I'll never forget the first time I became aware of the weight of death. I was in the third grade. My father's mother died. He came home from church one Sunday while I was in my room playing, and he sat down on the edge of my bed with me to share the news. I didn't know my grandmother that well, and yet I started to cry. I knew in my gut that this thing called death, which had just claimed my grandmother, wasn't right. And then my dad started to cry with me. And for a few minutes he held me in his arms and we grieved together.
My grandparents lived in Arizona, and we made arrangements to drive there from North Dakota to attend the funeral. Not a memorial service. Not a celebration of life. A funeral, full casket and all. I don't remember the sermon. I don't remember the readings. I don't remember the memories that were shared by the family. In fact, the one thing that I do remember from that day is rather odd:
My grandmother was a pretty thin and frail woman by the time she died. Yet I'll never forget how it took six grown men to lift her casket into the hearse. Although they were not about to drop the casket, it was visibly obvious that they were struggling; putting their free arms out like wings to keep their balance. Four men certainly could not have done it; probably not even five. And while I wasn't there, I can only assume it was the same at the grave. It took the strength of these men, obviously struggling, to bear my dead grandmother to her place of rest.
I know there are a lot of opinions floating around about death, how to talk about it, how to grieve it, and what kind of rites and services should occur when it happens. I suppose there is some flexibility in these things, but in the Church, there is something we must always bear in mind; something which is becoming forgotten:
Death is a heavy, enormous enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26).
For the Christian, there is no saying "Amen" to Forrest Gump's mother, whose wisdom would tell us that dying is just an innocuous part of life. For the Christian, there is none of this foolish talk about how the deceased person's body is just a "vessel". The Christian does not make claims like, "That's not mom, it's just her shell." The Christian puts to rest all of the language that would try to lighten death's weight and ease it's razor-sharp edges, and instead calls a thing what it is.
Death is a heavy, enormous enemy.
But there's something else that the Christian remembers in the face of death: the Church is the community who bears God's children with nothing less than the Word of Christ—both in life and in death.
It begins in baptism, where we are born from above (John 3) into the body of Christ, given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation (Acts 2:38). Infant baptism is especially beautiful in this regard, because the candidate for baptism in no way can bring herself to the font. She must be borne; carried by someone else. She doesn't even get to participate by presenting herself at the font; someone else must bring her. And yet God takes this tiny enemy of his, who can do nothing for herself, much less bring herself to be saved, and He washes her in His salvific promises.
From that moment on, she is part of a community who will bear her and bear with her. They will catechize her in the faith. They will train her up in the knowledge and fear of God. They will weep with her when she weeps. They will rejoice with her when she rejoices. They will absolve her when she repents. They will hear her make the good confession of faith at her confirmation. They will witness her matrimony. They will praise God at the birth, and baptismal rebirth of her children. They will walk with her though unpredictable sorrow. They will sit with her when her questions have no answers. Week in and week out, they will pray with her, confess the faith with her, eat Christ's body and blood with her, be forgiven with her by Christ's powerful Word.
And she will do all of that for and with them.
To be part of the Church is to be born in baptism, to bear one another's joys and burdens, and to be borne by your brothers and sisters in Christ—in life and in death. For the day will come; finally, the body of Christ will even bear their sister through the valley of the shadow of death. And when death delivers its life-sucking blow they will carry their sister even to the grave. And make no mistake about it: that death is a weighty, enormous, horrendous enemy. Even the strongest men in the community will struggle to bear their sister in Christ one last time.
Cradle to grave, baptism to burial, in life and in death, the Church is a community who bears the children of God.
So what? Why does the way we understand death even matter? Well, it matters because how we understand death will affect the way we bear one another up in its midst. If you get sin and death wrong, you also get God's solution to them wrong, and that will become quite evident in the way a community carries one another through that valley.
And so perhaps our rites, services, and the language that we use surrounding death should not attempt to lighten death's weight. Rather, perhaps in all that we do surrounding death, we ought to proclaim just how weighty death is. How it's not simply something that innocently happens to us; how it's not a beautiful release; how it is the result of human sin and enmity with God; and therefore how Christ has dealt with death in his own body on the cross and empty tomb.
Also, because our Lord cared enough to redeem this person, body and soul, with the price of his shed blood, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to usher our dead hastily away into the annals of memory as if their bodies no longer matter, while we all gather without them for their "memorial" or to "celebrate" their life. (Ironic, isn't it, that the reason to celebrate someone's life has become the occasion of their death?)
Perhaps—even though Scripture is silent on the issue and there's no "right" or "wrong" answer—perhaps we ought not be so quick to get rid of our dead by cremating them with the rationale that we don't want the last memory we have of them to be one where they are dead in a casket; no, we want to "remember them as they really were", so we say (as if anything we do can change the reality that death has actually happened). Perhaps, instead, we could physically bear our sister in Christ one last time; carry her into the presence of Christ, just like we did on the day she was baptized, to proclaim and to hear yet again the life-giving, death-defeating Word of Christ.
Perhaps we could gather for a full-blown funeral, and participate in a liturgy which does not speak about fishing trips and hobbies like sewing or woodworking; a liturgy which doesn't drag out the false superlatives that everyone knows aren't true like, "She always [virtue]" or "She never [vice]"; a liturgy that doesn't point us to this person's supposed good works that made God smile upon them. Rather, perhaps we ought to gather for a liturgy that calls death what it is; which proclaims into the face of real, weighty, sin-wrought death, an even weightier and victorious death-and-resurrection-wrought promise: "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." And when He does come again, our Christian sister, who today is dead because of her sin, will on that day rise to life, never to die again. Perhaps there's something worthwhile and powerful about having an occupied casket present, to remind us that this person is not just a shell or a vessel that we hurriedly get rid of, but rather this person is our baptized sister in Christ, in a state she was never created to be in. And yet it is this person in this casket who will rise again. This death is not the end of her story, nor the end of ours. And so we proclaim Christ, crucified and risen for sinners—proclamation which packs quite a Gospel punch when we bear our dead Christian sister into our midst one last time.
Yes, death is heavy. But it's not too heavy for our Lord. Because He has defeated this great and terrible enemy—because He has borne your sin all the way into the heart of the earth and out again—you are free to call death what it is, and His bride is free to proclaim the One who will put it one day under His feet. You need not shy away from death. And you need not embrace it as good.
Rather, look to Christ, who bears you up, even in death's dark valley, for He has overcome it for you.