Finding the Divine in Death

Content Warning: This blog contains discussions of death and grief and allusions to domestic violence; reader discretion is advised.

I kind of like going to funerals. I find them calming, and hopeful, and a good chance to catch up with people you haven’t seen in ages. I know that’s weird; it’s only one of many weird things about me, but it is weird nonetheless. It makes people uncomfortable, when someone doesn’t react to death in the same way they do.

My parents’ house is across the street from our tiny town’s funeral home and just down the road from the town cemetery and our church. I grew up in a small, tight-knit community with a high population of elderly people and an equally high population of people I was in some way related to. Needless to say, I went to a lot of funerals. Often for people I only vaguely knew, or didn’t know at all, or that my parents knew, or that I had met once at age four and had no memory of despite my mother insisting that I should. This already has made me more comfortable with the rituals and emotional fluctuations accompanying death than most young people. Most of my friends have been to perhaps one funeral in their life. I’ve been to more than I can count. Add to that the fact that most American funerals are open casket, and I’ve seen a lot more dead people than the average British twenty-three year old.

My parents were close friends with the family who ran the funeral home across the street from our house, and I knew from a young age that there was a lot of makeup and gory bits that went into making someone who died of a sudden heart attack look like they were peacefully napping in their Sunday best. This is the first part of what made me more comfortable with death than the average child. The second part, coincidentally, also involved the family that ran the funeral home.

One summer morning when I was eight, we found out that a family friend had died, leaving her husband with four young children to raise. And then a week later, we found out that her husband was the one the police had decided was responsible for her death, effectively orphaning the children I had played and attended Sunday School with. In the very small, rural community I grew up in, this sort of thing was unheard of. National attention turned to our community, people were interviewed, things were filmed, and I was banned from the room while the news was on, for fear that I’d overhear the rampant speculation about the lives of people my parents considered friends.

So I spent that summer making awkward little-kid small talk with the kids of my parents’ friends, studiously avoiding talking about how some of them could no longer have their mom and dad come to their swim meets like the rest of ours did. Some of them no longer had anyone to go to Back to School night with them when we all started fourth grade in the autumn. I have a hazy memory of all of us just sitting and staring at the walls and each other, banished from the room while the grown-ups whispered to each other about subpoenas and custody and jury selection. Maybe was a vague attempt to play house, but no one wanted to be the mom and dad. The weight of death just sat on us, pinning our small bodies to our chairs.

Plenty of people more qualified than me have written lots of wonderful and insightful things about grief. But when you’re eight and a family friend has been murdered and you’re hanging out with their kids, it’s not the pain of loss that hits you hardest. It’s the weight. The way that death turns the already-thick summer air from merely humid to made-of-treacle. It sucks the breath from your lungs, pulls the words out of your mouth before you can say them. So you sit there until the adults let you back in the room and feed you burgers that you are suddenly no longer hungry for.

There’s nothing particularly profound about this experience. So where is God in all this? Where is the divine? Is it just in the promise that ‘they’re in a better place now’, and other vaguely twee assurances?

I don’t think so. And that’s why I like funerals. The way we ritualise our collective response to death is one of the things that defines humanity. It brings us together, to say publicly, ‘this person mattered. We cared for them.’ Of course, it’s often more complicated than that. There can be a lot of ‘what will the neighbours think’ and ‘do I really have to give a loving eulogy for a person who made my life unpleasant’ around funerals.

But ultimately, the point of a funeral is to say, ‘this was a person who mattered, not because they were perfect, but because they were human.’ And in that commitment, I cannot help but hear God adding to the chorus, saying ‘this person too was made in my image. This one was also a child of mine.’

That’s the promise I hear in the words of funeral services. ‘You are made in my image. You are my child. I knew you before you knew yourself.’ A reminder for the living, and a commitment between us and God. ‘You are mine. I will be here when you are ready.’