We Americans have a strange tradition when someone dies. The family gathers around the deceased and stands for hours greeting people, smiling, and saying, "Thank you for coming." Why do we choose to do this? It seems like torture to me. That was my first thought this day.
We attended the viewing and funeral service of an acquaintance, a 38-year old woman who died in childbirth. She left behind her husband, small son and newborn daughter, as well as many others who loved her. The casket was closed and covered with a white cloth, so it was not the prominent feature in the front of the church. As people walked down the center aisle, they were drawn to the family instead, who welcomed them warmly. Then the husband pointed out the pictures of his baby girl arranged on the top of the casket. What do you say? "Congratulations?" How can such profound joy and sorrow be contained in the same moment of time? The husband seemed so frail and vulnerable when I hugged him, like an empty shell that could easily be broken if squeezed too hard. An older woman, the mother I guessed, stood next to him. I didn't know her, but she pulled me to her, clutching me hard to to her chest. More hugs for the sister and assorted strangers as we moved down the line saying over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
We had come early so we sat in a pew and watched the friends come and go. The family standing up front reminded me of a receiving line after a wedding. Except the guests were in tears. During a lull the husband fingered the baby pictures and gazed with empty eyes into the distance. Sometimes as people passed through the line the mother broke into a wail that filled the church, her agonizing sobs ripping at us all. How can a mother survive losing a daughter? The thought is terrifying to me. My mind cannot go there. Yet, here is one living this nightmare. This mom would grab her friends passing by like a drowning person reaching for a life ring. The sister tried to be brave all morning, sometimes wiping the tears streaming down her cheeks with the palms of her hands and focusing hard to keep control. How can she endure this? Later in her eulogy she called her sister her best friend.
At one point the wind howled and rain clattered noisily on the roof of the church. I'm sure some wanted to shout up to God and ask, "Why?" As people walked back down to find a seat they shook their heads in disbelief. This shouldn't be. It's not the natural course of things. Where are you, Jesus? If only you'd done something... I thought of two sisters long ago, accusing Jesus when their brother died. Jesus hadn't come in time to be of help. But when he saw the mourning crowd, he also wept. What a miserable plight we humans have here on earth. Jesus knew the outcome--he knew Lazarus would live again. Jesus knew his own death and resurrection would bring eternal life to us all. Yet still he cried along with everyone else. Are you crying here with us today, Jesus?
Maybe it isn't such a strange custom after all. Maybe the family is comforted by the long line of people who come to show their compassion. Maybe they long to be held in the arms of other humans, to share pools of tears, and to hear the promises of help and friendship. After all, we all share this same earthly fate. If we haven't known it yet, we will surely travel this same road of pain and fear.
When the service ended and the family left their front row pew to walk back down the aisle, I couldn't help but think that not so very long ago there was a wedding, probably with many of these same people in attendance. They saw the happy couple, glowing with joy, turn to face the congregation as new husband and wife, then walking down the aisle to new life. Now, instead, an old woman staggers with grief on the arm of her son-in-law. The sister who was once a bridesmaid sobs openly, her courage spent.
I think Jesus understands grief so deep and overpowering that it cannot grasp the promises of God. Yet scripture says God does not want us to grieve like those who have no hope. Like Martha, we say to Jesus, "I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus responded, "Your brother will rise again." John 11:21-25. We encourage one another (and ourselves) with those thoughts. I Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Before we had left for the service, Liana noted my dark clothing. "Black for death, right, Mom?" I said yes. She picked up the small topaz on my necklace. "But gold for heaven."
Please pray for this family.