I was 10 years old when Grampa Zoller died. 25 years later, I remember the funeral. I saw his dead body in the casket, we sang The Old Rugged Cross (was amazed that Lutherans knew that song too), I wept with a deep sadness because I knew this meant I would never see my grandfather again. I also knew my trips to Fox Lake to catch crappies had come to an end.
I remember the casket being lowered into the ground. I remember family conversations that happened in the following weeks. His death required us to take the 90 minute drive to gramma’s house more than a couple times that winter. I remember watching a lot of Olympic hockey – the miracle on ice.
These memories run like powerpoint slides in my mind, each with a sight and a sound, but even more than that, an emotional tone. If I stop and let the slideshow play, I could be moved to tears. In fact, I think I ought to let that happen. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I mean, it’s only been 25 years, it’s not like I’ve gotten over his death.
Do you get over the death of someone you love? Perhaps you reconcile with it. Maybe you integrate that reality into your life. Or possibly you now live more humbly and thoughtfully. But get over it? I hope not. I just can’t get over the fact that Grampa Zoller is dead. Call me crazy, but I still wish he was alive.
So, that funeral ceremony, the family rituals that went with it, the songs we sang in the church house that day, the viewing of the body, the food, and everything else surrounding the funeral helped me (and help me even now) to begin the process of integrating the death of my grandfather into my life. I can’t imagine not having done all of that. It would have robbed my memories. The powerpoint in my mind would be nearly blank.
And yet, this brings to mind the current flow of our American culture as it relates to death. The trend these days is to make less and less of funerals. We think it might cause damage to a child to see a dead body, we might not want to “put someone through a funeral,” or perhaps we are afraid someone might cry, so we avoid it. Cremation is favored over burial in many parts of the country and opting out of a funeral all together is becoming more and more common. We behave in such a way that it would appear as if we deny death’s existence.
The death-denying, grief-avoidant, mourning-absent culture we live in is a product of the illusion of individualism and technological infinity we have become addicted to. If we were all truly autonomous individuals without need of anyone else, I could get over my grandfather’s death. It would be no big deal and I could just move on. It would feel the same as when I squish an ant. If technology could ever advance such that we can escape death, that would be something, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. No matter how far technology advances, dead is dead and there’s no other option.
Although we want to be happy and move rapidly, death reminds us that we need to slow down, grieve internally, mourn externally, and take the time necessary to integrate loss into our lives instead of running it through stages as fast as possible in order to “get over it.” If we don’t integrate it, then what we have is a neglected loss which will impose itself on us and demand to be heard. It will scream through the symptoms it invents.
As a people, as families, as friends, as communities of faith, we are connected to each other. When someone in that community dies, part of that community is dead. It is forever changed. This change must be reconciled or it will fester.
We need ways to integrate the death of the dead into the life of the living. We do not have the option of avoiding it.