Recently, I attended a funeral of a young man, a relative of mine, who had been killed in an automobile accident. He was 18, had recently graduated from high school and was just beginning adult life. A death like his is hard. How does one begin the impossible task of understanding such an accident? What words, if any, have use as consolation? When someone is struck down when life is really just beginning, even words about resurrection and eternal life can sound hollow. A compulsory disconsolateness takes over. One can only, as the author of Lamentations puts it, put one’s mouth to the dust and wait. Later, after some time and healing, words about resurrection and fuller life can begin to take on more meaning.
Perhaps it is best not to speak too much at funerals. Our stuttering and our inarticulateness perhaps say what needs to be said: “I am here. I care. I’ll suffer with you; but, for now, there is nothing that can be said!” And yet there is a need for words, some words; words which help clarify our relationship to the person we are burying and to the God we believe in. When someone close to us dies, especially a young person, we experience more than simple shock and hurt. We are left as well with feelings of guilt and fear. At one level, we feel guilty because we go on living while someone else dies. At another level, a more painful one, we feel guilty about the incompleteness of our relationship with the person who has died, even if that relationship was essentially a good one. There is a painful incompleteness in all relationships and nowhere is this more felt than at funerals. When someone dies, immediately there is a guilt: “I should have done more! If only…If only there was more time. If only certain things had been said, or not said.” There is the feeling that, given more time, we could have had a more complete relationship, affection could have been expressed more deeply, a more complete understanding and reconciliation could have been achieved. Now everything seems frozen in this state of incompleteness.
Coupled with this, especially if the one who died is young, there are feelings of fear and anxiety. We sense an unfinishedness, an unreadiness and even a certain brutality: “He is so young, so fragile still, so unprepared to give up life and to be so finally separated from home and friends, to be made to face the judgement of an eternity that he didn’t have full time to prepare for.” Like a mother who worries about her child when s/he first leaves home, we worry about the young who die. They are too tender still to be subjected to death, to irrevocable separation, to a terrifying newness, to a final judgement. Acceptance of the death of the young comes hard. Understanding comes harder still. As we search among the strands of hope and grasp for something to hang on to in the face of such a death, perhaps we can do no better than to seize onto the words: He is in better hands than ours.
Those are words of faith and they assure us that the God who gave this young man life, who gave him a gentle mother, a loving family and friends, who gave him exuberance and the lively life of the young, can be further trusted to bring that life to completeness and to bring him gently into life everlasting. In understanding death, it is useful to look at birth. When a child is born, s/he is born into the arms and care of a mother. Save for the tremendous care, gentleness and attention of a mother, a child is radically unready to live in this world. Given a mother, everything changes. There is some trauma in being born, but it is brief. Very quickly, the gentleness, patience and tenderness of a mother erase the trauma of birth. In the care of a loving mother, the passage from birth to adulthood is not ungentle and traumatic, but a delightful adventure in awakening.
God is our real mother – more tender, more loving and more understanding than any earthly mother. Our birth into eternal life through the birth canal of death must be seen just as our birth into this life. Without a mother, the trauma would be too much. Given a mother, everything changes. Just as here, in infancy, our mother was ever so tender and patient with us, in death, even more so, is God. The hands that receive us at death are not the rough hands of our world. The heart that embraces us there will not let anything be too much for us. We will, children that we are, be gently, understandingly, and tenderly guided and coaxed into eternal life. Being born into God’s arms will surely be as gentle and tender an experience as was being born into our mother’s arms. Doubtless, there will always be guilt and fear when people close to us die. Death takes our loved ones away with a finality that nothing in this life will ever match. But in this parting, we are saved the biggest worry of all. When people leave us in this life to move on to new places and new things, we have no assurance as to what they might be falling into. When they leave us in death, we have such an assurance: They are in better, and infinitely more gentle, hands than ours!