When I was a child, a family in our church lost their daughter in a tragic car accident weeks before her high school graduation. For years after Vicky died, my mother kept in contact with her parents, mentioning her in conversation long after our community had stopped talking about her.
On one occasion, my mother asked, "Do you ever wonder what Vicky's children would look like?" Talking about the dead in this way makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But for Vicky's parents, it was a breath of fresh air—healing air. At one point, Vicky's dad told my mother, "You are the only one who ever mentions Vicky's name. Everyone else is afraid to." He and his family were pained by losing the memory of Vicky, so speaking her name was for them a source of comfort.
Death is a cyclical reality in all communities, and often families are forced to travel the grieving journey alone. After his young son died, a close friend of mine said, "Pretty soon Isaac will fade from most people's memory. And any future children we have will never know him. Instead they will associate him with times of the year when Mom and Dad are sad—his birthday, the day he died, and Mother's and Father's Day." My friend was not only grieving the loss of Isaac; he was also grieving the loss of his memory in the community. Forgetting Isaac meant deep alienation for his family.
A year after Isaac died, another family from my circle of friends lost their little girl, Poppy, in the third trimester of pregnancy. As with Isaac's father, Poppy's parents were afraid that Poppy's memory would be lost. In a tender moment, Poppy's father said, "I am afraid to lose the pain over Poppy's death, because pain is the only connection I have to her."
His words reflect a deep truth about our Christian faith. They are words of protest against the forces of death that had extinguished Poppy's life and now threatened to take her memory as well.
Nearly three decades ago, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff issued a protest over the death of his son, Eric, in a hiking accident. "Death is shalom's mortal enemy," wrote Wolterstorff in Lament for a Son. "Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death." For him there is only one response until death is finally overcome:
I shall keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity's mourning bench.
The families of Isaac, Poppy, and Eric will not be fully healed until the trumpet sounds, the dead are raised to life, and Death our final enemy is trampled underfoot. Only then will we shout the protester's triumph: "Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55). Only then will memories cease to be the only tie that binds us to our loved ones. Only then will we be delivered to complete shalom—to wholeness, joy, and peace with each other.
We proclaim that our deceased loved ones who trusted Christ are in the hands of a loving Savior. This is central to biblical faith. Yet on this side of the Resurrection, memory also plays a central role in keeping hope alive. Remembering our loved ones who have died is part of our Christian understanding of hope.
I was asked to officiate at Poppy's memorial. Those gathered voiced the hopes and expectations that were bound up in her life and stolen from us. This gave way to words of grief, pain, and anger over the loss of her life. Then came for me the most difficult part of the service: commending Poppy into the hands of our loving and just Savior. (Why had I not seen before that these moments deliver the sting of death most intensely?)