James B Lyons
Diocesan Priest, Wellington
On the Christian calendar, November 1 is All Saints’ Day, commemorating all the saints of the Church, known and unknown. The following day, November 2, is All Souls’ Day and is a day of remembrance for our beloved dead and all the faithful departed.
The Irish poet, John O’Donohue says of death that, when at last it comes it comes in silence; with no thought for the one to whom it comes.
. . .
One of my nephews died in September. I was with him a week earlier. Semi-conscious, he thrashed about, trying to remove the breathing tube and other necessary attachments. When he woke, he was determined to get out of hospital. But then, as death neared, a deep calm settled over him and he died in silence, his wife holding his hand.
Mid October, I was called to anoint a Religious Sister I knew well. As I reached the hospital, a text told me she had just died. She’d been on the phone to her own sister a short time earlier and had entertained a few visitors. Her death was not considered imminent but suddenly and very silently she died.
It often happens that death is sudden, unexpected; but even when disease or illness slowly spreads and the person knows they are dying, the moment of death is rarely prefaced by any scream or shout or fanfare. Just a moment – wrapped in silence, as death enters – without a thought for the one to whom it came.
We need to add that neither does death give any thought for those it leaves behind. Silence is the void that claims not only the dead but those who mourn them. There is nothing to say, nothing that can be said. There is only an emptiness and a strange stillness that seems endless – like the silence that follows the sharp crack of something breaking.
It’s as though, suddenly, sound is forbidden.
David J Roy, in the Canadian Journal of Palliative Care (1988), described this silence as ‘sacral’. He wrote, (It is) a testimony that something of incomparable and unsurpassable importance, that something terribly definitive, has happened to one of our very own, and to us.
And the silence continues into the funeral. There’s an awkwardness we can neither avoid nor understand, until we realise that we are there to break the silence – to speak our belief in life and in love, and to announce our conviction that death has no authority.
We can, and must, weep our tears and recognise our fears. There’s a terrible ache in the heart of every person who mourns the loss of one who filled the lives of others with love. But there is a togetherness in our mourning, and it’s in being together, united in grief, that life sparkles and doubts evaporate, and we can start to see the silence as merely a pause before the joyful sound, echoed with gospel clarity: HE LIVES!
The silence relating to death is especially broken with the Word of God.
Great care should be taken in selecting the scripture readings for any memorial or funeral service. This may be one of the few times many of those present are exposed to the Bible. The readings should be read well and be expressions of hope and peace and joy. We listen as God speaks through the prophets and apostles, telling the story of God’s love for creation and concern for the broken-hearted.
For instance, the invitation of Jesus to come to me if you are weary or weighed down with burdens and I will give you rest, [Matthew 11: 28-29] or the many assurances that love lives on, can bring tremendous comfort to people of faith stunned by the death of a loved one.
This month the Church gives pride of place to remembering those who have gone before us. Perhaps it is timely to also remember the silence we encountered in our loss and how that silence was broken through the supportive care received and the gradual awareness, gifted by faith, that the departed are still very near.
We honour the death of Jesus with a day of silence (Holy Saturday) when lack of words void any ritual. But then, as dawn opens the first day of the week, his followers discover his tomb empty.
That emptiness was far from silent and has shouted through the centuries of the powerlessness of death to make a prisoner of love.
For our departed we pray: Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.
Come to me if you are weary or weighed down with burdens and I will give you rest.— Matthew 11: 28-29