenting hope, but unfortunately is more truthfully an expression of our unwillingness to feel pain, or to grieve, to mourn, and to acknowledge with appropriate gravity than reality of many facets of what death really is.
Today we buried my friend Stephen’s mother Audrey (who was also something of a friend to me.) I really appreciated how this funeral was conducted compared to other funerals that I have been to – most notably that Audrey’s coffin was not left by the graveside, but instead had already been lowered into the grave, and a pile of dirt and two shovels were at the graveside instead. There came a point during the funeral when those in attendance were invited to place dirt on top of Audrey’s body (hidden by her wicker coffin) to signify dust returning to dust. (Other funerals I have been at in my life have not allow people to experience the reality of burial with that degree of tangible rawness – for instance when my own step-father died when I was a teen, I was surprised to discover that we as family members would not be permitted to witness the actual burial.)
But Audrey’s funeral was refreshingly different on that level. When it was my turn to shovel, and as I was tossing dirt on the wicker, I thought about a moment I had shared with Audrey when I first met her and with her permission had laid hands on her in prayer. I thought about how the same physical body that I touched and prayed for now lay in the wicker coffin that I was shoveling dirt onto and in my mind there was this juxtaposition between touching her while she was alive, and now touching her with shovelfuls of dirt in her death. As I held the memory in my heart of the brief relationship over a handful of occasions that she and I had had together, a deep place in my soul felt both the connection to her of one-to-one relationship, and the loss of her life here in this realm. So in what was a very real moment for me, I spoke towards her body between shovelfuls, and said from that place in my soul, “Goodbye Audrey.”
It was all very vivid and very real. But somewhat predictably, someone immediately countered me and said somewhat gleefully, “Audrey would say, ‘I’m not here!'” For me at that moment, it was so incongruent with what I was expressing, that I searched for some reply that would allow me to have that moment of goodbye in peace. What came to mind in that moment, in that setting, was to share with the sister who had gently rebuked me, “In Jewish tradition, there is a belief that the spirit stays with the body for seven days after death.” I can’t say i honestly was thinking of that idea when I shared my goodbye towards Audrey’s body, but at that moment I wanted to have the freedom to say goodbye without being silenced, and I knew Stephen would find what I had said to be worth consideration and contemplation (as I found myself doing also, after I said it,) because he’s just that kind of person. The reality is that as much as we have hope and confidence in Christ after death, I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on explaining what actually transpires in the mystical connection between body, soul, and spirit, and what the medically indefinable point of total death really is. So it seemed legitimate to toss into the mix the Jewish take on it.
But the reality for me was much more about how my charismatic brothers and sisters seem to often want to rush right over any grieving process, and straight into pearly gates and streets of gold and lots of dancing. This is not an isolated incident, and I bear no malice for the woman who reminded me that Audrey has gone somewhere else, but it really felt like yet another time of many times I have experienced, that funerals have become a little bit too artificially happy in our this time and day among Christians.
Later on, I was with my friend Stephen as he ran into a neighbor on his street. The neighbor took a moment to express some condolences, yet the neighbor seemed strangely cheerful and even glib to me as he ran through a litany of phrases about how Audrey was out of pain now and was in a better place. I’m sure he meant well but I also got the distinct impression that it might have also been the easiest way to keep the conversation short, simple, and upbeat. I could be wrong but it seems to me that Audrey wasn’t really suffering a whole lot of pain until the very end of her life – not enough that I think it really justified the idea of being comforted to know that “at least she’s not in any pain now.” She did leave this planet praising the Lord cheerfully herself, and I’m glad to know that, and I know that she is happily praising the Lord in even better ways now, because that’s what her spirit was about in life, and I’m sure it is what her spirit is still about, even more so departed from this life.
To be sure, for someone who loved and longed for the Lord’s presence, death represents a promised transition into some realm in which we can be confident that the departed person has new and expanded, unfettered and direct, undistracted clear and incredibly tangible encounter, spirit to Spirit, with the most magnificent, wonderous and beautiful Being in all multitudes of universes. This is pretty dang cool, no matter how wonderful or terrible that experience for any particular person might be.
