The Living and the Dead
By PAT MARRIN
If Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men. 1 Cor. 15:18
The close of the church year each November is our collective invitation to reflect on the fragility and finality of our lives, all our human enterprises and even our way of making life meaningful. We take up the challenge of the end of the story: end times, apocalypse and the last things. We confront death.
If ever there was a moment when the church must mean something to people, it is when a death has occurred and the community gathers for the funeral.
The church comforts the bereaved first by acknowledging the reality of their loss, connecting it to the shared experience of loss that comes to all of us. Then the rituals and gestures, the symbols and stories must do their work. The church doors open to admit the casket. Friends carry it, the community welcomes the body of a beloved member, embraces the family, holding those who grieve within the affirmation that death is not the end. The priest sprinkles holy water over the casket to remind the living that baptism is both the first and the most decisive sacrament. “In baptism you died with Christ and rose with him to new life.” A flowing white cloth is spread over the casket. The community processes to the front of the church, where the Easter candle is positioned as a sign over the body that even death cannot extinguish the promise of eternal life in Christ.
The fact of death
But faith must hold its own against this most intractable fact of all. The shock of death has its hour, and the reality of it must be absorbed. Who has not felt the bottom drop out of all human hope in a hospital corridor as a doctor or nurse delivers the bad news? “I’m so sorry, we did everything we could; he’s gone, he left us shortly after midnight, passed on, breathed his last, slipped away, died.” Dead. We view the body in the room, a battle scene, the tubes and wires disconnected, the ashen color, sunken temples, open mouth, glassy stare. A whole lifetime compressed into this. You were young once, a favorite child, a high school athlete, a soldier off to war, a devoted husband and father, a model citizen, a great storyteller. How can you not be among us?
The silence after death creates a vacuum we try to fill with memories, words, expressions of meaning that might console us. It’s better this way. She’s no longer suffering. Some good will come of it. He’s at peace.
But whether we engage the loss slowly or quickly, the reality is fixed, like the time of death, the date on the memorial card, the gravestone. Someone we knew is gone; their unique who-ness no longer animates a body. We cannot get in touch with him or her by driving to another city, calling a phone number. They are no longer among us. Gone, with no forwarding address.
Cemeteries provide a place we can visit, a kind of exit point in much the same way hospital maternity floors are ports of entry. All of us coming full circle. An old bed may hold the distinction of being the precise place the same individual was conceived and where they died. The passion for relics of saints or celebrities is that these make tangible the fact of their existence. The faded photograph, the old chair, a dress hanging in the closet. She was really here.
Cemeteries hold two choruses, two songs proclaimed from the headstones and monuments, simple lyrics recorded in stone about the mysterious interval between birth and death. The first is urgent: Live fully, without reserve; there is so little time to waste, and so much to the gift of life. Emily, the young girl immortalized by Thornton Wilder in “Our Town,” leads the chorus. “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me” … “Goodbye to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you.”
In cemeteries, a second message confronts us. Death is irretrievable, undeniable loss, and the physical fact of it is an assault on sentimentality and our attempts to immortalize ourselves and others. Every measure of distinction and self-importance is blurred in death. The archbishop in his vestments has no advantage over the shopkeeper, the seamstress, the suicide. Saints and sinners molder together, collapsing in their vaults beneath the piled earth.
Which song will we hear? Cemeteries are where the hardest question of all is posed. St. Paul understood that here was the crucial divide, one dark interval from which two paths diverge, one to faith, the other to despair. The facts are on the side of despair, row upon row of graves. Mourners are only visiting, now fleeing to the warmth in their cars, famished for the meal in the church hall after the hard work of saying goodbye. What evidence is there that we can bury our dead, even glance over at the plot reserved for ourselves, and still come away hopeful? Hopeful of what?
A personal story
In my mid-30s, I entered, as many have, into the thick of a personal mid-life search for renewal. I was fortunate to be in Cincinnati, living in a downtown parish and enrolled in a three-month program for spiritual directors. My companions in the program included a young Jesuit who was my director and who, before the program was over, would tell me he was leaving the priesthood to marry, and a young sister named Nancy who would soon learn she was dying of cancer. During one of our group sessions, she looked at me and said that she was praying for me and then burst into tears. It was a startling and extravagant gesture, to be wept over by a woman alert to something in me that I could not see in myself.
