All Souls 2011
Almost always, when I go to visit people who have just been bereaved, I find that one of the things they most need to do is to talk about what has just happened, how their loved one came to die. If death came after a long illness, they’ll often tell me about the diagnosis and the treatments, the medical care their loved one received. If death came suddenly or unexpectedly it might be how they heard the news which sticks in their mind, or the days leading up to it, days that seemed ordinary at the time, but are now very precious. When we’ve just lost someone, it is natural for the process of dying, which is different for everyone, to loom large and for us to need to tell the story – sometimes again and again. Being close to someone around the time of their death can be a beautiful and peaceful experience, but it can also be profoundly disturbing, leaving us with images we find hard to shift, fears or regrets which we find hard to leave behind.
One of the most important things a funeral does is to help us set those sometimes painful memories into a wider context. We have a chance to remember the person we’ve lost as they were in happier, better times rather than just in that difficult final stretch, to reclaim a lifetime of memories – not just that last one: memories of first loves, of family life, of professional achievements, of gifts given and received. We have a chance to remind ourselves that that last memory was just one short moment – the end of life isn’t the whole of life. And we have a chance to grasp hold of the fact that whatever suffering there was at the end is now over and that they are at peace.
I was particularly aware of this need at the recent 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Centre. The site of the twin towers has been made into a memorial to those who died on 9/11, but I wonder if the form that memorial takes will turn out to be wise in the long run. The deep square footprints where the towers stood have been transformed into giant pools, with water pouring constantly over their edges to fill them up. The imagery is clear. The falling water recalls those awful images of the towers falling, and the people who fell from them too. It’s immensely powerful, but there’s a danger, it seems to me, that it simply preserves that one awful hour as if it was eternal, as if the towers and the people are still falling, and falling forever, and that is neither true nor helpful. 9/11 was awful; the families who lost relatives will inevitably go on grieving, and all of us have been affected by it. But the fear and the suffering of those who died is over. They are at peace and ultimately safe, and that is the thing we need to affirm. I hope that someday someone will feel ready to turn off the waterfalls and let the water lie still.
The Bible readings we heard today were written by people living through times of trouble, but both of them speak confidently of the peace that lies beyond our pain. The prophet Isaiah wrote at a time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Their city of Jerusalem had been destroyed in front of their eyes amid awful violence. Yet Isaiah reassures them that this is not the end. A time will come when they are restored to their own land, when God will “swallow up death for ever and wipe away all tears.”
St Paul endured persecution, and was eventually executed for his faith; he wasn’t naïve or unrealistic about suffering. But despite all the awful things that happened around him, he could write that he was convinced “that neither death nor life... nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are ultimately safe, he says, because we are loved by God and held in his hands.
The Bible contains many different images of heaven – for some it’s a garden, for some a golden city, for others a place to come home to. There is no definitive picture – these images are all metaphors, not descriptions. But there is a constant theme that runs through them all, and it is that there’s no need to fear, that those we love, and we ourselves in time, will have eternal peace with God.
The Czech poet Vladimir Holan made the same point in his own way in the poem we heard. He wasn’t impressed by the idea of trumpets and grandeur. For him heaven was waking up at home, to the sounds of his mother simply going about all the tasks that went with the dawn of a new day.
Death is never an easy experience to be close to. Even if it is peaceful and expected it can leave us feeling disturbed and anxious. Watching someone we love slip away from us is bound to be painful. But Christian faith affirms that beyond the moment of dying there is a peace which is past our understanding, a light that can’t be extinguished, a love that can’t be destroyed, and hands that will never let us go. Into those hands we commend those we love and see no longer, and ourselves as well.
Resurrection by Vladimir Holan 1905-1980
(translated from the Czech by George Theiner)
Is it true that after this life of ours we shall one day be awakened
by a terrifying clamour of trumpets?
Forgive me, God, but I console myself
That the beginning and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced by the crowing of the cock.
After that we’ll remain lying down a while…
The first to get up
will be Mother…We’ll hear her
quietly laying the fire,
quietly putting the kettle on the stove
and cosily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We’ll be home once more.