For me, as a teenager, death seems so far away. It seems untouchable, unrecognisable, unknown. At our age, death is not something we long for, often not something we have frequently experienced, and not something we are altogether comfortable with, something we put to the back of our mind. Death seems like the end. Full stop. End of story. Erect a gravestone and forget about it. But death is not the end.
I was privileged yesterday to be asked to sing for a funeral. I live right next to a church, and it being the summer holidays, many members of their regular choir were on holiday, and so we were recruited as ringers, being next door neighbours, and in return for all the apples, apple puree, apple crumbles and apple pies we are given as products from the Father’s apple tree which overhangs our garden.
This funeral was for a man called Paul Williams. A man who I had never met before in my life. He had a beautiful wife, Nicola, and two boys, Charlie and Matt, who like me, were just teenagers. He was 57. He was diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease 11 months ago. This was a man who shouldn’t have had to die so soon. But he had lived his life to the absolute full, there was no doubt about that. He was a sea scout, member of the choir, mathematician, lover of ale, magician, collector, father, husband, son and so much more.
11 months had drastically turned him from someone fit, adventurous and full of life, running the Great North Run, into someone gradually paralysed by a crippling degenerative illness. It seemed like the end. Indeed a funeral service, with its eulogies and prayers of commendation seems to be the process of saying an eternal goodbye.
So sitting there, not knowing the deceased or his family, I was on the verge of tears. Death seemed like this big black hole that had swallowed Paul up like Jonah. Yet, this man was a contemporary of my parents. Those boys, sitting mourning at the front of the Church, they could have just as easily been my brother or I. It could have been me saying goodbye, coming to the realisation that I would never see my mother or father again.
But I didn’t cry. As much as I willed myself, I couldn’t cry. It was OK to be upset, I said to myself. But I didn’t cry.
At the beginning of the service, the Father said, “Death is not the end. Death is the glorious beginning.” For me, this was where my strength was coming from. I knew that Paul was on earth no longer but had been called into heaven by God. I knew that God would keep Paul and his family safe in the knowledge that they were not alone and that they were always being watched over. For Paul and his family, death marked a glorious beginning. For Paul, this was the glory of being accepted into God’s kingdom and beginning his life in a greater place. For his family, this was a unforeseen and unwanted beginning. This was a beginning as a family of 3, and a new journey into the unknown. But I knew they were comforted by the fact that they would always have God at their right hands to support, uplift and uphold them.
This reading, Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, really helped me to see this. There is a time for everything. Paul had reached his time to die. Nicola, Charlie and Matt had mourned, been silent and wept. But now it was their time to laugh at Paul’s misdeeds when he was at college, to mend, to love, to be at peace, to embrace, to speak and to know that God would always be with them in their toil.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
Like me, Charlie, Matt and Nicola did not cry. They rejoiced. They rejoiced in the wonderful life that Paul had led. They rejoiced that he had gone peacefully into heaven. They rejoiced in his smile and perseverant attitude that Paul possessed all through his life. They rejoiced that he would always be safe, and never forgotten. They rejoiced that God, with Paul, would be looking down on them, and guiding them in the next days, weeks, months and years.
There will be times where it seems like death is the end. There will be times that it seems impossible to stop crying, to stop the enveloping grief of death. There will be times that Nicola, Charlie and Matt will mourn and weep. But these are the times that God is with you. He urges you to stand up and to slowly begin a glorious new life, with him on your shoulder.
Death should not be put away in a box and forgotten about because death is real. Death can come upon you suddenly and take you by surprise. So take the time to tell your loved ones how much you love them while you still can. But I realised yesterday that I should not fear death.
Because death is not the end.