At the time of writing, HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh has just died. There has, briefly, been an outpouring of everything that I love about this nation.
On the Friday that the Duke died, we needed to pop out in the car—I think to purchase cement, the lives we lead—and the radio was on. It was tuned to Capital FM, which usually plays whatever is newest in the charts. They had decided that this was a moment of national mourning, a pleasant surprise, and so they should play more ‘mellow’ music.
Which basically meant soppy sounding love songs.
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, perhaps, but Ellie Goulding? I might be entirely off base but suspect that wouldn’t have been to the Duke’s taste, and it isn’t music that speaks of mourning. Which is of course because we don’t know how to mourn.
Eight days of national mourning were declared, with a number of important measures as part of our public life to help us grieve: newsreaders will be in black, flags at half-mast, and no new laws will be signed. The last of course is a kindness to the Queen who must do the signing. Capital FM managed an evening, as did the BBC, not that I would expect anything else.
But we really don’t know how to mourn. There’s a wonderful bit in the final season of the West Wing after a beloved character’s funeral when numerous officials come to speak with the president-elect. Each one starts by saying it was a beautiful service, and then reflecting on how it was “not so much a funeral as a celebration, really.” By the end the president-elect is saying it back to them.
It exposes a truth under the gentle humour, we don’t know how to mourn. We think funerals are celebrations. They are not. They are supposed to be moments for those who are left behind to begin to grieve together, to stare their own mortality in the face, and to earnestly pray that in Christ what we hold to be true will be true: that this one who died will rest in peace and rise in glory.
Much like we’ve truncated heaven to only be the resting in peace before the real event, we’ve forgotten the second half of the sentence.
Grieving is hard. Mourning is hard. We live in a culture that hates history, which is why it hates mourning. Mourning involves remembering that others were there before you, and that you too will end, and that others will live after you. To stare death in the eye unbowed takes either unbelievable human fortitude or the iron belief that death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15). If there is a man or woman who can spit in the eye of Death, they would do so with steely determination. That’s a stage on the way, but not the final Christian response to Death. We see the cruel tyrant and begin to chuckle as we see that, as George Herbert said, the executioner has become a gardener.
We need to talk about death more in our churches. Our church is young, so we are not gifted with the painful providence of many older brothers and sisters dying around us and the gracious schooling of their funerals in how limited we are. We still quietly believe that maybe I’ll be the one who lives forever. After all, so far so good.
We need to find ways to grieve that we can share together. We need to remember that deep sobs while the gathered church worships are as appropriate as abandoned laughter. It’s the stoic faces in between that are unchristian and unbecoming. We need to recover feeling. We need our churches to be places it’s safe to be sad.
We need to find practices that help us reflect on the utter horror of death without rushing too quickly to the resurrection. It’s not ‘all alright’ because they will rise when he returns, death is unbearably cruel, we are not meant to end. And we need to find practices that help us hold the pain loosely as it ebbs and flows while reflecting on the complete surprise of the empty tomb. If the loved one we lose is united with Christ then we will meet them at the gate as we drop our burdens and tears are swallowed in the laughter of the Lamb.
If our loved ones who die are not in Christ or we simply don’t know then we need to be churches that know that you don’t have to know what to say. That the only answer to the existential terror of death is the love of God, and that we don’t have to have answers.
We need to be people that contemplate our tombstones.
I suspect my mind will change but my friend Anna said something about me the other day which I think could go on my tombstone: “Tim, you believe in the resurrection.” Here lies Timothy Mark Suffield, he believes in the resurrection, in the present tense seems somehow fitting. After all, the tombstone is only a placeholder, the seed planted under it is eternal and will grow to an oak of righteousness in the new creation under the auspices of the King of Heaven. Burial is a hopeful act.
I will rest in peace in the arms of Christ on death, not as my final resting place, but waiting his moment of triumph when he returns and the dead rise and I rise with them ready to walk into the glorious goal of creation, ready for the wedding supper of the Lord and all that comes after.
When we look the horror in the face, not shrinking away, and behold it as best we are able while clutching tightly to our big brother’s hand as he smiles and warmly tells us, “this too will come untrue,” then we will be mourning.