My mother-in-law died last week. She lived in a small town in northwest Georgia. The community rallied around my sister-in-law and her family, providing much appreciated emotional and logistical support.
The secular and sacred rituals surrounding the death offered a window on an alien culture. For example, some people stopped at the funeral home during visiting hours (itself a successor to the older custom of holding a wake) just long enough to sign the guest book, not even taking time to speak with one family member. As in many things, people hope that appearances will count for more than substance does; the non-stop, hectic pace of contemporary life is a catalyst for change.
A number of people who did attend the visiting hours emphasized that they wanted to pay their respects to the deceased. Their well-intended but unthinking words ignored the impossibility of doing that. The deceased was gone. The body, contrary to the assurances of the funeral home staff and others, did not look life-like. Death is the end of one's physical existence. The time to pay our respects, to communicate our love for someone, is while that person is still alive. Shared moments can be priceless and, once a person has died, irreplaceable. (For some thoughts on what life after death might be, cf. Ethical Musings What does life after death mean? and Is believing in life after death important?)
Trying to be kind and to offer words of comfort, a number of individuals said that my father-in-law, who died ten years ago, was waiting to greet my pain-wracked mother-in-law. I appreciate their hope that her suffering would soon end. There was little about her suffering that was redemptive or meaningful. However, the idea that her pre-deceased husband, with whom she had a long and loving marriage, was waiting in heaven for her lacks a solid foundation in orthodox Christian theology. Although the biblical witness is muddy, containing conflicting messages, the Christian tradition has consistently taught that the resurrection of all will occur at some future time and not immediately upon death. In other words, thinking that our deceased loved ones await us, ready to welcome us to heaven, is more an expression of sympathy than orthodox theology.
Furthermore, I cannot imagine that either of my in-laws, both of whom had multiple physical disabilities in old age, would want to live forever in the body as was at the time of death. Again, heartfelt sympathy more than solid theology often colored expressions of sympathy can concern.
I appreciated the many heartfelt expressions of caring and sympathy. Those same expressions also made me realize how shallow many of our thoughts about death are, i.e., death is a subject most people generally avoid and about which the Church typically offers little real instruction.
The most effective condolences were reminisces of times shared, whether joyous or painful, always moments in which one human connected with another. Those moments reminded me that life for many of us is way too short, that love is what makes life worthwhile, and that death inevitably follows birth (cf. Ethical Musings Musings about death).