I Saw Death
I seen the body, you know.
She’s maybe ten years old, a beautiful little girl with a blonde hair and a black dress. She has tears in her eyes and her face looks tired from crying. Her uncle is gone. There was a head on collision and a fire and then the descent of all kinds of family from all kinds of places and then the shedding of rivers of tears and now a church and a service and the long goodbye begins…
But she’s not ready to go in yet. She’s just walking around outside as if she’s carrying this horrible secret around with her. She’s seen death. She looked right at it. At death—can you imagine?
How could it be that a little girl in a black dress could have to see such a thing? Who would permit such a seeing?
What did you see? I ask her.
It was scary… I didn’t recognize him… His neck was thick and swollen… and his hands looked broken… Her voice trails off.
I’m so sorry, I say. Death is so hard to see.
She looks at me and then she looks away, tears forming in her eyes. This guy doesn’t have a clue what I’ ve seen.
The service is also a strange and painful seeing. It’s an interesting mix of people. The man whose death brought us all together was a Mexican Mennonite and his partner was an indigenous woman. Their life together had been a mixture and mingling of sorrow and tragedy, addiction and struggle, and flashes of joy, too, with many children and step-children… A family patched together through a conflagration of biology and adoption and freedom and necessity.
And so the church is packed with people of all sorts, but dominated by two of the most persistently misunderstood and sometimes resented groups of people in our area. And the service is shared by these two groups. There is a “white” sermon and a “native” sermon. There is Low German and English. There is blonde hair and blue eyes and jet black hair and brown skin. But the tears all look the same…
The “white” preacher is talking about wayward sheep and all the ways we sin and go astray, and it feels like there’s a warning lurking just behind his words, and there probably should be… but I wish he would be saying words like, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” instead… Because we could do with something to take the sting out of this…
The native preacher is talking about how his people sing this song in their own language—this song that we have just finished singing in German and English, this song about how we’ll meet on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by—and he’s saying that ever since Babel when our proud efforts to reach up to God were frustrated we’ve been singing the same songs in different languages… And now he’s holding up his hand and he’s pointing at it and he’s talking about how our relationship to God is like this and about how God is like the thumb and about how our childhood years are symbolized by our pinky finger and our teenage years by the ring finger and the prime of our lives by our middle finger and our old age by our index finger, and about how people always think that it’s the older people that have the most wisdom because they’re closest to “the thumb,” to God… But I gotta message for you, he says as he grabs his pinky finger… Jesus told us that unless we become like a little child we’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven…
And I think back to the little girl that I saw when I walked up to the church, the little girl who told me that she had seen death… And I think of her tears and I wonder how I might see through the eyes of a child, how I might truly see this monstrosity of death…
The talking and the words are done and now. And I’m getting ready to leave. But, wait, we’re not done. The white preacher is saying that they’re going to come and open the casket and he’s giving instructions about how we’re going to proceed to the front. Apparently we’re supposed to see death, too.
And so, the lid of the wooden box is opened and the long mournful parade begins. Back to front. Old men with hunched backs, young men with untucked shirts, women with kerchiefs and dresses and kids in tow, an indigenous kid with a lift ticket from the ski hill still hanging off his jacket, frightened looking girls, grim-faced men who have done this kind of thing before… On we all march. White faces and brown faces, sad faces and angry faces, confused faces and wet faces…
Some can barely bear to look when they get to the front. Some stop and linger. Some quicken their pace, eager to avoid this seeing. Some stare with hands over mouths.
Suddenly, the guy from the funeral home is beside me. He gestures for me to make my way to the front. Your turn, he says, in essence. You have an appointment with death… It’s time for you to see…
I walk by the body and I look death in the eye. A gray face, a swollen body, flesh still flecked with ash. A decorative silver metal spike through his eyebrow. The outlines of broken hands underneath a thin cover. A body that seemed to have borne a great sadness.
Yes, I saw death. We all did. And we remembered, if we could bear it, that we, too, are dust, and that to dust we shall return.
Our seeing is finished and we wait at the back, lingering with awkward jokes and strained conversation, anything to avoid speaking of what we have seen. We’re waiting for the last of the family to see the body before the procession makes its way to the cemetery.
But there is one more seeing for us to bear witness to. The man’s partner has seen death, too, and now it’s staring back at her. The one that she loved is gone. She’s inconsolable and she refuses to leave the body. Or maybe it’s death that refuses to let her go. She drapes her arms over him, her body convulsing. She shrieks and wails. She can barely stand. Her children prop her up. She turns away, eyes closed, face contorted, her body defeated by what she has seen and by what it means.
And I can’t take my eyes off this final seeing—this seeing of death and of death seeing back, and of death mocking and taunting and wounding…
About that sting… How we need something to take it away. This seeing is too hard.
We make our way out from under deaths’ shadow, into the parking lot on a sunny spring day. I look around, trying to find the little girl. I want to tell her that I have seen what she saw. I want to tell her that it scared me, too.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
— 1 Corinthians 15:25-26