Three weeks ago my 84-year-old father passed away. He prepared me well in advance for his death. In November 1963, in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I asked my father, “Daddy, are you going to die someday?” He said, as he he tenderly tucked me into bed, “Yes, we are all going to die some day, but that’s going to be a long time from now. In the meantime, you have nothing to worry about.”
As a U.S. Army officer serving in Vietnam and Laos, he had several brushes with death. As a family we knew the possibility existed of dad becoming a wartime casualty. Years later in 2012 as his health deteriorated more significantly, the grief process of losing my dad began. All of this, of course, has caused me to reflect on my own mortality. The classic refrain of the psalmist thus echoes through my mind:
A helpful resource in this bittersweet season has been Rob Moll’s The Art of Dying (IVP 2010). Moll’s book is a candid, much needed read for those living near the approaching death of loved ones. Particularly helpful are Moll’s reflections on the best way to arrange funerals for family and loved ones. Needless to say, I would include my own funeral here.
The paragraphs below have ministered to me.
“A Christian funeral is more than a memorial. The service, of course, does indeed remember the person who died. This is an important piece of a funeral. It honors the loved one and allows the bereaved to publicly address that person’s significance in their lives and the life of the community. We make a big deal of something that is a big deal. Remembering someone . . . through a funeral service is a way of saying, ‘He was important. His life was meaningful, and he will be dearly missed.’ Saying so also implies that all of our lives have meaning and significance, a fact easily forgotten amid the grief following a loss.”
“But a Christian funeral does more than that. One funeral director I worked with said he served families best, allowing them to mourn and grieve in the most healthy way, when he was able to bring together all the traditional elements of a visitation and funeral. This allows grieving people to accomplish two things: (1) worship God who–contrary to our immediate experience of mourning a dead loved one–has defeated death, and (2) reknit a community that has been fractured.”
“In some ways a funeral is simply an excuse to publicly get together. Gathering around food, at a funeral home or cemetery, or at-home visitations is an end in itself. A healthy community and the recovering bereaved simply need to be together. Funerals can be done both well and inexpensively, the purpose is not to get it done cheaply. Singing hymns, reading Scripture and hearing God’s Word preached–all with an ear toward the purpose of a funeral–is how the church displays its hope. By doing so the congregation not only gives witness to the rest of the world, but it also serves to reaffirm our resurrection hope” (125-126).
Is it ever too early to think about death, funerals, and how the church should weep with those who weep? Probably not, but it’s never easy to think about. Approaching and embracing deep pain of that sort requires reflection that does not come naturally.
It seems that we live most authentically when we live in light of death. Ps. 90:12 and Ephesians 5:15-16 remind us to “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” and to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”