When we keep alive the memory our loved ones who’ve passed away, we’re not just keeping our ability to remember them strong, we actually enable their personhood to have the last say, not nature, not death. Who they are, their personhood, lives on and has significance. Their life continues to matter. That’s what we’ve been learning since Karen’s passing. Karen is still a part of who we are. She matters.
We have our being in communion. In other words, we are not just isolated individuals, we’re shaped and exist in a context of relationships. In fact, our brains actually change physical shape from our interactions with others. People leave their imprint on us, literally. To be a person, is to be in relationship. There is no such thing as a person apart from relationships. We really matter to one another. People in our culture try to live as if this is not true, but that doesn’t change the reality of it. We must treat as sacred our relationships – the living and the dead.
To cherish our relationships, both living and dead, is to say that love has the last word, it’s to say that humanity is far above the animal world, it’s to say there is a God and we are loved. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about Karen or include her life in our conversations. This is most natural and right because her life is a part of us. People often get funny when talking about the dead, there’s a kind of awkward morbidity. I’m not sure what this is, but as Christians it should be different for us.
This agnostic take on death, so prevalent today, has affected how even Christians conduct funerals. The modern funeral only celebrates the past, and then afterwards the person fades from memory. But as Christians we don’t believe that death has the last word. We don’t believe that the person is extinguished. We miss them and grieve our loss, but our grief is fused with hope and a continued celebration of their life. We know our lives have been, and continue to be, shaped by them.
As Christians, we celebrate the present (that the person is part of who we are now), and we celebrate the future (that we’ll be reunited with them and continue our relationship). 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”
The Bible uses the word “sleep” to talk about a believer’s death. That’s because death is not a final state – it’s kind of like sleep. The person is there, but they’re not animated in our presence, they’re sleeping. Karen exists, she is not gone, but she is not animated in our presence. The reality of her life is kept alive by our memory of her and including all that she was into our lives. Let us remember her, let us talk about her, let us continue to allow her life to shape us. And one day, we all will awake from a sleep, and the journey we’ve begun here with each other will continue.
“When the eucharistic community keeps alive the memory of our loved ones – living as well as dead – it does not just preserve a psychological recollection; it proceeds to an act of ontology, to the assurance that the person has the final word over nature, in the same way that God the Creator as person and not as nature had the very first word.” John Zizioulas