Have you ever been to a funeral? Have you ever seen a dead body? I know those questions sound intense, but the conversation is an important one, as much as our culture might try and keep it as a taboo.
We post memorial messages on the social media profiles of loved ones who have died, but I do wonder how many of us talk about death with our friends face to face. Have you and your housemates ever spoken about this stuff? Or does the conversation start and end with a “rest in peace” instagram post and private cry where no one can see?
It might sound strange to say, but the end of life becomes more relevant in our student years. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing or experiencing people close to you die as a child, your twenties are quite likely to be when you have to face it in some way. The pain of losing a grandparent, or dare I say it, being one of the thousands of students who will know someone who has taken their own life. Death is part of life and there’s only so long you can look away and not really see it.
One of my mentors died suddenly a couple of weeks ago. She wasn’t that old, she wasn’t ill, she was actually just finishing dessert with family and friends when it happened.
People got up to clear the plates, chattering away, but unlike her normal “I’ll help” self, she didn’t move. With a smile to her son and to her husband, and a squeeze of his hand, she was going, her time was suddenly now.
As strange as it sounds, as shocking as the event was in some ways, it was also her beautiful time to ‘go home’. On the first day of Spring, the season she always loved the most because it showed that God was making all things new, the body that had carried all of who she was for nearly 70 years, could no longer contain all of the life of Joy. And so, she went to be more fully alive than she had ever been on earth, as we who are followers of Jesus believe. Who she is went to be with who He is, back into the embrace of Jesus, the God with arms wide open.
My mentor lived in Canada. That’s a long way away from England. But I knew there was no way I couldn’t go to her funeral. And to be totally honest, one of the reasons for this was because I couldn’t actually get it into my head that what had happened was real. When you don’t see someone often, it can take months to feel their absence, and I just knew I was at risk of not actually believing she was gone. Of not being able to process the grief. I needed to see for myself in a way. I needed to know her death was real.
I wonder if that was one of the things running through the minds of the women who stayed with Jesus as they watched him die. “Is this actually happening?” “Is he really going to die?” “Is he going to go through with it?" "Will there be a come-back before he has to actually go so far as to be gone?”
It’s not exactly what you’d choose to look at. You don’t see people rush towards an open casket to take a good look, even when it’s a loved one. A dead body, even made up to look like the person is just asleep in their favourite outfit, is still a strange and perhaps uncomfortable sight. Let alone seeing Jesus bleeding out in nakedness and pain. Lots of people don’t do the open casket thing these days, especially younger generations, maybe for this very reason of not wanting to see death.
As horrific as it was, I do wonder if the women at the cross needed to in some way know that his death was real. That he actually died. So much of Jesus’ life had caused amazement and intrigue, he consistently subverted expectations and made miracles seem like par-for-the-course. I’m sure a part of me would be keeping one eye open for another miracle moment, for Jesus to get down off the cross, to save himself, and to leave the guards for dust as he strode off the hillside and back into the city to show that it didn’t hurt after all.
But it did hurt. Jesus was not immune to a real death. And his followers were not shielded from witnessing it. It was the women (mainly named Mary!) along with the disciple John, who held their nerve and didn’t look away at the end. And Jesus didn’t tell them to go, he didn’t get concerned that seeing death might be unhealthy for them, he didn’t cry out “I don’t want you to see me like this!” as his bleeding body was laid bare and elevated for all to see. Death was part of the story, not the part to look away from.
Jesus was more intent on his mother knowing she had a kingdom family to take care of her in her grief over the loss of her son, rather than shielding her from the grief. He told her from the cross, “here is your son” about John, and to John “here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). The dying was less of a priority in that moment than what was to happen to the living. We are invited not to look away, but to lean in to one another in the face of death.
This Good Friday, there is nothing wrong with spending some time thinking of and even talking about your experiences of death, dying, grief and funerals. I’d actively encourage you as a student to go there in conversations with your friends today.
The older we get, the more a part of life death will be. It’s the inevitable effect of being human and knowing other humans. None of us are immune, all of us are breakable, and even for those of us who have hope in the middle of death thanks to the resurrection life of Jesus still with us, the pain of grief is real and the need for other people to take care of us in the face of loss is still true.
Don’t rush on through the Easter story too quickly. Don’t act like it’s Easter Sunday when actually you might well be right in the middle of your own Good Friday. Go to the funeral. Go there, stay there for a while, don’t turn away from the pain of loss even as you turn into the presence of Jesus, God-with-us still.
And listen out for the still, small voice of the Spirit. Perhaps he’ll not tell you to move quickly on from death and grief because it’s not nice to feel this stuff... perhaps he’ll instead reveal to you those around you who are still with you, to comfort you, and to allow you to stay and linger in Good Friday whilst God continues the good work he has started within you and sees it through to completion.