The death of Death

Every day, down through the centuries, people with heavy hearts have stood around open graves and lowered the bodies of their loved ones into the ground. Today it is our turn to perform this ancient ritual, yet the familiarity of the act does little to still the emotions that jar and clash inside my heart. Grief. Joy. Longing. Pain. All clamouring for a moment in the spotlight, determined to take their rightful place.

She was a remarkable woman, this grandmother of mine. The way she knew and remembered every story you told her, long after you had forgotten it yourself. Her steadfast faith. Her ceaseless prayers. Her generosity. Her gentle smile. The endless supply of unconditional love. She touched lives quietly and without fanfare, leaving behind many whose stories are richer because she crossed their path.  

With a faith that was forged in the fires of heartache and trial she was no stranger to the scars death leaves in its wake. While faith was always the anchor for her grief, it was not unusual to find her with tear-stained cheeks in a quiet moment. Despite all she knew of resurrection and hope, the wounds of sorrow ran deep and she was not afraid to whisper an accepting yes to grief.

Today we will do the same.  

Yes to the waves of sadness that will take us by surprise in the days to come.

Yes to the moments of longing.

Yes to the tears that accompany the resurrection of long buried memories.

Yes, because this grief is the cost of loving and being loved in a broken world.

My friend Sam Smith recently wrote this message to my daughters; “It is what it is, but it is not what it shall be”. There is no denying the sadness we feel in this moment but, at the same time, there is no holding back the joy of knowing this grave is only a small part of the story.

If she taught us anything, Granny taught us that death is not the fearsome enemy he wants us to believe. She taught us how to look beyond the fresh mound of earth and, even in the presence of grief, choose to live in the light of the resurrection. For all the loss and heartache she carried, she never surrendered to despair. The hope which burned within her would not allow it.

She knew that if we claim God in the good times, we must trust him in the difficult times. She taught us with her words and with her life, clinging doggedly to Him as her physical strength began to fail. Even in her final hours, stooped and weary, she gave us glimpses of the faithfulness of God that have forever changed my understanding of death.

On Wednesday, the day before she died, I abandoned her usual reading plan. The passage for that day just didn’t seem appropriate. Quietly disappointed that God would let her down like that, I turned instead to 2 Chronicles 20 v 17, simply because it was the verse I had been reading with friends that morning.

“You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out to face them, for the Lord is with you.”

At some point in the early hours of that Thursday morning, Death made his final advance. As he took the blow that should have sealed his victory, he found instead that he had fallen on his own sword, freeing her forever from his grasp. As she slept, the God who promised never to leave her fought the final battle on her behalf. The outcome was never in doubt. That is the enduring impact of the cross and that is the heart of the God who was faithful to the very end. 

Two days later we gathered to pack away her things. The wheelchair and the walking frame. Glasses and hearing aids and her clock for the blind. There was a note of triumph in the room as we filled boxes with these once vital belongings, now cast off like a winter coat on a spring morning. Piercing through the grief came an intense longing for a place I have never been. A familiar stab of joy that came without warning and set my soul ablaze with hope.

I know that grief will fight on in the coming days. Longing will come without warning. Pain will cast its long shadow. However, in the end, only joy has the power to remain. As Francis J Roberts said, “We are not in the land of the living facing death, but in the land of the dying facing life”. In her final couple of days, Granny began to talk about music she thought all of us could hear. In the silence of the nursing home she heard singing. Not just singing but loud, beautiful singing. Choirs of people praising God. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have guessed.

At the end of The Last Battle, CS Lewis gives a glimpse of what life will be like for his characters now that they have finally made it to their true home.

“All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

The truth is, the body we are placing in the ground today is just an empty shell. Granny is more alive than she has ever been. We grieve for ourselves, for the loss and the parting, but for her there is only bright, resounding joy. Knowing what we know, holding on to what she taught us, how could there be anything else?

We love you, Granny. We’ll see you in the morning and you can be sure there will be stories to tell.