On Monday morning 1st December the phone went at 2.30. It was a nurse informing me that my 98-year-old mother had died. My immediate reaction was a huge sense of relief. Almost ten months ago my mother fell and broke her hip and had been taken to hospital. Then Covid had struck, the hospital was desperate for beds, and my mother was discharged into a nursing home to die. Traumatised by the experience, she never spoke to me again. When we visited her she did not know who we were – she had lost all cognition. Nonetheless, we continued to visit. On one occasion I went with my sister and we sang some of my mother’s favourite hymns to her – she seemed to be at peace, but that could have been our imagination. Then she had a stroke and went into a coma. Caroline and I went to visit her. We began to sing hymns to her, but this time I broke down – I could not sing. Instead I read Psalm 23 to her, prayed for her, and then we kissed her goodbye. The following day she died.
To my surprise, since my mother’s death, I have been very emotional and tears have not been far away. By contrast when my father died following a massive stroke, I was simply numb with shock. Although I loved my father dearly and was very close to him, I do not remember weeping. Yet, this time with my mother, I am not aware of any numbness. Instead I find myself suddenly not able to speak without breaking down. Hopefully by the time of the funeral I will be my normal ‘professional’ self.
My experience of grief has reminded me that funerals need to be funerals – and not just services of thanksgiving or celebrations of a life. The reality is that death is a nasty business and is not to be trivialised. Job described death as “the king of terrors” (Job 18.14). The Psalmist was equally realistic: “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (Ps 55.4-5). Even Paul, in his great chapter on the resurrection, called death “the last enemy” (1 Cor 15.25). As Christians we believe in resurrection, but resurrection presupposes death. If we are to be true to life, we need to acknowledge the pain, the bleakness, and the sheer utter ‘bloodiness’ of it all. I find it significant that on the very occasion when Jesus spoke of himself as the resurrection and the life (John 11.25), “Jesus wept” for his friend Lazarus (John 11.35). If Jesus could weep, then so too may we.
The fact that we grieve does not mean that there is no place for celebration. Although we may weep for our loss, we need not weep for our loved ones who have died in Christ. They are safe in the Father’s house (John 14.1-2). Death for them is “gain” (Phil 1.21). There is a place on this side of the Jordan for what John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress called the ‘sounding of trumpets’. Death is a defeated enemy! With Paul we declare: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.56).
Sadly at my mother’s funeral on 15th December we will not be able to celebrate in song. Instead we will listen to three hymns which will be streamed. This is a great shame. Indeed, according to American theologian Thomas Long, the heart of a funeral service is not a sermon by a preacher, but the hymns and psalms of the church, in which the church bids farewell to their brother or sister in Christ (see Accompany them with Singing – The Christian Funeral, Westminster John Knox, Louisville 2009).
Nonetheless there is a place for preaching. In my sermon I will take as my text Eccles 12.6 and speak of the fragility of human life: “The silver chain will snap, and the golden lamp will fall and break; the rope at the well will break, and the water jar be shattered” (GNB). For “the Teacher” there is no hope of life beyond the grave. Death is the end: As the Lord said to Adam and Eve after the Fall, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3.19; see Eccl 12.7). His theme is memento mori – remember that we will all die, so make the most of life while you can!
Thank God that we who read these words today live on the other side of the resurrection of Jesus. The message to ‘remember that we will all die’ has been transformed for us into a new key: ‘remember that we will all live’! In the stirring words of Paul, set to wonderful music by Handel in The Messiah: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (1 Cor 15.51,52). It was in that hope that my mother lived – and it was in that hope she died. What a difference that makes to our grieving.
Paul, thank you for sharing your experience so frankly. I identify with so much in connection with my Dad’s death at a similarly advanced age. Being the introvert that I am, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to manage the tears – that may be to my disadvantage! I will remember you and all your family in prayer, particularly on the day of the funeral. Like other students of that time, I feel that I knew your mother well and have many good memories of her. I also knew your brothers and sister, who will equally feature in my prayers. And my sincere greetings to you personally at this time.
