Do you remember the first time you learned about death? For me, it was when my mom rescued a baby bird that fell out of a tree and brought it home in a shoebox. My three-year-old self had visions of a miraculous recovery and a new pet gleefully flying around the house. Sadly, nature took its course and the chick, which probably had been ostracized by its own mother because of failure to thrive, died within a few days. “Where did it go?” I remember asking. The response was, “It went to heaven.” Not knowing what heaven was at the time, my mother took the time to explain that all living things eventually die. She told me we could have a funeral for the bird and we buried it in our garden. We assembled a small cross with two sticks from our backyard tree to mark its grave.
As my mother explained, death comes to every living thing. It comes to baby birds and to our beloved dogs and to each of us. By the way, when I meet God, I’m going to have a conversation with him about why our beloved dogs live such short lives. Nothing breaks my heart more than the loss of a canine companion. But none of us has or will escape death. I suppose we could say, “Well, I haven’t died yet, so maybe I’ll live forever!” But we’d be naïve. We don’t know when, we don’t know where, and we don’t know how. But one day, we will leave this earth.
Recently we’ve seen a few well-known celebrities die. Jimmy Buffett, a famous musician and performer known especially for his classic hit song Margaritaville, died last week. Bob Barker, a television personality best known for hosting The Price is Right also left us. And perhaps most shockingly because of his young age, Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell died of liver failure at the age of 56. And no, death has not left St. John’s without any scars. Deacon Dick Frank’s funeral was celebrated here over the weekend. A number of parishioners have died over the year, and even more of us have lost loved ones. The sting of death pierces each of us. Life isn’t for the faint of heart. None of us will make it out alive.
When someone dies, especially if that person is well-known, we tend to hear about all the wonderful things that person did. For instance, Bob Barker was a fighter pilot during World War II. He hosted television shows for many years. He kept lots of sick kids company when they stayed home from school with an illness. He did a lot of philanthropy and he encouraged all of us to have our pets spayed and neutered. Jimmy Buffett perfected the laid-back musical style that encourages us to relax and to enjoy a cold beverage and to scarf down a cheeseburger in paradise. Smash Mouth gave us music in the animated Shrek and served as the soundtrack for a whole lot of us 90s kids. And whenever someone famous dies, television and radio news are almost always peppered with something called a eulogy. The word eulogy comes to us from Greek. In Greek, “eu” is a prefix that means good. Think of a euphemism, euphoria, or euthanasia. A euphemism is a name that makes something sound good. Euphoria is a good feeling. Euthanasia is ending a life as a means of kindly ending suffering. To eulogize someone is to give that person praise. And I will tell you a little secret that might shock you. I hate eulogies.
Why do I hate eulogies? Because in the traditional sense, they only focus on the good things a person has done in life. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe in raising up the good things a person has done in life. We all deserve kudos for the things we’ve done well. My problem with eulogies is that they deny the deceased of the entirety of their humanity. You see, none of us is as good as the best thing we’ve ever done and none of us is as bad as the worst thing we’ve done. This way of looking at death can be jarring for people who were taught that they had to pay proper respects whenever someone dies. I’ve heard the expression, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” And many people follow this rule. The problem is, it is based in superstition. It comes from the Latin de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (Of the dead, nothing but good must be said). This idea comes from a good place, really. A dead person can’t say anything to defend him or herself, so it was thought of as rude. But the truth is, each of us has our faults. And skirting over our faults denies us of a big piece of our identities. Do I do some good things? Sure. Do I do some boneheaded things? Absolutely. Do I make mistakes? Definitely. Do I make the right choices? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. This is the truth for all of us. And our quirks and annoying traits are just as much a piece of who we are as are our good traits. When someone dies, we want to remember that person for who they were. Our goal is not to canonize a person as a saint.
Sometimes people in our lives have done a whole lot to make us feel loved and appreciated and respected. And sometimes, the people in our lives have caused us harm. Refraining from acknowledging the harm someone may have caused us, simply because that person is now deceased, doesn’t do any favors to anyone. It does not help us in our healing. Nor does it invalidate the good things that person did. Bob Barker, for instance, was well known for his activism. But he was also accused of things like sexual misconduct. Jimmy Buffett was adored by his many “Parrot Head” fans and people who appreciate an island escape. But Buffett was criticized for hoarding money to the tune of half a billion dollars. Steve Harwell was known for his rock and roll music and his signature voice. He also struggled with addiction. More than one thing can be true about a person at the same time. And to honor the entire person, it is important that we don’t edit out parts of someone’s life.
When I die, you are encouraged to share lots of stories about me. Sure, share about the times that I made you happy. But don’t forget the times that I did something that frustrated you. Don’t forget about the times I made you laugh. Don’t neglect the times I made you angry. Don’t forget about my love of dogs and my anger at God because I have outlived so many of my best furry pals. Because all of those are pieces of who I am. God made each of us in his image, yet none of us is made perfect during our earthly lives. Sometimes we do things well and sometimes we make pretty big mistakes. Those are both qualities of our identities and they are a piece of our stories. If those stories are missing chapters, then the story simply is not told in full. How good of a movie would Rocky have been if Rocky Balboa simply stepped in the ring and won every bout by knockout in the first round? To me, that sounds pretty boring.
I don’t think any of us who are alive can fully understand death. We haven’t experienced it yet. We’re taught that we will have eternal life when we die and we’re taught that we will one day experience bodily resurrection. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to lose someone we love. It doesn’t mean we don’t experience sadness when someone dies. It doesn’t mean that we don’t become overwhelmed when contemplating our own eventual death. From my experience in doing pastoral care to the dying, I have noticed that people do eventually become ok with the idea of dying. In fact, I remember a number of elderly people who had outlived all of their family members and friends and they asked me to pray with them that God would bless them with death. It isn’t an easy topic to explore. It isn’t always comfortable to talk about. But it’s important to discuss death in healthy ways. And when we die, may we be remembered for the whole person we are, with all our lumps, bumps, curves, and smooth edges. We were made in the image of God and God said we are very good.