Our resting places will be close to the first hole of the local golf course, just the other side of a low fence. One imagines plenty of wayward golf balls bouncing across the burial plot in future years.
This was not an impulsive decision. It was prompted by a commitment to thoughtful preparation, wise practices, and well-established habits for the changing seasons of life, including winter times to come. It also allowed us to share with members of our local church that we had made a decision to long-term relationship and ministry among them. Commitments of this kind seem increasingly important in our times of thinning community. We told them—with smiles on our faces—that we had decided to do life among them until we were dead.
My parents, before they died, stubbornly refused to speak with us about death, specifically their own. Too morbid, they would say. Why talk about death and dying, they would say. Let’s watch some more footy and have a cuppa, they would say. Their refusal solidified in me convictions as to why such conversations and preparation are wise.
I am convicted that gazing at and reflecting on a thread woven into the biblical tapestry—a thread of meaningful melancholy—is instructive and life-giving. This thread is evident in, for example, the wondrous observation of the Preacher: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
To sit and meet, to converse and eat in places of sadness, is to embrace the reality that death is our shared destiny. Good living encompasses wise dying. In keeping with the ancient Preacher, Jesus, in like manner, affirms: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
But finding true wisdom in sad places of meaningful melancholy is not a dominant thread in the tapestry of our anxious, rushing, indulgent, entertainment-hungry, and wealth-seeking times. We are bombarded with images of eternal youth, health, wealth, and power. We are tempted by promises of limitless possibilities. To be human is to conquer, we are told. Possibly nothing is beyond us if we set our minds to it. Perhaps we can defy our mortality. Surely, new technologies guarantee a further reduction or even elimination of human frailty.
There are no places in such hyper-narratives for learning contentment with human weakness; for lamenting the realities of sickness, tragedy, and loss; for preparing well to grow old; for becoming more dependent on others; and for dying with hope and gratitude. Jesus pronounced woes on those who buy into the distortions of being human without sadness: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). In keeping with Jesus’s words, we can choose to willingly mourn and weep now rather than unwillingly under God’s judgement in the life to come.
I have long been drawn to the rich array of images for death in biblical texts. As Jacob dies, we are told, he pulls his feet into the bed, breathes his last, and is gathered to his people (Genesis 49:33). How wonderful! As Stephen is pummelled with rocks, his death is described as falling asleep (Acts 7:60). Again, how wonderful! Equally wonderful are images for death used by the Preacher: the severing of a silver cord, a golden bowl being shattered, a wheel broken at the well, dust returning to the ground as the spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:6–7).
Death is indeed our enemy, contends Paul (1 Corinthians 15:26). Human life as now experienced is, indeed, perishable. Beset by weakness. Like living in a tent. But death, far from leaving us homeless, ushers us into a building made by God, a strong and permanent dwelling place (2 Corinthians 5:1–5).
Recently, family and friends gathered to grieve and give thanks for one of our church members who died too young. Just over one month ago, I sat with her, a dignified and capable woman, on the deck of her lovely home. Her flourishing gardens are the product of willing, joyful work over past years. And there was so much more to be done. But death was approaching. We talked about letting go. Facing fears. Looking forward. Giving thanks. We remembered and prayed. We cried and laughed. We imagined resurrection and reunion. It was such good conversation. Our dear friend wintered well. May we all do likewise.