November 01, 2018
John Scally - Doctrine & Life November 2018
My mother’s voice was fractured with emotion as she spoke down the crackling line. Although her voice was scarcely audible, her words are forever imprinted in my memory: ‘Prepare yourself for an awful shock. Are you sitting down?’ The blackest possible scenarios exploded through my brain. Except that one. ‘Poor Oliver got a heart-attack this morning and died in Bertie’s shed. The ambulance came and took him away. Can you come home?’
The foundations I thought were firm under my feet crumbled. Oliver was my best friend. My next door neighbour. My cousin. My soulmate. I’ve been told that from a certain angle we could have been mistaken for twins. He was the brother I never had. The finality of his death hit home with brutal force. From then on I would have to think of him in the past tense.
COPING WITH DEATH
I braced myself for the saddest moment of my life when I arrived at the corpse’s house. It was a weird experience to walk through the door. I wanted to turn back, but something inside me kept me walking on. I had not expected to see his body in the living room. I had tried to prepare myself for this moment. But when the stark reality of his corpse was but feet away from me, it was frightening in the extreme. I went to offer words of consolation to his family - but it was they who comforted me.
My mind was spinning with questions. Oliver was just 33 years of age. I could not comprehend why his radiant eyes had to surrender their sight. Nor why his articulate voice had to give away its speech. Justice should not allow the sacrifice of such innocent wealth.
Well-meaning sympathisers trotted out soothing phrases: ‘It’s God’s holy will.’ Right then I wished God had never been invented. Another said: ‘It’s happy for him. There’s something beautiful about a young death.’ Happy? Beautiful? I wanted to scream at such a perversion of language. But it was not the time nor the place. Even if I had the energy.
I am not sure why but I felt compelled to touch his forehead. The coldness of death repelled me and I pulled back my hand immediately. For the first time I discovered that tears tasted of salt.
On the third day Oliver was buried. His funeral was a very moving occasion. The grief though intensely personal was generously shared. The local community as always responded magnificently in times of adversity. Everyone rallied around. Every seat in the house was crammed with relatives and neighbours, all with mournful faces. They had good reason to in this court of human suffering.
The next hour or so is a complete haze as if I’ve lost a piece of my life.
In this state the sands of time shift slowly. A strange paralysis invaded me.
The graveyard is on the top of an exposed hill. ‘This must be the coldest spot in Ireland’ a stranger said to me.
My grandfather, my surrogate father after my real Daddy died when I was only five, is buried almost beside Oliver’s grave. Unlike Oliver the swirling tide of death had liberated him from the nightmare of a lengthy illness. He is the ghost I carry around within me. It comforted me to think that the two most important men ever in my life lay almost side-by-side. For a moment I longed to be with both of them - but my time had not yet come.
Oliver was laid to rest in an austere ceremony. His coffin was laid into the ground and then draped in a blanket of hay. ‘The finest of stuff’ he would have said. Tradition in rural Roscommon dictated that the nearest neighbours on the prompting of the bereaved dig the grave and later fill the clay over the coffin with a sense of privilege and decorum. The frozen clay seemed to resent the willing shovels. There was a finality about the proceedings in the tap-tap-tap as the back of the spade shaped the remaining mound of fresh clay. What really crucified me though was the sound of clods of earth crashing on the coffin. Now we will be forever friends in two different worlds.
I waited until the mourners had departed to be alone with him for a final moment. I prayed to buy him some shares in the hereafter. Now I see why ‘Goodbye’ is the most painful word in the English language. Parting is no sweet sorrow.
It is hope that sustains us. St Augustine wrote, ‘Hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage.’ The anger comes when we hurt after a death in the family. We need courage if we are to take the practical steps necessary to transform the situation. But how are we to do so without compounding the existing problems or begetting new ones?
Ours is an age which is obsessed with youth. So many people seem petrified of aging, let alone dying. We need a new culture of dealing with the reality of death. The Christian tradition has many insights to offer to this debate. Death is not the end of the story, but another phase in the soul’s journey, an entrance into the wider life, endlessly stretching out. As Christians we ought to be forefront of the development of this culture of death as we profess to believe that the eternal life in which we pray to be resurrected has long begun.
Suffering, particularly after the death of a loved one often appears an unanswerable conundrum for those who believe in the Christian God and it often rouses us to anger. Yet we also believe that God is present in our suffering, hanging on the cross of contradiction, and that life flows from this dark mystery.
On Good Friday Jesus reached into the depths of sorrow, when this God-man experienced the physical agony and the mental degradation that so may people experience today. It was as if he deliberately entered, imitated, the most painful dimensions of being human, plumbing it to its unspeakable depth. We need to find the crucifixion and resurrection within us.
While the sense of loss from Oliver’s death will always reverberate in my heart I must find a way to live on while never forgetting. We are left with many troubling issues.
REMEMBERING THE DEAD
November is the month which the Christian Church has designated as the time we remember in a special way those we have loved and lost. It is a month which we in Ireland have historically marked by visits to the graves of those who are forever locked onto our hearts.
Yet the bigger purpose of this month is often forgotten. This is a time when the Church invites us to reflect on the mystery of death itself. It is an invitation I, for one, am reluctant to take up as the thought of death sends a chill to my bones but I feel it is my duty to Oliver to do so. The sadness of Oliver’s death will always remain with me. This month the Christian Church challenges me to integrate this experience into my life, rather than engaging in escapism or falling prey to despair: to find something constructive in this most destructive experience of our human existence. To do this I must interpret the meaning of Oliver’s death in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was really dead. His death was never undone. The resurrection did not negate Jesus’s death because as a gracious act of God it is only possible once all human freedom and power has come to a complete and irreversible end in death. Jesus maintained his complete commitment to his Father’s will even when he confronted the certitude of his personal extinction. In raising Jesus from the dead God has not undone the laws of nature. Instead the Father has manifested his fidelity to his son by accepting the total self-giving and accompanying powerlessness of Jesus at the cross and by glorifying Jesus as the first-born of a new eternal order of relationships as they are meant to be.
In this perspective eternal life starts now. It is the quality of God’s relationship to us and God’s fidelity to us which gifts us with eternal life in the here and now. Accordingly, while death is the end of our life it is not the end of our story. Death is a new beginning: an opening to the consummation of a new relationship with God which has already begun in this life.
As the darkness of winter closes in I will again think of Oliver and grieve for him. Yet one memory will sustain me. As he was buried a few drops of rain fell. I suspected they were tears of anger for a deed wrong and absurd. As the final shovelfuls of clay though were thrown on the grave the sun came out of hiding like a scene from an autumnal coloured photograph. The symbol surely was the reality. Oliver had risen with the Son.
John Scally is Beresford Adjunct Assistant Professor in Ecclesiastical History at Trinity College Dublin. His books include As I Have Loved You and Caring for Life.
Doctrine & Life, November 2018, pages 57-62.
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