A memorial table stands in the lobby of the retirement community’s main building. It’s next to a large grandfather clock that chimes the passing of time, an appropriate reminder for all us aging residents.
I pass the table every day when I leave the building, and I always stop to see whose photo has been newly placed there. That’s how we find out who has died during the night or in the past few days. In a community of over 400 residents, there are usually a few photos on the table. Sometimes more. Death is a presence in this place, the shadow beneath the trees.
In the past four days I have attended three memorial services. That’s too many. In spite of my being a believer in Jesus and in life beyond the grave, my spirit is heavy this morning. I acknowledge, along with the Apostle Paul, that death is an enemy.
Paul also says that while we grieve, we don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), and I witnessed that in all three services. I guess that’s why we now call them “memorial services” or “celebrations of a life,” rather than funerals. Even so, I still sense death as an enemy and I can’t shake the sadness I feel.
The service on Saturday celebrated the life of one of the residents of this community, a man in his eighties who had lived a full and rich life, who had given himself away in ministry to others. His wife is my close friend. Many people attended and we did, indeed, celebrate this life. One of the speakers said, “It’s easier to face grief when the loved one has lived a sweet life, a beautiful life of service.” A sweet life. In this case, that was certainly true. Listening to the testimonies of his wife and kids, hearing a summary of his passions and contributions, I felt privileged to have known this man. It seemed like he had fulfilled his life purpose. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of thy Lord.”
But now comes the time for my friend to feel the absence of someone who shared her life for over 50 years. Gratitude will mix with grief, and I know she will face both with maturity. She will have people who accompany her, as well as times of silence, alone before God. Not an easy road.
Sunday’s memorial service was similar, but also very different. We were celebrating the life of our nephew Josh who died at age 43, after a six-month painful bout with cancer. Josh leaves a pregnant wife and ten children between the ages of 4 and 20, all of whom live at home.
The service was similar in that it was upbeat and definitely celebratory. The sanctuary was packed, with late-comers watching on a screen in the fellowship hall. I’m not sure the word death was even used as people talked about how inspirational Josh’s short life had been. The service went on for two and one-half hours, and I counted 14 mini-sermons. None of the people assigned to give a two-minute testimonial could contain themselves. I especially was moved by the words of his sister and his wife (who only spoke because Josh had asked her to before he died). But I confess, I was beginning to squirm and look at my watch.
The reception afterwards was noisy as people greeted one another, ate together, and laughed. Josh’s wife, children, and parents were all warm and grateful for our presence, their good cheer giving evidence of their belief that Josh now lives in the presence of Jesus. But it all seemed bittersweet to me. The way forward for Josh’s young family will be challenging, to say the least, and they will need (and have) many to walk alongside. Again, not an easy road.
And then I remember the service that took place last Thursday before the other two. It followed a surprise death. The previous weekend, we got one of those dreaded middle-of-the-night phone calls. It was a dear friend, Felix, calling from Bolivia telling us that his daughter Orfa (our god-daughter) was eight hours into a heart surgery that was supposed to have taken four hours. Felix was crying, asking us to pray. For the next three days, that’s what we did. We talked with Felix and his wife Clemi two or three times each day. Orfa died early Wednesday morning.
As is the custom (and law) in Bolivia, a memorial service was held in the church that very day (longer even then Josh’s service), and people were permitted to weep and publicly mourn, also a Bolivian custom, even among Christians. The burial service took place the next day, and Felix loaned his phone to someone who recorded it on WhatsApp. So, we were able to “be there” in real time. A Christian band accompanied people as they sang hymns. A few family members spoke over the grave, included Orfa’s husband. While there were no weeping and wailing, both sorrow and hope covered the event.
We were there 45 years ago when Orfa was born. We helped dedicate her to God in a church service. We have accompanied her (sometimes long distance) through her growing up years, rejoiced with the family when she received her doctorate in pharmacology, and were delighted to meet her husband, also a medical doctor. As young professionals, their future seemed bright.
Am I wrong to consider the deaths of Josh and Orfa as tragic? In no way can I believe that these deaths were God’s will, as some might say. The belief that anything that happens to a Christian is God’s will came into the church with Augustine in the 4th century A.D., and this doctrine is debated by many as heresy. I would agree. We live in a world where spiritual battle is real and, because God gives people free will, sometimes evil triumphs. And sometimes God intervenes; we call it a miracle.
While not everything that happens is God’s will, we believe that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 12:28). Evil does not have the last word. Death does not have the last word. God does.
I don’t intend to get too theological here, but another thing I wonder is if maybe lament and mourning shouldn’t be part of our public memorials. While celebration and hope are real values, so are pain and sadness. Is it necessarily right that we rejoice in public but weep alone?
I wonder a lot of things, especially when my heart is heavy.