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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.

Our Protestant friends are right to say that prayers to, and for, the dead isn’t just a Catholic extra but a different way of living as a Christian. I think it’s a much better one, and that what they think fallen human instinct is really the realization that grace perfects nature, but I see why they object so strongly.

But yet even such differences, as deep as they go, don’t give the last word. My wife’s father died a few years after my father. He had been sick for many years. We had carried the coffin into the church and it sat at the front as the pastor, a mainline Presbyterian, began her sermon. He had been sick so long, she said, that we ought to be happy that his spirit had left his body and gone to heaven, that he was free forever of the burden of the body.

I don’t remember the whole sermon (you can’t take notes when you’re sitting in front) but it was almost pure Gnosticism from beginning to end. In heaven the body was not perfected and transformed, it was abandoned. I kept thinking of old-lady greeting cards, with chubby pink-cheeked angels sitting on cotton-candy clouds. It was a heaven that to me after about ten seconds would begin to feel like hell. It must appeal to someone — it certainly appealed to the minister — but it’s not Christianity.

On that we and our orthodox Protestant friends agree, however critical of our relation to the dead they are. I think of that sermon sometimes when I’ve read something particularly anti-Catholic from a conservative Protestant. I picture that coffin I helped carry into the church, with Bill’s dead body a few inches from my left hand, and the minister’s proclamation that the body doesn’t matter, that it’s not worth carrying into eternity, that it’s only a shell from which we’ll be freed. It’s a gospel, a good news, but it’s not the Christian gospel.

The anti-Catholic conservative is wrong in denying prayers to the dead. He lives, I think, in a colder and impoverished, a lonelier, world. But he believes with us in the resurrection of the body. He knows that my father, and my wife’s father, and all we loved who’ve died in Christ, will be raised bodily, as Christ was raised.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.

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