Remembering the Dead & the Eternal

Those of us who grieve loved ones who are no longer with us view All Saints’ Eve and All Saints’ Day in a different way. We remember those who have gone before us, often too soon, and we try and do so in hope. The resurrection is that hope, “the sure and steadfast anchor of our soul,” that Jesus has gone before us and will raise us all up.

Yet we still mourn our loss as we remain behind. Recently, in the United States at least, the traditions of Día de los Muertos have begun to spread into popular culture. The sugar skulls associated with it are now ubiquitous and even the ofrenda, the small home altar to a deceased loved one, can be found in Target stores. The bright colors of the orange marigolds and banners bring a brightness and lightness to remembering and celebrating the dead, as opposed to the mournful or fearful blacks and grays often associated with grief.

Some Christians will reject all of this as syncretism and many others will view it as cultural appropriation. What it is, however, is a recognition of our deep, powerful need to remain connected with those who have died and to acknowledge the truth of our loss, even as we acknowledge our need to continue to live.

Our so-called modern cultures have set all these traditions aside as unhealthy superstition, instead of recognizing the deep spiritual and psychological needs that are met by such communal acts of lament. It was not that long ago in our own country that people wore black armbands, put crepe on the house, and even had the body of the beloved deceased on display in the parlor of their home. Death was as familiar as life and this brought about a healthier understanding of both.

The COVID pandemic has taken what our culture has inappropriately viewed as something private and forced us to acknowledge that death comes to all and that we all will, at some point, experience loss, we will all mourn, and grieve. It has provided us with an opportunity to return to older traditions of lament and perhaps to shape new ones.

In Christianity, some have misunderstood the promise and hope of the resurrection as a reason for not grieving. Some will say, “Do not grieve or be sad! They are with Jesus now and eventually you will be too!” As I have written elsewhere, this is a gross misunderstanding of the comforting and liberating truth that Paul expresses in 1 Thessalonians.

1Th. 4:13   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

“Paul is not telling [the community] that they should not grieve; rather, he is encouraging all those who believe in Christ that their grief not need be as those “who have no hope.” We will grieve; that is a given and should not be rushed past or diminished. Our knowledge of the resurrection, our faith that the kingdom of God will be established and that we will be reunited with God and our loved ones, does not remove our feelings of loss and sorrow now. Those who try to rush past this time of lamentation are robbing them- selves and others of the necessary expression of grief. Furthermore, we are encouraged by the Word of God, both Scripture and the Word made flesh, to lament, to cry out, and even to express our anger.” (See Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope)

So I encourage you to remember the dead as we embrace the eternal. Light a candle, say a prayer, lament, and celebrate that lives that have made your life richer; do not shy away from the tears or the laughter. And rejoice in the power of God to make all things new, turn mourning into laughter, and death into life.

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