This Dying: We Could Do No Better Than This

John 18:1-19:42

We took our confirmation youth to the funeral home a few weeks back.

It is a long standing tradition in our congregation — one surely made easily possible by the fact that an active member has been the owner of a local funeral home for many years. As you can imagine, this gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about life and death and God’s promises.

And so it was we sat at supper before we went, encouraging our young people to come up with questions. What would they like to know before they went? This was their chance to ask anything at all.

Maybe it was just the group of 7th graders I was with, but they were not terribly good at articulating their curiosity. Or maybe they just weren’t all that curious. It’s hard to say. One finally wondered at how hot the crematorium had to be to do its work. He guessed 350 degrees. I assured him it had to be hotter than that as that is how hot my oven is when I bake brownies.

And so that Sunday night we set off for the funeral home. We gathered in the rooms where families come together to be greeted by and cared for by family and friends. We went downstairs into the “casket room” where a whole variety of caskets are on display. We went through the back exit into the room where bodies are prepared and we heard about how embalming is done. We saw the oven which cremates the remains of those for whom this is their choice and we learned that, in fact, it needs to heat to at least 1400 degrees Fahrenheit to do its job. We saw the inside of the immaculately clean hearse. And we went back into the basement of the funeral home where the funeral director opened up his pop machine and offered everyone a free can of pop. A few questions were asked at this time, but perhaps not surprisingly, these were mostly posed here, by the adults who have, by now, lived long enough for their questions to be grounded in experience.

Perhaps it is so that questions about matters such as these do not enter much into the minds of those who have not yet experienced life changing losses. And so far as I know, this was the case with the particular group of young people we accompanied this time. I know in many places this would not be the case. Either way, maybe it is so that until you have hand delivered a check to the cemetery to purchase a plot a couple of days before it would be needed; until you have had to decide on what casket to bury a loved one in, until you have had to discern what exactly should adorn a gravestone? It is all academic. Interesting, perhaps, but not entirely relevant. And yes, of course, I thank God that evidently this was is the case with the particular group of 12 and 13 and 14-year-olds who were in my charge that night. Had they even been to a funeral? Some of them, yes. Had they yet known the meaning of heartbreak that can accompany death? Thankfully, no.

Or maybe there lack of curiosity stems from this. Perhaps this generation has seen death simulated so much that it is for this reason it seems unreal. It is hard to say, of course, and probably I will only begin to understand when I take the time to go deeper with them one day soon.

This much I do know for sure, though. When I was a few years younger than this group of confirmation youth, I had no concept of death whatsoever. Indeed, the only experience I had up until I was nine or ten years old was the image before us in the Passion now. Oh yes, I can well remember playing outside with my sisters and our friends and when the drama we were enacting called for death? The one so afflicted would lie down on the ground with his or her arms outstretched — striking the pose that the cross forced on Jesus when he died.

Of course, time and experience taught us that not all deaths look like this one. All who die are not first betrayed, denied, abandoned, humiliated, tortured and publicly executed. At least not like this. And yet, most, if not all of us at one time or another experience each and all of these. We pray of course, that this will not be the case in our final days, but who among us cannot in small ways and maybe large ones, too, relate to what Jesus experienced? Surely this is one of the gifts of Good Friday that you and I can know for certain that Jesus knows our suffering because he endured it all himself.

Oh, it is so that many of us and perhaps, large parts of each of us, would rather skip over Good Friday altogether. Until life offers the hard lessons which death brings and we yearn to understand it more deeply. Until we have known our own suffering, deserved or not and we long for the certainty that God truly understands. Oh yes, until or unless we have come to the heart of the truth that nothing in us deserves the gift given to us on the cross of Jesus, well maybe this death, or the deaths of those we love, or our own certain death do not pique our curiosity or our outrage or our wonder at all.

At least I know this is so for me.

And yet, I am grateful that this dying was the one which shaped my understanding of death from the time I was so young. For while it was as horrific as it possibly could be it was also marked by the very real tenderness of Jesus we hear about in all four Gospel accounts: as he heard and responded to the plea of the criminal hanging next to him, as he looked down on his mother and commended her into John’s care, as he spoke words of forgiveness to those who had put him there, and as he entrusted himself into God’s eternal care. It was a terrible death, this death. No doubt its only redemption was in the One who suffered so. And because of this? Somehow because of this this dying, this death is both gift and model to all of us who will one day also die.

I could do no better than this, it seems to me. We could do no better than this.

  • Did the death of Jesus on the cross shape your understanding of dying and death when you were young? Why or why not?
  • Are there parts of his dying which you would want to emulate when it is your time to die? What parts would those be?
  • Has the experience of Good Friday become more meaningful to you as you have gotten older? Why or why not?
  • I cannot help but wonder how the Good Friday Passion is heard and experienced differently in those parts of the world where such as this is not only words on a page or images on a screen but are lived out in horrific ways in the experience of the people. What is your experience of this?