But – here’s the rub – this is not the side of death that funerals happen on. A funeral is quite a different story entirely. While we can envision (barely, and I mean barely) what a departed person may now be experiencing or enjoying, this is not the side of death that the living are privy to fully know about and see. For the living, these things exist only as a “hope,” thus the verse that, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.” Hanging on to hope is a good thing! But while funerals may rightly be tinged with hope, funerals are – or should be in some form or fashion – a time to mourn. On our side of death-the side where someone’s heart has stopped beating, and decisions have had to be made about harsh realities like burial, or cremation, there are even harsher realities that funerals are meant to be a time to honor, with appropriate weight – things like the end of a legacy, the value of the person in our lives, and ultimately, the loss of that person from our lives.
We do ourselves and others such a disservice if we so lightly gloss over larger themes that mean more to those of us still on this side of death in our rush to sweep away every negative or painful emotion with our religious (and dare I say, sometimes callous) script of protective and artificial rejoicing.
It is not time to overbearingly rush right into platitudes with words like, “She’s in a better place,” or, “At least there’s no more pain or suffering,” or, “She’s dancing with Jesus now.” If these words are being said in an honest and a truthful effort to bring comfort and encouragement to a grieving family member or friend, that is one thing – but if these words are being said to preempt having to be serious and sober about someone’s pain and feeling of loss, or to simply make sure that nothing uncomfortable or disconcerting about the passing of another person gets any airtime, as I am perhaps erroneously becoming more and more convinced is the default, then we have turned the verse, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope,” into another idea altogether: “We do not mourn at all.”
Realistically, I am sure that for anyone who was deeply attached or connected to the departed person, no matter what words of victorious assurance or vicarious rejoicing that he or she might share with others at a funeral or upon sharing the news about the departure of their loved one with others, the reality will be that that person will still grieve to one extent or another. (This is, I guess, unless we have somehow learned a little too well how to have so many “boundaries” in our relationships with others that we have stayed happily unattached to anyone, ever, and loss really is a foreign concept to us. That’s a subject for a different blog post I think – LOL)
But I guess I wonder: have we created a culture where among believers it is not really safe to mourn, even at a funeral? Have we relegated mourning to be something that should occur “out of view,” only after the official and public funeral and/or announcements have occurred, instead of something which is viewed as an appropriate thing to share with others particularly during funerals, the very sacred communal formality that was originally designed to bring people together to grieve and face the uncomfortable realities of human mortality, as community?
But more and more, our community has made grief unnacceptable; before funerals, it has become standard to collectively pray and focus on the possibility of the dead person being raised and not needing to be buried. While praying for a resurrection certainly has some degree of validity, I wonder how much we have codified Christian conversation after a death in this way, to avoid beginning the process of grieving and facing loss? And then, at the funeral, when talk of resurrection in the here and now subsides, we move straight to rejoicing – perhaps at least in our talk of raising someone from the dead at least we were able to admit we didn’t like the fact that they were dead. But now that the deceased person is still a corpse, we have to move past our even subtle expressions of wishing the person was still with us, and go straight to expressions of joy to drown even that out entirely.
At the very least, I do think we are too quick to shut down (whether it is eagerness to comfort, or our own uncomfortableness with loss, pain, and mortality) those who do express thoughts and feelings that align with loss after someone has died. This is a travesty, because deep and painful emotions are not our enemies – they are part of the richness and fullness of our hearts and of what it means to love, to be alive, and to be aware. Death, however, is spoken of as “an enemy” in the New Testament (1 Cor 15). Shall we not share emotions that represent it as such? I think that we need to rethink our “religious death script” to include feeling these emotions deeply, and being able to relate to others who have these emotions and thoughts in their hearts. “Mourn with those who mourn,” I believe needs again to become a verse that we treasure in community, even as we treasure every verse promising hope, resurrection, and communion with the Lord after earthly death.