Birth and death are the brackets of life that enclose us in the present. They are, however, quite different. Birth exudes potential; death offends it, bringing life to a bitter and abrupt conclusion. Even the best embalmers fail to restore the beauty of life.
It is taboo to talk about death—that is, until it is foisted on us. Having looked into the face of death three times in the recent past, I have a few observations. The first instance concerned a stillborn child. I met baby Iris in an isolette beside her sleeping mother, wrapped in a blanket with a cute little hat on her head. Looking down on this precious baby, now dead, I was struck by death’s irreversibility. It destroys our hopes, dreams, and longings. Unnatural and grotesque, death—especially this sort—is a nightmare.
Much different by comparison, the second encounter with death struck a 94-year-old woman who happened to be my beloved grandmother. She died with peace and dignity, surrounded by family and friends. I am told that before her final breath, Grandma was talking to deceased relatives as though they were at the foot of her bed. Perhaps the most poignant moment occurred at the funeral when my five cousins and I carried her casket into the church. Six Italian boys, whom Grandma once carried into their little sleeping bags after a long night of dancing the tarantella, now carefully bore her body to its final resting place.
The third instance of death happened closer to home when I learned that my wife had experienced a miscarriage. The words of Job 1:21 welled up within me: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Death, even when it is in utero, is a wound to the living.
Responding to Death
When I visited baby Iris, I was greeted by her daddy, a young man whose wedding I officiated. He escorted me to the isolette and asked, “Would you like to see our beautiful daughter?” I must confess, even though I have sat beside several dying congregants as a pastor, this was too much to bear. After a deep breath, I silently prayed, “God, please give me a timely word for this dad.” I then looked him in the eye and stated, “One day, when Jesus returns with healing in His wings, the light of His presence will illumine the face of dear Iris. We trust that by God’s grace she will look at you with a smile as wide as the horizon and call you ‘Daddy.’ Now is the time for grief, tears, and indescribable loss, but the day is coming when God will wipe away our tears and make all things new.”
Does theology matter? You’d better believe it. In such moments, it means everything. This was also evident at Grandma’s wake service. The associate pastor from her Roman Catholic parish offered a homily: “Because Grandma was a good person, we can be sure that she is in heaven. And since she is now in heaven with Jesus, she serves as our connection to God. Therefore, we ought to pray to Grandma and let her bring us to Jesus.” It was a theological (and pastoral) train wreck.