Being Ready for Death
As a chaplain, I probably think about death more often than the average thirty-three year old. Working at a 400-bed hospital as I do, I have seen how rare it is for a person in his thirties to die, but it happens. Much more common is for someone in her mid-sixties, my mom’s age, to die, whether suddenly or otherwise. Given my acute awareness that death is possible at any moment , I feel a kind of duty to be as prepared as possible for my death or for the death of a loved one.
To be honest, I’m not as concerned about the practicalities of my death (though I probably should be!). Rather, I tend to think about preparing myself emotionally. For me, this means I ponder the most mysterious question there is: what happens after we die?
Life After Death – Or Not
One might assume that, since I am a Christian, I believe in heaven – that death is not the end but rather a beginning to life eternal. I hope for heaven, that kind of heaven most people are thinking of when they talk about it, by which I mean a conscious encounter with God and all the people we love.
“He’s with grandma now,” we say when our grandpa dies, or “She’s with her son now,” we say about our deceased aunt.
I’d love for this vision to be what heaven’s really like, but I have my doubts.
Unlike Barbara (as she wrote about in her last column), I’ve never been asked directly what I think about the afterlife when I’ve been working. I’m grateful for that. But I’m also happy to give a bit of a reflection now. Without going into too much detail, here’s what I think might happen to me after I die: God’s love is eternal, without beginning and without end. When I die, the energy of my life will be swept up into God’s being and will help spread God’s love to the generations that follow.
Our Ancestors Live On
If that vision is anything close to the truth, then my ancestors (and yours) are still very much alive. They’re alive not only because I could not be who I am without their having been who they were, but also because their very beings are part of God’s being, shaping my life now and the lives of all I encounter, eventually touching the whole world.
I love this idea. I find it comforting and meaningful to think that, somehow, we have always been and always will be – that our presence in the world matters so much more than we could ever know.
On All Saints Day in the Christian tradition, we remember the people through history and in our own lives who brought us closer to God. This is not a tradition I grew up in, but one I have come to relish celebrating in my adult life. Emotionally, I welcome the opportunity to make space for the memories or feelings that accompany a relationship I once cherished. While I don’t do so in my day-to-day life, I find there’s something important about setting aside time to acknowledge the impact of the people who have influenced me. Such remembering honors them and humbles me.
Yet We Don’t Receive the Promise
The more I reflect on death, the more All Saints Day becomes, for me, not only about honoring the people I’ve most loved and lost, but also those I knew briefly or not at all. Last week, a friend of mine shared this quote from Linda Hogan, and it resonated deeply with me: “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still,’ they say. ‘Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.’” 
Can you imagine them? All the thousands of our direct ancestors, then all the people they loved and who loved them, making them who they were, so that finally, they, in turn, make us who we are. It strikes me as such a beautiful image, this web of people who shaped us, extending back beyond our contemporaries, back through time to the beginning of life on this planet.
The author of the sermon, “Hebrews,” in the Christian New Testament, has a sense of the ways in which people of faith impact the next generation and the ones after that. In the eleventh chapter, the author describes how each generation completes its part of the journey, never fully obtaining the promise God has given them.
Of Abel, Adam and Eve’s son, the author of Hebrew says, “[He] died, but through his faith he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Of Abraham and Sarah, the author writes, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Hebrews 11:13). The author continues in similar detail about the lives of Abraham’s ancestors, moving through the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt.
The Task Is Handed Down
After briefly describing the way the faithful suffered through the time of the kings and the exile, the author concludes, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance that race that is set before us” (Hebrews 11:39-12:1).
Through the author’s description of the lives of the faithful, the reader sees how each generation’s efforts becomes part of the next group’s endeavors, then part of the next, and on and on. The author implores the current generation to persevere through their part, trusting that the story will continue after they have gone.
We are part of a story bigger than we could ever imagine. We are the result of the love, the faith, the struggles, and the victories of thousands.
Fulfilling God’s Love
This week, I want to take time to honor the people who have directly impacted me – those I’ve known and those I haven’t. I want to honor the people who loved those I love, my ancestors and theirs and everyone in their lives back generation upon generation.
It also feels important to honor the lives of people I did not know, but who have impacted me nonetheless, such as the lives of those lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and at Kroger in Kentucky last week. They are now part of my story and yours. The lives of those lost last week were the result of the love of thousands. Now their lives will impact thousands upon thousands that they will never know.
The author of “Hebrews” wrote to a community that was suffering and struggling to persevere. He or she might as well have been writing to us. May we feel surrounded by our cloud of witnesses. May they encourage and strengthen and comfort us. And may we allow them to so impact our lives that we will carry their stories on and on until God’s promises of everlasting and unconditional love are fulfilled.
In faith and fondness,
- Hogan, Linda, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, New York: Touchstone, 1995, 159.
Copyright © 2018 by Amanda Guthrie