The call came on a summer Saturday night 17 years ago. A teenager from the church I served had just drowned in a local lake. Rushing to the hospital, I was ushered into an emergency room cubicle where Justin’s body lay, a handsome, vibrant young man who, only an hour before, had the world at his fingertips.
I remember the unfathomable pain of that night. The gut-wrenching sobs of Justin’s mother, Marian, were forever seared into my heart. I remember simply sitting with Marian and her boyfriend, Dave, into the wee hours of the morning in a darkened house, reciting over and over, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” I remember the outpouring of love and care for Justin’s family from the church and community. And I remember 4 months later, when Justin’s name was read along with the other “Honored Dead” on All Saints Sunday and a stained glass window given in Justin’s memory was dedicated in a standing room only sanctuary.
This coming Sunday is All Saints Sunday, which is one of the most meaningful days in the Christian year for me. During worship many congregations will show pictures of church members who have died over the past year or light candles as their names are read. All Saints Sunday is not only a time to celebrate the communion of saints who have gone before us, but it is an occasion when the church universal speaks clearly to the world that God is at the center of both life and death.
How marvelous that All Saints Day itself, November 1, falls on a Sunday this year and that the New Testament lectionary lesson is the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. In a culture where instant media coverage of war and natural disasters can anesthetize us to the reality of death; in a country where rumors abound that “death panels” will lead to state-sanctioned euthanasia; in a society where death rituals have become sanitized so that the body or cremated remains are rarely present; and in a religious milieu where traditional funeral liturgies and sermons that witness to the life-changing power of the gospel take a back seat to light-hearted eulogies; in this culture, people of faith are called to reclaim both the mystery and power of the resurrection.
What can the church say to the world about death?
- Death is no respecter of persons. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were among Jesus’ best friends, yet Lazarus died. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) We all die.
- God suffers when we suffer. There is no more poignant verse in the Bible than John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.” Pain and tragedy cannot always be avoided in this world which God created, but we believe that God is present in our grief.
- Death is not the end but is a part of our lifelong journey to God. When one of my dear friends could no longer live alone in his home and moved to Clark Retirement Community, he said to me, “What a nice way to move toward God.” In the Lazarus story, Jesus says to Martha, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26)
- Ultimately, all of human life belongs to God. Paul gives us this promise in Romans 14, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” God’s grace knows no boundaries and extends to all, no exceptions.
- Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ is to be present with those who are dying. We represent Christ when we listen non-anxiously, love unreservedly, are a source of faith and strength in the face of grief, and witness to the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”
What can the church contribute to practices surrounding death and funerals?
- Sensitive and compassionate conversations about end of life issues help people make important decisions in light of their faith. Although doctors play a role in these discussions, the participation of clergy and lay persons is critical as well.
○ When is it time for Mom sell her house and move into a retirement home?
○ When should we stop aggressive cancer treatment?
○ Should we order expensive tests that will not change the ultimate outcome of an illness?
- We can sponsor a series of Sunday school classes on death and dying, including theological reflection and bringing in resource people to provide information about retirement homes, Hospice, living wills and health care powers of attorney, organ donation and estate planning.
- We can develop and urge church members to fill out a form where they can express their wishes for their funeral or memorial service.
- Pastors and lay care teams can become familiar with the services and alternatives provided by local funeral homes and be available to help grieving families make wise decisions.
- Since the church is our spiritual home, we can encourage parishioners to use the church for times of visitation, funerals and memorial services, and gatherings afterwards.
- If you have green space on your church property, consider developing a memorial garden for ashes. If you don’t have enough land, consider constructing a columbarium in an unused space inside the church building.
- There is value in providing an opportunity for loved ones and friends to view the body before it is cremated or buried. Having the body or ashes present at the service of death and resurrection enables us to embrace both our grief and an expectant hope as we send our loved off on their journey back to God.
- Sewing prayer quilts, bringing food to the house, and keeping in close contact with people who are grieving are tangible ways to bear one another’s burdens.
What have I learned from participating in hundreds of funerals over the years?
- Pastors and other pastoral care givers are healing partners with God. Claim your call!
- Our calm presence at the time of death can make the difference between hope and despair, grace and fear, and movement toward rather than away from God.
- None of us can walk though the valley of the shadow of death without the compassionate support of others who listen without judgment and help us grieve in a healthy way.
- Those who have experienced incredible tragedy can become wounded healers themselves. Justin’s parents eventually adopted a child and have become a source of healing and hope for others.
- Churches practice evangelism and play a vital role in their community by opening up their building for non-member funerals and offering funeral luncheons.
The most important part of John 11 is Jesus’ words to his friends after he commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.” As we prepare for All Saints Sunday and ponder the mystery of life and death, Jesus invites us to shed the graveclothes which bind our lives and prevent us from drawing close to God. Jesus also challenges us to let go of all the things which separate us from him and hinder us from fully living the kind of life God would have us lead.
Do you have a faith which will allow you to hand your loved ones over to God, sure in the promises of eternal life? Do you believe in a Lord who will one day invite you to let go of your earthly life and will welcome you into the joy of life everlasting? Can you let go of your fears, doubts and pride and put your entire trust in Jesus? “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. Do you believe this?