In the Company of the Dead

I grew up in a rather Spartan Protestant denomination where we believed when people were dead, they were dead and gone. We could remember them, but that was all we could do. There was a permanent severing that, for me, always seemed to magnify the loss.

In the last decade I've been reading more and more about some of the liturgical churches: Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox. Visiting an Orthodox church was interesting, the walls and even ceiling covered in icons, hundreds of images of Christ and dead Christians that, according to the liturgical churches, are not gone. They are still "here" in a sense: we can talk with them, ask them to intercede for us, be inspired by them. To a point, I guess, we can get to know these strangers who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

However, according to the priests and scholars, it is not just canonized saints we can talk to. We can speak with our own dead, too. Reading and hearing and coming to accept this tore down the wall between the living and dead that my old denomination had erected in my heart, and it was a great comfort when my aunt passed away recently. There are things I'd wished I told her, and in mourning I took the time to say them. But it doesn't end there; she is still with us; all of our dead are. Death does not need to tear a hole in our community.

Some say this is just a way to deal with grief, but it isn't. I believe it is a way to keep the fabric of community whole and strong, and it is more about building and maintaining the courage to fight the good fight than comforting us in loss.

There should be tears as we look out on those fields of crosses, row on row, and gaze upon those stones that mark our own personal dead. Death is a tragedy. But we should also feel our courage renewed in such company, and we should eat and drink and sing and talk with them.

Memorial Day seems a good time to speak of this. Maybe our fallen warriors are all around us, cheering us on, interceding with the Commander for us. Maybe we already live in Valhalla, in a way. Whether we are victorious in our current struggles or not, if we live courageously, then when we die they are here to welcome us home, and we can join them in their mission.


Anonymous said...

Best post of the day

Eric Blair said...

Interesting. My father in law just passed away, (peacefully in his sleep, at 90, unlike the Germans his ship shot down over Malta in WWII), and in the Catholic tradition I was raised in, we prayed to pretty much everybody in the last couple of generations that had died in my prayers at night.

Your ancestors are always with you. You are of them. No escaping that.

Grim said...

I've spent most of the last week cleaning out dad's workshop. These matters are much on my mind.

Anonymous said...

I was raised to think of the Church being the living and all the dead that went before us: the church militant, or those in the battle of life, the Church penitent, or those in purgatory (this is not really theological, but a bow to the need for human comfort in thinking of very flawed human being and unbaptized babies) and the Church Triumphant, or those who lived good lives.

I know that there is no proof that God does or does not exist. But I live in a country founded on the principle that people have inalienable rights conferred by their Creator. I can see the results of a nation that strives, at every level to obey the great Second Commandment, "love your neighbor." I see that command implemented in our founding documents as a list of rights, most especially equal protection under the laws and due process of law.

I watched my grandfather die of old age, clinging to life in fear, and my grandmother go in peace with faith. I have seen a hard-hearted woman lose her mind through senility, and live in hell for years before her life ended. I have seen two loving and generous people also lose their minds, one fading in happiness to the memories of the other side, and the other receding to a happy, gentle, childlike state.

I still do not know if God exists, but I know for a fact that those who act of the foundational beliefs of this country are more successful in the pursuit of happiness.

I will throw in with the believers, because they create good results during their lifetimes.


Tom said...

Thanks, anonymous.

Eric & Valerie, I wasn't raised with any of that. Until maybe 10 years ago, I didn't know the terms Church Militant and Church Triumphant. For us, when someone died they went to Heaven or Hell and were gone. We would see them again, if we both went to the same place, when we died, but that was all.

I prefer this way of thinking about it.

Grim said...

That's similar to the set of assumptions I had being raised in a Presbyterian church. It's odd how completely that dispenses with the real theology, in which we are supposed to look for the resurrection of the dead and judgment. Rather, it presumes an instantaneous judgment and immediate eternal life, either of bliss or of torment.

Tom said...

Well, that was a debated point in my old denomination. Some said the dead were asleep until Judgment Day. Either way, they were separated from us.

Also, I never really studied the theology of that denomination. These were things I absorbed in a couple of decades of sermons and Sunday school lessons and discussions with friends and family. So, I could be wrong about their official positions.

Once I started looking at history seriously and then theology, the liturgical churches seemed the right place to look. Oh, and of course CS Lewis pointed me toward the Anglicans as well.

Grim said...

Yeah, I felt the same way. There was a lot of looseness in talk and thought about these issues, and for many years -- especially of course as a child -- I didn't notice. And then one day I did, and I began to press them about it; and it turned out that they had to think about the philosophy a lot to give any kind of account of it, and they weren't really all that interested in what struck me as big questions like "Do the dead go at once to heaven or hell, or do they lie asleep until the final judgment?"

