I acutely remember the first time I shared a room with a coffin (it wasn’t all that long ago). At the time — and even reflecting on it now — I was seriously disoriented. Something in me cried out, ‘How outrageous is believing in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a situation like this!’
Now I don’t think I was questioning the Christian hope. I suspect my reaction had more to do with being confronted by the reality of death. And with the realisation that there’s no place for glibness at the gravesite.
This is something I’m getting a stronger and stronger grip on. I know that the Christian good news does have some significant things to say about death — and shouldn’t be cowed or reduced to awkward, foot-shuffling silence. But, at the same time, there’s this awesome and deeply painful reality to it — which should restrain us from giving pat answers (not simply as a matter of pastoral wisdom but rather as one of theological conviction).
I genuinely struggle to hold all this together. Yet I take heart from the ‘Order for the Burial of the Dead’ in the Book of Common Prayer, which works hard to do the following three things (and a whole lot more besides):
- To be honest about the reality of death — facing up to both its tragedy and its universality.
- To honour the memory of the deceased — which means speaking truly in a manner befitting the occasion (and so avoiding flattering falsehood and platitude).
- To point to the Lord Jesus in order to call upon all to put their hope only in the living God.
I’m still working on how to translate this for my preaching and conversation…