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Death Doesn’t Have the Last Word


David Mills - published on 07/28/15

A reflection inspired by a loss

As I was writing last week, my wife’s mother was dying. She died Sunday morning, at 95, after a long and full life. It was a good death, to use an unfortunately old-fashioned phrase, but death is still death. One effect, as many of you will understand, is to make me think more about death and those I loved who have died, like my father. (One blessing of writing is that you can pay tribute. Here’s my reflection on his death.)

The death of a loved one is one of those extreme moments that put human disagreements in context, even the deep differences between now divided Christians. My parents started going to church and settled in conservative Protestant churches. I started going to church and moved in the other direction, first to Episcopalianism and then into the Church. Now that I’m older, I see that there’s less difference in the places we finished than either of us thought, looking at the other’s choice with the zeal of converts. But not no difference.

Their last church was the classic New England Congregationalist church: white clapboard, tall clear windows, and steeple, and inside a pulpit on a raised platform with a table (a kind of vestigial altar) on the floor in front of it. Besides the flowers always set on the table, the church had no decoration on its white walls. There was not even a cross to be seen.
For my father’s funeral, the pastor had put a picture of him on the table, and with his face surrounded by the professional photographer’s light blue background, it looked like an icon. Emmanuel had also put flowers either side of the picture. They had been close friends.

We sang hymns, my father’s favorites, then heard the traditional funeral passages from Scripture and an excellent sermon. At the end of his sermon, Emmanuel walked down to the table and picked up the picture. Looking at it, he told my dad how much he had meant to him and how much he missed him already, and ended, still looking at the picture, “Goodbye, my friend,” and put down the picture, reverently, on the table. My sister had gone to the same church, and at the end of the service, he read a letter to my dad she had written. She also finished by saying goodbye.

They were speaking to my father. The pastor’s words and my sister’s letter weren’t a creative way of saying something about him. There, in that little Congregationalist church by the side of the road, in a building that proclaimed the simplest, clearest, most stripped-down form of Protestant piety, the pastor and one of his people were praying to the dead. They would both have denied it, but that is what they were doing.

I think that in praying to the dead the pastor and my sister were following their instincts, and I admire them for it. Some of their Protestant peers — many Protestant friends of mine — would say that they gave in to their instincts. They would say that praying to the dead was one of the corruptions that entered the Catholic Church early on because people chose to indulge their fallen instincts, and one of those corruptions from which the Reformation tried to cleanse Christianity. The difference goes very deep, into very different ways of understanding the Church and how she lives through history.
It’s not a minor difference either. It affects how one lives in the world, what the world feels like. It determines what our churches look like: whether plain-white-walled and clear-windowed or filled with stained glass and statues. It decides whether you feel your dead father and St. Francis and Our Lady are close by or far away, whether you have Masses said for your parents after they die or just call up memories.

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