Words and Death

November 5, 2017


Epitaphs are those last words we (allegedly) leave behind. They can reflect us – sum us up so to speak.

Workers of All Lands Unite. The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. Karl Marx R.I.P.

I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter. Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) R.I.P.

Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity! John Brown is filling his last cavity. R.I.P. (Epitaph of an [unknown] dentist.)

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare! Blest be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.
And it would seem that people weren’t too fearful of being cursed because no one is sure where William Shakespeare’s bones are now!

Words and death are tricky things. It’s hard to get them right and very easy to get them wrong. And I’m not talking about trying to sum up in words that take 15 minutes to say what took perhaps 80 years to live. I’m talking more about truth. Whose truth is being told of the dead?

Theirs? Their families? Whose family? An elderly man dies and the pastor agrees to take the funeral. The man’s widow – his second wife – is happy for this to occur and the pastor learns their story. At the funeral the first wife turns up and she has another aspect of the deceased’s story she wants told! Whose truth do you tell in the face of death?

When death is in uniform or for a cause, then that shapes the message told.
In one sense all these words do not affect the deceased! But they shape how those grieving go on and they shape whatever legacy is to be remembered. Death is such a wrench, a permanent absence in this world, that we hope the words comfort us. But that raises the question of truth again. Maybe everyone should write their own funeral message and we leave it at that – just as we’ve heard them in life – and agreed, disagreed, assented, dissented, loved, hated – so what’s one more message? What do you say at death – that event that comes to all?

In Ecclesiastes – a book not for the faint hearted – written, tradition has it, by a very rich and wise man – we read,
1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV)

Death comes to all – the righteous and the wicked, the religious and non religious. Life is for this world – when you’re dead, you’re gone – that’s our experience. For Solomon, hope is only for those alive – hence better to be a living dog than a dead lion. And in that phrase – true in a vanities of vanities way in this world – there is also a greater truth – a fulfilled truth – for to be joined to the living means hope – even if we know we will die!

Jesus doesn’t have an epitaph. His grave couldn’t hold him and when he appeared to his disciples in the locked room, the first words he said were, “Peace be with you”. His empty tomb and his claim on people bring hope to a world full of death. His victory means that he really does have the last word after all – in life and death. In fact, only his words can really bring comfort in the face of death.

Marx might speak of alienation of people from their labour and each other.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet – Hamlet Acts 2, Scene 2.

We can see the situation of people and death. We can philosophise and theologise in the abstract but it becomes very concrete in the presence of a coffin. What do we say?

If we are talking theology then they are God-words – words about God and words from God. Notice they are not firstly words about us. All Saints’ Day is the culmination of all the funerals held in a year – a summary or distillation of all the words said – and the focus must be on the one who has defeated death not on the ones silenced by death. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25,26 ESV)

All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar is a commemoration that those who are linked to Jesus, who are touched by Jesus through words, water, bread and wine, and who live with him – are saints. Yes, these saints – us as Christians – live by faith – because we don’t see Jesus as we see each other and the things of this world – and it all means that we believe they – and we – go through a death like Jesus’. And that means that though they die yet shall they live. Though we die, yet shall we live in Christ. Jesus’ words make us see even death differently than the world.

Originally this Church festival was a commemoration and even a celebration that those whom the world killed for Jesus – the martyrs – were not defeated by the world. The world said all sorts of words about these deaths – hateful, mocking, scornful words. Christians said the words of the Word made flesh to counter such worldly words.

Today we have great social pressure not to speak ill of the dead and in Christian countries to emphasise how good the deceased was with the implication that God will receive them into his heaven. These are still often worldly words that want to deflect looking at and listening to Jesus. Because when we come to grips with his cross and empty tomb then the reason for death – sin is understood – the hope for living is promised – and we don’t have to claim or point to the deceased’s good works as the alternative to Jesus – but what we want to emphasise or point to is what Jesus has done through words, water, bread and wine for the deceased – which means that death’s power is broken – we believe it in faith – and we will see it one day ourselves.

What do we say at death? It’s always hard to know exactly what to say in each situation but the Festival of All Saints reminds us of what is going on here – that sin and death are theological realities – and there is a theology – God-words – that can and should be said.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that when those God-words are of and about and from Jesus then there is life and hope – and the best comfort for the grief and the living that keeps on when a loved one has died.


Bible References

  • Ecclesiastes 9:1 - 6