I Touched Death and then it Flew Away

Funerals are a breeding ground for platitudes. More than a few have snuck out of my own mouth: “Well, he’s in a better place . . . ” oh crap, I just said something stupid and insincere, must switch direction quickly “ . . . Well, there’s a lot of people who are waiting to conjole you . . .” oh, crap again, did I just say the word ‘conjole’? what does that word even mean? It means nothing because it’s not even a word . . .  And after barfing out my string of nonsense words I want to go and knock my forehead against the narthex door. I am full of platitudes and insincerity and it would have been better if I had just stayed home.

But it’s not about me. This past week I attended two funerals. The first one was for Rick’s dad, my father-in-law, Pop pop, Thomas Alan James in the obituary, the man who didn’t like the way I fed my kids and thought I should have our family photographed by Olin Mills once a year at Christmas and bought every electronic possibility when our kids were way too young and couldn’t stop telling us we needed to have our chimney cleaned or our house would go up in flames.

I loved him very much.

He spent the last two weeks of his life in hospice, dead to the world yet breathing and warm. His body had become emaciated and white, and yet he kept breathing. Every day seemed like his last but still he held on. Late in life he had become a Christian and he didn’t seem to fear death, so it was hard to understand this clinging he was doing, this half-life he held onto.

I was the last one to see him alive. I spent the day with him in hospice to give Rick a break. I sat at the edge of his bed and held his hand and found myself crying, sometimes weeping, for this unexpected father God had given me. His face was turned toward me and his mouth hung open. For some reason, one of his eyes was half open but he didn’t appear to see. I talked to him a lot because the people at the hospice said that before they die people can still hear and hearing is the last thing to go, although this made no sense to me because none of the hospice people had ever died so how in God’s good name did they know this?

I didn’t believe them. I thought maybe he could still see out of that one half open eye, so I leaned over the bed and tried to put my face in his line of vision. I told him how much I loved him. I cried. Snot poured from my nose, which of course for a woman and maybe a few very secure men, is a sign of real crying. I hoped he could see—or hear—me crying because then he would know how much he meant to me.

We disagreed about a lot of things but he let me know that I was special to him and his love for me was real. The day after I spent with him, he died. I was sad, but I was thankful for my last day with him, which was a beautiful thing. I like to think he held on so we could hang out together although I’m not so sure that’s true. At any rate, God gave me that time with him and God is the one who decides the timing of such things, so that’s cool.

The second funeral I went to was for the husband of a dear friend of mine. It took me a while to get there because it was held in a beautiful white church in the country. The church was very old, and had those wavy glass panes in the windows that went practically all the way to the ceiling. It had pews with little wooden half doors that you had to open to sit down. There were a few lighted candles up front, and as the priest said his sweet homily I stared out the window at sloping fields with faint tree lines. It was a cold, sunny day, and through the old, wavy pains I could see for miles. There wasn’t a building in sight.

His casket was beautiful if that’s okay to say. It was a simple, Shaker-like wood box and was absent of bling, like if you were buried in it you were making the point that the earth was a temporary thing and nothing went with you. Kind of the opposite of those Egyptian kings with their pyramids and gold. Having known my friend’s husband, I was sure that he had chosen it if not made it himself. It was a beautiful, beautiful funeral, nicer and simpler than a hipster wedding and far more meaningful.

After the service, we followed the casket out into the sunshine and a small graveyard next to the church with centuries old gravestones. I had to force myself not to stop and look at them. Worn old half broken ones that folded life in half and made reality clear and concise and truth like something I could touch.

And a week earlier I had touched death, or at least touched approaching death, where the throat gets all gravely. Death rattle, they used to call it, but like to pretend doesn’t exist in our clean swept, Apple 6 iphone, 21st Century. It exists on our TV’s but that doesn’t really apply to us, that’s just about gore and our morbid curiosity.

Death is a super-real thing, and I think that God wanted me to come close to it when I sat with my father-in-law, and honestly, if it wouldn’t have been so weird, would probably have crawled up onto his bed to be close to him before he died.

These last two weeks, as the palm of death quickly left my periphery and moved two inches from my face, the strange but very, very, cool thing is that what I’ve really seen is God’s goodness: his joy in allowing me to spend the last day of my father-in-law’s life with him so I could grasp how much I really did love him and vise versa, the joy of beauty, of a beautiful white church in the country with it’s old gravestones extoling the security of those who knew him.

But the darkness of it. The worldly, undeterred, pharaoh like bling that—ironically—makes us want to fight it tooth and nail, flies away when Jesus Christ is present.

At the second funeral, when we were standing in the cold, waiting for the simple, beautiful wood casket to be lowered into the ground, I looked across the field and saw a stag, mighty horns and magnificent chest. It just stood there, and then it leapt across the field in long strides and disappeared. The whole scene could have felt like a bad poster, the way sunsets and rainbows have been dumbed down to meaningless crap. But the stag was put there by God, and if it’s from God it’s not a platitude.