Churchgoers grow accustomed to death’s sting

In the July 3 issue of one of my favorite journals, The Christian Century, Matt Fitzgerald dares to write about death in his article entitled “Acquainted With Grief.” I say “dare” because, for the most part, we do not welcome talk of dying. As Ernst Becker reminded us in his classic work, “The Denial of Death,” we know that dying is something we are all going to do, sooner or later. When the story of this world is told, the number of births and deaths will be exactly the same (unless you count Enoch, the biblical character who was said to have been “taken up” instead of dying). Yet most of us prefer not to think about the subject. As Becker suggests, we sublimate our thoughts of death into “immortality projects” that hold such thoughts at bay.

Fitzgerald, who writes as a pastor, posits the idea that those who live in communities of faith may well deal with death better than others. Perhaps this is because we hold to a faith that claims that death is not the end; but it may be that we simply see it more often, because death is more visible in such a community. Fitzgerald writes, “This will change as my peers and I age, but at this point in our lives, most of my friends outside the church are living in an age-segregated bubble where death remains a distant, hidden thing.”

Thinking about this, I realized that there is hardly a Sunday in our church when we do not announce the death of one or more of our members. Again, Fitzgerald comments: “Regular churchgoing does not make you a friend of death, but if you sit in the pews long enough, you cannot help getting acquainted. In the church you meet some lovely people. And some of them die during your time there. This is a most unlikely gift, but it is a gift that churchgoing keeps on giving. It starts early, gradually, as children form friendships with elderly adults who are not their parents … All of this is to say that I see a difference between the grief of active churchgoers and the pain of those who stay away. Everyone hurts, of course. But when death comes for a family member, there is often a sturdiness, a resiliency and a healthy sort of acceptance in the eyes of those who have baked cookies to serve at memorial teas, who have sung hymns at funerals of old saints or who have sat down, surprised to see an empty spot in the pew where a friend from a church committee had worshiped only weeks before. Churchgoers have grieved before; they’ve already felt death’s sting.”

To my way of thinking, he speaks a deep truth. Like Fitzgerald, I have done memorial services for 95-year-old grandmothers, only to have a young grandchild say, “It’s so unfair — why did she have to die?” Most of the time, they haven’t been in church for a while, and so death seems unnatural. I grieve, too — but there’s nothing unfair about dying, as the Bible puts it, “full of days.”