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?)
In the fragility of that space, I tried not to rush family and friends through the process. Yet I knew that we could not remain in that space indefinitely. A couple clouds passed behind the tall trees on that bright sunny day, a stark contrast to the grey cloud of grief that loomed over us as we sat in silence. After a few minutes, each person was given a poppy. They were invited to bring it forward and place it on the table next to a picture of Poppy's tiny feet lying next to her parents' wedding rings. This was our symbolic act of letting go of Poppy's life and entrusting her into the hands of God.
Then we took Communion together. Never before had I noticed how fitting the ancient Christian practice is after a death. It neither leaves us without hope nor rushes us past the gruesome reality of death. Paul's words, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26, emphasis mine), cultivate hope by enlisting us in protest against death until it is trampled under foot (1 Cor. 15:25–26).
Mourning rituals are rare in modern Western society. Instead, death comes to us like a passing advertisement displayed on a website: The news flashes and we pause for a moment before returning to our day as if nothing happened. Having spent all my life in evangelical communities, I have encountered few activities that engage churches in the process of facing death and remembering the dead.
But this has not always been the case. In a little book, For All the Saints?: Remembering the Christian Departed, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright describes the role Easter Lilies have played in a liturgical approach to remembering the dead. In the weeks leading up to Easter, churchgoers are invited to bring lilies into the sanctuary as a way to remember their loved ones with "grief, gratitude and Christian hope." As the lilies tangibly call to mind those who have died, the worship practice makes space for grief and hope to reside together, leading our longings to stretch out for the Resurrection. Practices like this usher the believing community into a healthy memory of the dead.
Longing for Victory
Every year on the anniversary of Isaac's death, I return to his grave. I do this as a way of observing what the Jews call Yahrzeit, an annual memorial of a loved one's death. When I arrive at the cemetery, I sit in my car for a few moments, then ask God to help me glorify him by remembering Isaac. At the foot of his grave I begin rehearsing the memories I have of Isaac and the joy he brought to the community. Invariably my memories run out too soon—he was only 17 months old. And so I kneel down to pull away the weeds that have crept over the headstone where his body lay. In this space, the grief over Isaac and the anger over his premature death cultivate in me an inexpressible ache. The longer I remain in this place surrounded by markers of death, the stronger the cry of "Maranatha: Come Lord Jesus!" grows. I pray that Christ would bring his resurrection life into the world soon.
Practices like these are not simply a salve for individual grief. Rather, they help us corporately align ourselves with God's battle against death, Satan, and sin. They reach into the past, embrace the memory of the dead, and rush forward in hope for a day when we are united with the historic community of faith in renewed bodies at the final resurrection. As often as we proclaim the Lord's death and sing the word "Maranatha" in church, we join with heaven's protest against death's grip on all creation and cultivate a longing for God's victory to be complete. O Death, we keep our wounds of grief from healing knowing that your defeat is sure! The scars on the body of the resurrected Jesus assure us that pain will not be the only tie that binds us to the Christian departed.
Cory B. Willson is a Ph.D. candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-founding editor of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal. He and his wife, Monica, serve at Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach.