Part of Christian life is preparing for death

  • October 26, 2007
A rather superficial movie, a murder mystery, struck a deeper note with me. The movie was about a group of people on an island holiday. Every so often, one of them would disappear, never to be seen again. They didn’t know who would be taken next, or when, how, why or where the person went; but they knew they were all subject to the mysterious phenomenon. Not so different from real life, except that in the movie, the mystery got solved.

I wonder, sometimes, how we do it, live each day as if we’ll be here forever, though we all know none of us will. Often we simply turn our faces from death, hiding and locking it away as quickly as we can, and living as though it didn’t exist. Even funerals are getting to be out of style, as are dead bodies; frequently, cremation, and afterwards a memorial service with no body in sight. A simple strategy, death denial.  

Death is becoming one of the tools in our toolbox, one of the array of “lifestyle choices” we like to think we have: when I conclude that my life, or the life of someone I know, is no longer worth the pain, then I choose to end it. Another simple strategy, but with the opposite effect to that intended. Rather than allowing us to live more graciously and less painfully, it leaves us fearing, cautious and constricted.

One autumn, I visited eastern Europe. On Nov. 2, my companions in the city of Lviv took me to a cemetery, a Catholic tradition for the feast day of All Souls. It was a pleasant, cool day, the last leaves just parting from their trees. The cemetery was beautiful, filled with lovely trees and handsome stonework. A statue of a young woman in flowing robes was so lithe and graceful that it left us, the living, feeling heavy and stodgy by comparison. A poem carved in the stone expressed the sorrow of her equally youthful husband. Far from being exceptional, this tombstone was nestled in amongst many such, stretching past the limit of sight.  

The most remarkable feature of the cemetery was that it overflowed with the living as well as the dead. Nor were they merely jogging through, or walking their dogs. Everywhere people were visiting, chatting, picnicking.

Physical death, Christianity teaches, is final and irreversible, a real, definitive change which can never be undone, a threshold which can be crossed in only one direction. Our liturgy says that Christ has conquered death. What meaning can that possibly have for the young husband who has just lost his beautiful bride and will never live the life they anticipated together? One of the most terrible aspects of death, from the vantage point of Earth, is its remorselessness. We long, sometimes, to once again touch the hand, watch the smile, talk over the little things of the day. The dead no longer belong in our day-to-day world, where we must be, and that is one of the great divides.  

But my experience of the mingling together of the living and the dead, in Lviv, touches something real. The veil between this life and the next has been torn open, and we’ve witnessed eternity pouring through. It’s hard for us to see, or to know what we are seeing. Part of life as a Christian is preparing for death — which also means preparing for the life beyond death.

I’ve found, sometimes, that the dead can be more alive than the living. Theresa suffered for years over her absence from her mother’s deathbed. She and her sisters had been keeping vigil in the hospital room, as their beloved mother, long a widow, lay dying.  “Loving and beloved,” they decided to write on her tombstone. They knew their mother as a strong, gentle woman of deep faith, and they’d been at her bedside all during Holy Week. Late on Holy Saturday, exhausted, they went home for a meal, although the nurse offered Theresa a cot at her mother’s bedside. They received news of her death just as they were finishing their meal, very early on the morning of Easter Sunday.

For 25 years, Theresa carried the sorrow of leaving her mother to die alone. Last Easter Sunday, while praying for her mother, she heard her mother’s voice: “You are forgiven.” Theresa’s tears were a witness to the movement of her heart, in being able to receive this forgiveness. I suspect that her mother had been saying these words every day of the 25 years.  

The only response to our fear and sorrow of the mystery of death is love. “Love is strong as death,” sings the Song of Songs. Love is stronger than death, cry the Gospels.

On All Souls Day, Nov. 2 we are asked to pray for the dead. Why not also listen to the dead and hear their prayers for us?