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by Brian Keepers
Director Woody Allen once quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Allen’s words came to mind this past Wednesday when I sat among a small group of pastors eating lunch with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.
McEntyre is a writer and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkley, and is staying here, in Holland, Michigan, for two weeks as a writer in residence at Western Seminary. We were given a copy of McEntyre’s new book A Faithful Farewell to read ahead of time—a beautifully written book of short meditations arising out of her experience as a hospice volunteer. I highly recommend it.
The focus of our conversation was on what it means to do ministry in a culture that denies and avoids death. So many people in our society would resonate with Woody Allen’s sentiment. But I’m not sure he’s being entirely honest when he claims he doesn’t fear death. Don’t we all fear it in some way? Is this not why we work so hard to prolong life and keep death at bay? The truth is that we do fear death—the uncertainty of it, the vulnerable and often painful process of dying, the way in which it forces us to confront our own mortality.
McEntyre said something in this lunch conversation that has been turning in me all week. She identified the curious paradox that while our culture has a tendency to fear and deny death, there exists “an appetite behind the fear,” a need for someone to break beneath the fear to help us face death and dying with honesty and courage. People are tired of the euphemisms and superficiality, says McEntyre.
Perhaps this explains why two of the bestselling books right now are about death and dying—Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (See Debra Rienstra’s account of Being Mortal, last spring here on The Twelve.) Or the emergence of “death cafes” springing up in urban centers where people gather to drink tea, eat cake and talk honestly about dying
Christians have something to say about this topic of death and dying. Although in my fifteen years as a pastor, I’ve found there to be just as much resistance within the church when it comes to death and dying as there is in the broader culture. How many times have I had families insist that we not call it a “funeral” but a “celebration of life” service? “Make it a celebration, Pastor,” they say. “Our loved one wouldn’t want us to be sad but to be happy.” Of course entangled with this denial of death is a denial of grief. Over the years I’ve noticed fewer and fewer families want the casket to be present in the sanctuary when we gather for the funeral. I’m even seeing a growing trend of doing away with the dead body at the visitation.
I attended a visitation a few months ago of an elderly woman who was not a member of my church but whose children and grandchildren are. There was no casket, just a display of pictures from this woman’s long life. Her son, a man in his sixties, explained to me, “We didn’t want an open casket. We want to remember my mom as she was—so happy and full of life.”
He then told me this story. When he was a little boy, his grandfather died and they held the visitation in the home on the family farm. It wasn’t uncommon that the casket would remain in the home overnight until the funeral the next day at the church. After all the guests had left, he wandered into the room where his grandfather’s casket was, and he saw that his grandmother had crawled into the casket next to her deceased husband and was weeping over his body. It was traumatic to see his grandmother drawing so close to death and grieving so openly. He vowed when his own parents died he would never have an open casket. In fact, as soon as death came, he would have the body removed as far away as possible.
When I first heard that story, it initially hit me as a strange—this grieving woman crawling into the casket next to her husband’s body. But the more I have thought about it, the more beauty I find in it. Here was a woman who was likely afraid of death, and yet when it happened, she dared to move toward it in all of its physicality.
I wonder if one of the things going on beneath the surface of our fear and denial of death is a lingering Gnosticism that is alive and well in both the church and the broader culture. One of the reasons we are so uneasy with death and dying is because it’s such a physical act. To honestly face death is to have to deal with the body. And to deal with the body is to deal with our own limitations. As we age, joints stiffen and hearing dulls and eyesight weakens and energy wanes and the mind gets foggy.
We’ve always preferred the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul to the biblical vision of the resurrection of the body. As long as the body is just a disposable husk or an inconsequential house for the real stuff of the soul, then we don’t ever have to really deal with the physical nature of death. Or so we think. But if we can’t face the body-ness of dying, then how can we ever embrace the body-ness of living? “We don’t have bodies,” Frederich Buechner reminds us. “We are bodies.”
As we enter into Holy Week, I’m struck by how much we have to deal with Jesus’s body in this final week of his life. Jesus is not some divine spirit who just appeared human; no, the Second Person of the Trinity took up real flesh and blood. A woman interrupts a dinner party and pours out an expensive bottle of perfume, anointing Jesus’s body for burial. Jesus takes bread in the upper room and says, “This is my body. Take and eat in remembrance of me.” It was his beaten and dead body that was lifted off the cross and put in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, who cared for it and wrapped it in linen and put it in a tomb. And when the women went to the tomb on that first Easter morning, they were going to anoint their Lord’s body. It was his body that was gone when they found the stone rolled away, and his body that would appear to the disciples, inviting Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and side. It was his body that ascended to the right hand of the Father and it is his body that will come again.
There’s a line from a song by one of my favorite bands, Mumford and Sons, that goes like this: “In these bodies we will live, and in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, there you invest your life.” Perhaps facing our own mortality and learning to die in these bodies and to be bodily present with others who are dying just may give us a clue into how to actually live faithfully in these bodies as well.
I ask your blessing on this body in its brokenness.
I thank you for every delight it has given me,
and from the lessons I have learned from its pain,
for its fearful, wonderful, and intricate network
of nerves and rivers of blood,
for brain and heart, eyes and ears,
and hands now open before you
to receive whatever comes.
Touch me in my places of pain, and open me to your healing.
Connect me in this time to all who prepare for death.
I pray for them as others pray for me.
Prayer by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.