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Religion Column

December 3, 2011

Don't take death lightly with a 'celebration of life'

We are raising our two little boys in a graveyard. To be precise, it's next door to our house, the rectory of the church I serve in Cooperstown. But the graveyard does seem like a simple extension of our home sometimes. Our 2-year-old son sometimes races his trucks across the flat-topped tombs, and the columbarium wall is the backstop when we play ball. We were driving in Virginia a few months ago and passed a large cemetery. "Look Daddy," he cried out. "We're home!"

It's not a typical experience, growing up in a graveyard. Mostly we like them well away from everyday life, isolated for the sake of sanitation on a distant hill or recast as saccharine "memory gardens." Even if we don't believe that graveyards are haunted by ghosts, we'd rather avoid those people who do visit them, those who just haven't "gotten over it" and make their weekly trips, tear-stained flowers in hand. We don't like to talk about death. For some it is almost the thing "which cannot be named." If it goes unseen, unmentioned, perhaps, we hope, it will just go away.

I wasn't surprised by an article in last week's Wall Street Journal about the new trend toward death-denying "designer funerals." Websites have sprung up to help you plan your final "big splash," for, as one notes, "you only get one chance to make a last impression." Black crepe, gladiolas and "the burial of the dead" are clearly out. "Celebrations of life," with cookouts, slide shows and representative table favors are in. People want to be remembered as the life of the party, to have the crowds laughing and singing them on into the great unknown. They want it to be as if they weren't really dead at all, which rather misses the point of a funeral.

Is it that we have forgotten how to take serious things seriously? Or are we just afraid, so threatened by this one great reality that we cannot control? Is it that death raises so many questions that our usual ways of dealing with life just don't know how to answer? Maybe all this planning is just a way of trying to help those we leave behind. Some associate traditional funerals with a kind of pretentiousness and cold formality that they, quite fairly, don't want to mark their final departure. Still, I can't help but think that much of this is a carefully calculated attempt at forgetting, of papering over this dreadful thing we just cannot face.

It has not always been so. Christians of a past age found meditating on death, and one's own end in particular an important and helpful spiritual practice. Medieval monasteries often kept an open grave in their gardens -- a continual reminder that "you might be next." Some of the tombstones in our backyard assume a reader. "Prepare yourself now," they say, "for soon you will be as I am now."

November is traditionally the church's Month of the Dead. The plants die, the animals seek their winter beds and we too should remember that our time will come. November begins with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, giving thanks for our communion with all the faithful who have died and praying for rest and peace for the dead. As November draws to a close, we move through the Feast of Christ the King and into the beginning of Advent season. The Scripture lessons we read through these weeks offer sharp reminders of the certainty of "the last things:" death and judgment, heaven and hell.

"In the midst of life, we are in death," begins the prayer I read at a dozen or so gravesides each year. Christians begin by acknowledging that death is natural, that it awaits each of us. We are made with limits, and death is the greatest of them all. And yet, the God who made us and who will judge us has provided a way through death to eternal life with him.

We cannot master death on our own, so he has come to pull us out of its grip. He sent his son, Jesus Christ to us so that he could break death's power over us. By his resurrection, Jesus has transformed our deaths, promising to raise all who trust him to share in his everlasting kingdom.

The most meaningful thing we can say in the face of death is not, "wasn't she such a nice person," but "Christ is risen." We rightly sorrow at leaving behind those we love here. Death is a real loss, and we must always take care not to minimize its power. But for Christians, it is not the end, but a gateway to a new and fuller life with God and all his people.

I'm glad to raise my sons in the graveyard, because I want them to understand that death is nothing to fear, that they should expect it for me and for themselves when the time comes.

But I also want them to look over the stone crosses and the granite slabs and to see them as something more profound. They aren't markers of the end of earthly life. They are signs of Christ's victory. Here, in the life of this person and that one, death has been defeated. Eternity has begun. Maybe my little son was right when he saw that cemetery and said, "Daddy, we're home."

The Rev. Mark Michael is pastor at Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown.

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