What Happens When Someone Dies?

Many years ago, when I was still in divinity school, an old friend from college called me to tell me that her father had died. After sharing my condolences, my friend launched into something of an angry tirade. “Do you know what religion is all about?” she asked in a hostile tone. Without offering an opportunity to respond, she answered her own question, “It’s to tell little girls where their father’s go when they die.” Then, she began sobbing; I could hear her so clearly even though she was many, many miles away.

I knew enough to let her cry and to be angry. It was not the time to share with her my thoughts on the matter. I remember, though, the question that was going around in my head, as she chastised religion for setting her up and offering an answer to her grief that was less than satisfying. “So? What’s wrong with that exactly?” I wondered in my own head.

I was thinking about my old friend during my long drive home after attending the memorial service of a distant relative this past week. The relative, though raised in a church, had stopped attending church as an adult. His memorial service was a “celebration of life,” “a tribute,” and though it was held in a church sanctuary, it was not at all religious—no scripture, no homily. At one point, the funeral home director who led the service encouraged the members of the congregation to find comfort in their own religion or belief system.

But what about the guy in the box at the front of the sanctuary? What about his widow, his adult children, his grandchildren?

I understood the family’s desire to honor the dearly departed by keeping religion, especially Christianity, out of the service. But, to gather for a memorial service and only share memories seemed so empty to me. Is his life beyond death held only in the funny stories that his relatives and friends will share now and into the future?

I thought, too, of my many friends, who are so pleased that they have unfettered themselves from the shackles of organized religion, that they have rejected Christianity and all of its hypocrisy and unbelievable stories. I mean, what intelligent person can abide such nonsense?

But, what about the end of life? What hope do they turn to? What comfort is there for them? Is it really enough to say, is it more fulfilling to declare, that the entirety of a person dies when the body dies, that we live on only insofar as our loved ones talk about us? Is faith all about stupid fairy tales to keep people from asking the really difficult questions?

Faith and organized religion, like Christianity, are far from perfect and they don’t fully and neatly answer all of life’s big questions, but the modern equivalents don’t either. Can hope and comfort be found on the sidelines of a soccer field or at Sunday morning brunch with the New York Times?

I wonder about the trend to reject organized religion and all of its trappings. I wonder about the desire to be rid of mystery, to be rid of that which tugs at the spirit and whispers to us that there is more to life, and that life really ought not be arranged neatly with everything making sense to human intellect.

In my own personal moments of doubt, when I look at my faith and realize how absurd it all sounds, it’s the end of life part that is the hardest to consider letting go of. There is something in that story, in all of its ridiculousness, that I find compelling and hopeful, mysterious and life-affirming. In my moments of doubt, that is enough for me—the powerful message that despair and even death never have the last word for those who trust and live in faith.

My faith doesn’t keep the grief away. But, it does provide a sort of safety net, of hope and comfort, of some sense that there’s something that lives on even when my body finally gives up. My faith provides a sense of meaning, and a comfort in the familiar rituals of scripture, of hymns of promise, of connection with a Savior who experienced death himself, and isolation, and then of the empty tomb and, finally, those wonderful stories of his very real presence, like when Jesus joined two of his followers on the road, but they did not recognize him until they sat down to dinner.

What happens when someone dies? I’m not sure exactly, but I’d rather struggle with that question in the midst of faith, rather than in the limits of human intellect.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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1 Response to What Happens When Someone Dies?

  1. wheresmykid says:

    “What happens when someone dies?”

    You ask a good question. Sometimes I think how you answer that question depends upon who it is that dies. When my parents died, it was their time. When a friend died, it was sad. When my daughter died, however, that was and is utterly unacceptable. It stretches all notions of faith and, ultimately, trust in all aspects of the human experience.

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