Near the retreat center was an old cemetery and park on the banks of the Little Miami River. I recall a crisp, sunny autumn afternoon when the trees were in full display. I often walked alone through the park trying to get at the questions I was carrying. Mortal fear, persistent self-doubt, irrational feelings of regret, a sense of failure in relationships. I was in turmoil, self-assured on the surface but utterly empty within. I struggled to keep going, but something deep inside had been severed; I felt as though I had been unplugged at the source.
On this particular day I sat on the bluff looking out over the fast-moving river below and watched the bright yellow and rust-colored leaves release and twirl down to the water. My life was in this simple parable of the seasons. I was part of an anonymous pilgrimage millions had made before me, millions would make after me. I was destined for the cemetery. The inescapable question was whether I had lived at all in the short time allotted me on this earth.
Looking back from the safety of firmer ground, I can imagine now that for a moment then, I had entertained the darkest temptation of all. Surrounded by autumn beauty, full of myself and the feelings I had fought back for so long, I stood on the bluff and knew that I could, if I chose to, simply step off the edge into the river below. I had the power to decide this and the freedom to follow through. I picked out a single yellow leaf and invested it with my own pitiable story. I watched it twist and turn as it descended. When it hit the water I would follow. The impulse was there, the safety catch was off.
But, inches from the surface, the leaf stopped, hovered in mid air, then leapt up again and began to climb. Of the hundreds of falling leaves that afternoon, I had selected a yellow butterfly.
The challenge, it turns out, is not to explain death but to accept resurrection, an affirmation of life so deeply placed in our very being that to deny it requires turning off what is most real in us, an inner switch where all our experiences converge, where grace intercepts our falling nature and tells us we are meant for living.
My small miracle stunned me with its utter improbability, like a secret I could never tell anyone, directed to me so personally that I had to go forward now on the simple beauty of its message: “Choose life.”
So like the stories we tell at funerals: Martha confronting Jesus over the loss of Lazarus, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the resurrection of Jesus himself. Mary is at the tomb. The tomb is in a garden. The gardener speaks to the woman, calls her by name. Through her tears, she knows who it is, but is still blind to the meaning of what has happened. The beginning of the story — Genesis — is reprised and then resolved, for her, for all of us. A couple on the road to Emmaus contemplates the shocking death of someone they had placed all their hopes in. They are joined by a stranger who breaks bread with them and sends them running to announce to the community that he is not dead, but alive. Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, the living and the dead, the community longs to somehow share what it knows by heart, what has happened and is happening to it in Christ.
Essential to our faith is the belief that Jesus has fulfilled the scriptures, completed the work of the Law and the Prophets. He is the resolution of history. He appears now as the end of the story revealed to us who are still in the middle. Death has been denied ultimate power. Sin no longer sets the limits of human potential. Love is now the first and final act.
A leap of faith
Years later, a friend and mentor told me he thought the most beautiful lines in all of English literature were in the final paragraph of James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” I quote it below so you can judge for yourself its evocative power. The main character, Gabriel, has just learned of his wife’s enduring memory of a young boy named Michael Furey, who had kept vigil in the rain beneath her window the night before she departed for her convent school. She later learns that he has died. Whether of the cold that night or from consumption, she tells her husband, “I think he died for me.” She weeps, then falls asleep, and Gabriel ponders the mystery of this secret love that has surpassed all other loves in her life, even his.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It
had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver
and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had
come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the
newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was
falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills,
falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly
falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too,
upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael
Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and
headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly
through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their
last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
In the beauty of such moments, in literature as in life, we must decide what we believe. If we stand with the community of faith, we will celebrate a mystery we cannot deny and everyone must engage sooner or later. One thing is certain. The end of the story will determine how we live the rest of it.
Pat Marrin is editor of Celebration. This article first appeared in the Nov 2010 issue. Visit our Website at www.celebrationpublications.org.