This past Friday, two days before Christmas, I was at Forest Lawn officiating a graveside service at the request of a friend. The weather was warm and beautiful; the air was still and serene. Forest Lawn calls itself a “memorial park,” a peaceful place with rolling green hills dotted by shade trees. Here and there, wreaths and colorful miniature Christmas trees adorned the graves where families had come to share the holiday with their departed loved ones. It was a tranquil setting for what had to be done.
I shared memories, given to me in advance by the family, of the spunky and beloved woman who had been mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to those gathered. We listened to songs she had chosen, songs that spoke of her anticipation of the wonder of meeting Jesus face to face. I spoke of our shared hope of heaven and the resurrection of the body, of seeds planted to bloom again in God’s springtime (e.g., 1 Cor 15:37-44). We prayed together, in accordance with that vision.
Then came the actual interment. It was an awkward moment. Our memorial service was essentially done, except for a final prayer; but the crew was not yet present to lower the casket. We had to wait. Family members began to stir and speak quietly amongst themselves. Eventually, the crew trundled up with their tools and equipment in tow.
I had spoken of the biblical hope of a physical resurrection, that our worn out bodies would one day be raised to glorious new life. But I was suddenly struck by the concrete earthiness of the burial itself: men in hard hats; steel cables; a Forest Lawn employee in a suit and white gloves holding a power tool. Somehow, it all seemed incongruous against the neatly manicured backdrop of the park-like setting, or the quiet reflectiveness of our prayers.
Was there something I wasn’t getting? I know that we have bodies by God’s good design, and that our future hope is also an embodied one. Then why should the actual burial seem somehow out-of-place? Isn’t that just a natural consequence of our bodily existence, one that we should accept gracefully and in hope?
Yes. And no.
There are those who would have us believe that death is just a fact of life. Why do people fear death? they wonder. It’s just a biological process, and we are merely biological beings. And truth be told, there are times in which we do accept death in this way, especially when it comes relatively peacefully and at the end of a long life.
I started this blog after my father’s death a few months ago, as a way of coming to terms with his passing. He had been declining gradually in recent years, and lived nearly to his 94th birthday. I remember his last moments in the ICU. His frail and sallow body was being kept alive by an assortment of tubes and devices–IV, respirator, morphine drip. His face would sometimes contort in that familiar scowl of his, as if he were registering a personal complaint.
The doctors gently let us know when there was nothing left to be done, and taking him off life support would be a mercy. And it felt like a mercy to see his face relax, his labored mechanical breathing at an end. His passing was relatively peaceful, and the family accepted it tearfully but without question.
A similar peacefulness seemed to attend last week’s graveside service. She had lived to 95, one of many relatives who had survived almost to the century mark. Hers had been a full life, and her passing seemed an acceptable end to her suffering.
But we are reminded daily that death does not always come that way. Local and world news, the prayer requests of friends and family–all of these force us to remember the tragic side of death. I have been following the blog of a former colleague’s daughter-in-law; her husband, my colleague’s son, is dying of brain cancer. I’ve seen this happen before. It always feels like a cosmic injustice when a parent has to bury a child. In such situations, death is clearly the uninvited enemy.
Sometimes, we seem to preach the gospel as if death were simply God’s retribution for our messing up, and eternal life the reward for finally making the right decision, the decision to believe in Jesus. But this partial truth, I think, can easily be misunderstood without the deeper recognition that eternal life was what God always intended for us in the first place.
I confess that it’s only recently that I’ve noticed the importance of the image of the tree of life in the book of Revelation, as if bringing the story full circle from the tragedy of the Fall. I believe that we misread Genesis if we think God simply barred Adam and Eve from the tree of life to punish them for their sin. God wanted them to enjoy eternal life–but on his terms, not theirs. To eat from the tree on their terms would have meant eternal rebellion and self-deception, not life by the definition of fellowship with God.
Death, therefore, is not merely a fact of life–not when viewed from the standpoint of the destiny God intended for us. There are times when we will experience the death of our loved ones in more merciful ways. But that mercy is not identical to our hope.
We can remain calm in the face of death, because we have the hope of resurrection. We may be grateful for the end of physical debilitation and suffering. We may welcome the opportunity to turn the page on a long and stressful chapter of uncertainty.
But we need not “accept” death itself. We should never become so accustomed to hearing about it that we forget its tragic nature. To mourn death is neither faithless nor hopeless, for death is always an offense against the life God intended. Hope that is passive in the face of death, therefore, is not true hope. We must make a space for mourning, for it is out of that mourning that our longing for redemption, for restoration–for resurrection–springs.
I don’t know how many funerals I will be called upon to do before my own life on this present earth is done. But I hope I never get too comfortable doing them.