Today I will stand at the grave-side of a friend of some forty-four years and speak the words I have spoken so many times before as a priest, a minister, and friend. The words are addressed not to the one who has died, but rather to those of us who will go on living in a world that will no longer experience her laughter, her tears, her heartaches, her joys, and her love. “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man [woman] dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…, wrote John Donne. How will her chapter in the book of life be translated into a better language by those of us who knew her and cared for her? How can that begin today and what words can I say to a grieving family that will initiate that translation into a new and better language?
There are no words I can say today that will help us understand death, for death will always be a mystery. When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ death, he wept. When Mary Magdalene thought of Jesus in the tomb, she was consumed with grief and mourning. So we will weep today—an appropriate response as we confront the mystery of death.
We live in an aspirin age, when any discussion or mention of death is seen as morbid, or as a betrayal of, or a treason against life. (Elizabeth Kubler Ross, The American Way of Death) Yet it is a reality—a reality that we cannot deny or smooth over with words—nor can we only think of it happening to others—for as Donne pointedly says, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
What can be said? Comforting words, yes. Hopeful words, yes. Words of gratitude, yes. Words of faith, yes. I am in the company of Kazantzakis this morning, who wrote, “I had nothing but twenty-six lead soldiers, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet…” to find the words, the right words, and so it is with me. I have twenty-six letters out of which to form words that can translate a beautiful life now gone into a new and better language. Are there any such words? Many poets and song-writers have tried….
By Mary Lee Hall
be not like others sore undone,
who keep long vigil by the silent dust.
For my sake turn again to life and smile,
nerving thy heart and trembling hand
to do something to comfort other hearts than mine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine
and I perchance may therein comfort you.