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.