The two-lane avenue led through a once-rural residential area, and was normally a quiet road, with just the occasional family station wagon on its way home, or a school bus filled with kids who were bound for several hours of captivity in the academic world. The funeral home around the corner seldom entered the thoughts of the folks living in the neighborhood, but once in awhile, the sleepiness of the area would be disturbed as a police cruiser would speed past, lights flashing, on its way to the intersection a few blocks to the west. There, it would stop traffic for several moments as the oncoming procession, with headlights ablaze (even in the bright sun of the afternoon), made its slow and tedious way through. Oncoming traffic respectfully pulled over and waited to move on until the entire line of cars passed.
Not so with the young urchins at one house along the way. At the first sight of the police cruiser, they would run to stand in the grass beside the road, awaiting the black Cadillac hearse which was sure to be close behind. As soon as it drew near, the boys began cavorting and turning cartwheels in the grass between the palm trees that grew tall and straight. Laughing and jumping, they played happily, as the sad procession eased along the avenue and then slowly moved out of sight. It was an odd custom, but one which was repeated whenever the funeral caravan was spotted.
I’d like, if you’ll allow it, to speak for a few moments about death tonight. It’s not a popular subject for polite conversation, is it? We’re uncomfortable talking about the end of life. We have so many euphemisms for the word “die”. In genteel discussions, we suggest that an individual passed on or possibly passed away. A certain fine lady I know of used to describe a family member’s death simply by saying that they went to heaven. With others, one could perish or expire or even be deceased. In coarser company, they would say that a person kicked the bucket or possibly even croaked. Trying to be a bit more poetic, we suggest that they cashed in their chips or bought the farm. However you look at it, we work extra hard to avoid saying that someone died.
Why is that? What makes us avoid talking directly about dying? No one denies that it takes place; we simply don’t want to actually speak about it. Oh, I know that there are people who are obsessed with the idea of death. Some individuals can’t speak of anything else. There was a young lady whose writing I once followed, simply because she posted links to some very nice music and classical poetry. After reading a few items of hers, it struck me that she wrote and posted of nothing else but death. Every piece of music was a dirge or requiem; every poem a tribute to some person who had died or a lament about death. It was obviously an unhealthy preoccupation that could lead to no good end. I quit reading her articles. Surely, somewhere in the midst of these two extremes, either never mentioning the subject or else dwelling incessantly on it, is the middle ground upon which we can walk and learn.
The Lovely Lady’s mother died last week. Her body died, that is. My spiritual beliefs assure me that her spirit is alive and living with her God. Over the last week, I have heard a good number of platitudes. I don’t disagree with any of them. She is better off. She is whole again. I wouldn’t want to make her live in that crippled and diseased body for one minute more. But. The “but” stands out in my mind. Most of us don’t want to go past the trite words and talk about death in any more graphic terms. It is a reticence born of long practice. And, if we had no hope past our last breath in this life, that might be understandable.
The phrase from the New Testament springs to mind: “Where, oh death, is thy victory? Where, oh grave, is thy sting?” That passage goes on to say that death has been swallowed up in victory, won by our Savior as He paid the price for our sins. I will not argue the truth of the words. I wonder though, if our reluctance to speak about death, our fear of the grave that follows death, shows how much we actually believe the words. It stings too much to speak of it in plain language. It almost appears that we believe death has defeated us when loved ones are taken. We seem, at least, to fear that same defeat for ourselves one day. As we speak in hushed tones and use our cryptic language to describe the event, we teach our children to fear as well.
The odd behavior of the urchins described earlier may be a lesson for those of us who have forgotten what it was like to know no fear of the future. There was a time in our lives when celebration was the norm, rather than a rare occurrence. We would live forever! Why should you stand and be solemn when you could dance? I will readily admit that today my face burns with embarrassment as I confess to you that I was one of those urchins. Today, when I consider the sorrow of the occupants of the limousine and cars following…mixed with anger at the oblivious children who danced at the approach of said cars…the shame I feel is almost palpable. Others who participated may not feel as I do, but I would like to go back and take a different course of action. That said, there is something to applaud in the unfettered spirit of those youths. Why should there not be a sense of celebration at the graduation of a soul which in life has grasped hold of the grace proffered by a loving Savior, and now has entered into His presence? If that is not cause for celebration, what is?
I won’t dwell on it–in fact, will probably not speak of it here for some time–but, I hope that you will feel the freedom to talk openly about death and its role in shaping our lives and those who will come after us. Don’t be embarrassed to admit it if you fear the unknown, but by the same token, don’t be embarrassed to celebrate when a saint, who has run the race faithfully and finished the course in fine form, is rewarded with rest and heaven. Our sorrow as we miss their presence surely is eclipsed by our joy at their going to their real home.
I’ll not be dancing at any funerals again. I do, however, hope that a little balance…sorrow offset with joy, our natural fear of the unknown weighed against the supernatural hope which lives inside of us…will give us the perspective intended.
And, even though you probably need no such reminder, it might be good to keep in mind that–
Our God is good, all of the time!
“Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive…We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life.”
(“Weight of Glory” a sermon by C.S.Lewis~Irish novelist/theologian~1898-1963)
“The walls we build around us to keep sadness out also keep out joy.”
(Jim Rohn~American motivational speaker)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.