I think that's inevitable with the democratic forms that you get with the more radical kinds of Protestantism -- even by Presbyterian forms, and certainly by the time you've reached the Baptists. Most people aren't that interested in the philosophy. And really, what justification is that they ought to be? They're trusting God to take care of it; and having placed their confidence in God's handling of it, why worry about the details? Surely God will handle it well, however he does.

douglas said...

Well, I'm raised Catholic, and still am. I suppose this has been less a major point of thought for me as I've been blessed by not encountering death too closely in my youth, and only a little more in my adulthood. I was, though, often that child who kept asking 'why?', or other serious questions (in fact, I recall asking that exact same question you mention, Grim). Fortunately for me, my parents, especially my father, had thought about many of these things and could answer my questions to my satisfaction most of the time. Perhaps that my father was an adult convert plays into that a bit- he too questioned and sought answers and found them in the Catholic Church. Oddly perhaps, it's the idea of a personal relationship- be it with God or the saints or relatives passed- that I've struggled with always. I've never had difficulty believing in God, eternal justice and the afterlife, but the personal connection to God has always been the difficult part for me. As I get a bit older now, I suppose it's a slightly more comfortable thing to wrap my head around, but making it a part of my life has still been a struggle at times.

I do know that whether or not I feel I have a personal relationship to those beyond, I feel their mark on my life. Sometimes even those whom I've not had the chance to meet in life. Part of our Memorial Day ritual is to go to a ceremony at a cemetery near here, where they have speakers, and color guards and pipes, and proper honors for those we memorialize that day. Then afterward, we walk over to the adjacent "Lincoln Court" where there is a mosaic of the life of Abraham Lincoln, and I read to the kids about the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address. We then proceed to the grave of PO2 James Suh, one of the SEALs killed in the downing of the Helicopter carrying a portion of the QRF in Operation Red Wings. There I read to my kids about his life, and the impact his death had on his family, so that they might understand the realities behind the meaning of the day. Inevitably, I shed a few tears there, for even though I never knew him, I feel somehow connected, and surely eternally indebted to him and his family.

I hope you are correct, Thomas, and they are around us, and give us courage and support in our times of need. Certainly, their memories do.

Tom said...

That sounds like a very worthwhile ritual, douglas.

For me, I think the personal aspect of the relationship with God depends on the idea that He is not an impersonal force, like thermodynamics. Thermodynamics doesn't know or care who you are; it works the same for everyone. God knows who you are and loves you as an individual, and he may do things differently with you than with someone else.

With the dead, asking the saints and Mary for intersession has been part of Christian practice from the beginning, I believe. It seems clear that death does not separate us completely and that we can still talk to them, so why not? For me, I've found talking to the dead seems to keep them in my community, at least in my mind. Even in something like your Memorial Day ritual, why not talk to Suh and thank him personally? (Maybe you do. I don't know; I'm just talking.)

Grim, I think part of it is also the belief in sola scriptura and the idea that if the Bible doesn't give a definite answer, then philosophy is just conjecture and we can't really know. I ran into that a lot in discussions. Someone would ask a theological question and several people would take a shot at answering, but the final word usually seemed to be either a quote from scripture that gave a definite answer, or "Well, the Bible doesn't say, so we can't really know."

Tom said...

Just a couple of theological notes:

Valerie said: "... purgatory (this is not really theological, but a bow to the need for human comfort in thinking of very flawed human being and unbaptized babies) ..."

Pope John Paul II explained the theology of it, if anyone is interested. This is part of a large discussion on "Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory" on the same page.

I don't know whether I believe it, mind you, but it seems like a rational, theological belief.

Grim said: "It's odd how completely that dispenses with the real theology, in which we are supposed to look for the resurrection of the dead and judgment. Rather, it presumes an instantaneous judgment and immediate eternal life, either of bliss or of torment."

That's interesting. I listen to a lot of Catholic radio (EWTN) and I've heard Catholic apologists talk about an instantaneous judgement ("particular judgment"). Here's a page on their website that explains it.

I'm not Catholic (or a member of any denomination) and I don't know how authoritative the information is, of course, but I thought these were interesting.

douglas said...

Thanks, Tom, I think your suggestion to thank James Suh explicitly and directly is an excellent one. I have only done it indirectly, but I suppose you do those things you think you should, and hopefully, something grows from that.

You know Tom, one thing about Catholic tenet- there are a lot of things that are 'maybe it's like this and maybe it's like that- neither view is inconsistent with the canon of the Church so believe as you like'.

I will say that as a born and bred Catholic, we were always taught about purgatory. My personal belief is that our questions of instantaneous vs. delayed miss the meaning of the word 'eternal' and the ramifications of that. Time is our problem, not that of God or those gone beyond this realm.