Four years later I saw my mother dead, too. She also was in a casket. This time the funeral home workers got her face right and she appeared to be herself — but irretrievably asleep and unreachably distant.
I’ve been thinking about those experiences recently while preparing for the class I’ll teach at Ghost Ranch in July. I’m calling it “Death and Its Mysteries: Writing about the Journey,” and I’ll be encouraging participants to write essays, poems, sermons, Tweets, whatever about death so all of us can better understand it and, in turn, better understand life.
But let’s be honest. We don’t know — really know — about death. Oh, like pornography, we recognize death when we see it. And we might be able to intone some legal definition of it having to do with brain function or the inability to fog a mirror. But as for death itself and its meaning, we believe and hope and trust things about it rather than know about it.
Richard Selzer, in his wonderful little book, Letters to a Young Doctor, got it right: “It is all very well for the clergy to intone the certainty that Death is not the end, but just a new beginning, a ‘pleasant potion of immortality,’ as Sir Thomas Browne put it. But I myself admit to a bit of skepticism about that. After all, how do they know?”
Well, look, I don’t want to get into a convoluted discussion about epistemology. But Selzer was saying much the same thing the Apostle Paul was saying when he confessed that we see through a glass darkly.
It’s by faith, and not by sight, that we shout at death “Where is your sting?” And it’s by faith, not by sight, that we affirm our belief that God will redeem the whole creation and that death will be vanquished for all as it was by and for Jesus.
But in our death-denying American culture, we do almost anything we can to avert our eyes from real death. We fixate on fake death after fake death on TV. We avoid caring for and even touching the bodies of our dead, hiring professionals to do that for us. And as Thomas G. Long correctly notes in his compelling new book about death, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, we don’t even much want dead bodies at funerals. So we conduct disembodied memorial services instead.
Thus, we impede discussion about death, keeping ourselves ignorant and afraid of it even though our faith insists that God has conquered death and we need not fear.
My own death education began when I was five. My mother told me we were going to walk across the street to visit the family of an old friend of ours who had just died — a woman whose casket would be in that house.
I told Mom I didn’t want to go. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to see a naked dead lady.”
It was a logical conclusion for a five-year-old. Why, after all, did dead people need clothes?
Well, Mom told me I wouldn’t be seeing our friend naked, so I went. And she was right. Today I wonder how many five-year-olds have been educated about death. Not many, is my guess.
A few months ago I visited an old friend at a hospice. He was unresponsive and died a few hours later. Dozens of people have died in that same room, and its walls have absorbed the prayers of their families. Those walls, splattered with grief, may know more about death than do most of us.
But we should be learning about death. Where? In our churches, where hope lives.