Dear Paul, Caroline & family
I am so sorry to hear of your loss. My thoughts and prayers of with you. Our Mom’s hold a special place in our hearts and I imagine it must be a very difficult time for you. I hope that you will be able to take comfort from knowing that she is in a better place. She is very blessed to have such lovely children who visited her to the end.
Lots of love Esme, Alwyn, Joe & Genevieve
Sorry to hear that Paul. Your quote from Ecclesiates reminds me of the following – which may be of some comfort.
‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’ John Bunyan
Thank you for sharing your experience Paul. It pretty much mirrors mine, except that in my case it was my mother who died first, as long ago as 1974. I guess the death of a loved one always arouses a whole range of different emotions – relief is perfectly natural where there has been suffering, but it may be tinged with a smidgen of guilt (could I have done more to relieve it? Am I wrong to feel relief?) And there are two other things you may have felt but haven’t mentioned: firstly, a proper pride in your mother for what she achieved in her lifetime, and also no doubt for the way she dealt with the problems we all face during our lives; and secondly, the realisation that when you lose your second parent you become one of the “older generation” in earnest! I will be remembering you and the family in prayer.
Words are hard to find to express what the news of your mother’s passing into glory means to me. Both she and your father meant a great deal to me all through my student days and in ministry. She was gentle and kind, but with a steel resolve that wanted things to be right. Both your parents, as you well know, supported my ministry and helped develop it through so many years. You will be central to my prayers on Dec.15th, that you may indeed find the strength to speak – ‘professionally’ sounds cold, but I know what you mean.
Our paths have cross so many times over the years since the 1950’s when you arrived at Spurgeon’s College with the family and your dad became the Principal. Your parents, now united in heaven, have every reason to be proud of all that God has led you to achieve so far in your lifetime.
I must stop, or else this will become chapter one of an ongoing new book!
Many many blessings to you all. Bryan
My condolences to you and your family Paul. I so appreciate your comment, “funerals need to be funerals”. Within a Christian context funerals are first and foremost a Service of Worship. I pray you will be strengthened and sustained through this time.
Hullo Paul, Jean and I are so sad to hear of your loss of your dear mother. Ruth was a lovely lady, so gracious and caring, especially for those (mostly young ladies) about to become Ministers’ spouses and enter the stressful life of the manse. We shall always remember her and your father with great affection, both dedicated to the Lord and His people. God bless you, Paul, we shall be thinking of you on the 15th.
Brian and Jean Walters
In this season of hope, we offer our prayers for you and your mother.
Thank you for sharing your feelings so frankly, Paul – I’m sure they’ll help others by reflecting common experiences.
Don’t beat yourself up about feeling differently this time! There are all sorts of reasons that might help explain why you are weeping rather than keeping a stiff upper lip:
a) Our fathers were of a generation that didn’t exhibit too much of the softer side of their character to anyone, and didn’t expect too much “touchy-feely” in return. Unlike our mothers, where there was a more emotional bond. I’m sure that this affects the different way that we react to their passing.
b) It’s 20 years since your father died. Not only is the death of a poorly 98 year-old vastly different from that of a lively 84 year-old in terms of the shock factor, but you are different too – 20 years more life experience, and not just older; 20 years during which many of your friends will have had their own home-call.
c) You’ve been involved in caring for your mother since your father’s death, and heavily so over the past year. You’ve certainly done all anyone could do, and your example is an inspiration. However, the recent visits, when you’ve been unable to communicate, will have taken their emotional toll.
d) Finally, losing the second parent brings all of us to the end of a chapter, with the link to the family home gone for ever, and our becoming the “senior generation”.
You say: “Hopefully by the time of the funeral I will be my normal ‘professional’ self”. I certainly couldn’t sing much at either of my parents’ funerals, and was glad I had briefed others to give the eulogy and the message of hope that has to be part of every Christian funeral. No-one would think any differently of you should you decide to give the job to someone who isn’t so closely involved. And no-one will expect you to be dry-eyed, whether or not you decide to preach.
Next Tuesday, may your whole family experience a positive funeral for a fine Christian lady.