Bring on the ashes
I still remember the first time I went to a funeral and saw a dead body. I was in kindergarten, and the woman known to me as "Grandma Giewitz" had died (she was my dad's mother-in-law from his first marriage and no relation to me -- long story).
Up until that point, my memories of Grandma Giewitz were of Bishop's Cafe and French silk pie, family dinners after church and the beautiful antique mirror in the entryway of her house.
This new version of her was startling.
When I peered over the casket, she looked so peaceful -- one hand lain carefully over the other, her eyes closed and her mouth turned up in a pleasant not-quite-smile.
She smelled like funeral carnations and she wore soft colors. But she wasn't in there. No matter how long I stared at her, she stayed away from her body.
I have wondered so many times if we do ourselves a disservice to make death look so pretty.
Is the amount of time and money that is spent getting a person dressed to return to the dust just a way to facilitate the grieving stage of denial? And how do we disconnect our image of that person in the casket from who they really were, who they really are?
I say this, and yet I remember those precious moments I have spent before the casket of a loved one waiting for their chest to rise and fall.
I remember the roses I have placed, the letters I have written, the cold hands I have held.
And I know I would not have traded those final moments for anything else in the world. Those moments helped me transition from life to death. Death is mysterious. Death is real. Death is heartrending. And death is part of life.
On Ash Wednesday, millions of people are reminded of death's inevitability as they line up to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And it occurs to me to ask the question, "Why in the world do we intentionally subject ourselves to a painful reminder of our own mortality?"
Is it possible that ashes to ashes and dust to dust is actually good news?
I mean, sure, we spend most of this life fighting against the forces of death. We seek good medical care and we go to extraordinary measures to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.
But in the end, isn't it a relief to know that life isn't ultimately about the things that we can see, touch and taste? Isn't it a relief to know that the ultimate things in this life are not dependent on our bodies -- but rather on God's goodness?
When the tangible is gone, all that remains is, well -- what it says in 1 Corinthians 13 -- "And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."
So even though we die -- we live. We live in faith so strong it can move mountains; hope so sure it can bring life from death; and love so deep it has no end.
It is amazing to me that even as a kindergartner I knew that my Grandma Giewitz wasn't really in that shell we called her body. But I did know that she was somewhere.
I trusted with the faith of a child that she now belonged to something bigger than me, something bigger than that casket, something bigger than her body. It turns out that something was love. God's love.
In life and in death. We belong to God. So bring on the ashes.
Originally posted March 7, 2011, at I’m into Grace. Republished with permission of the author. Find a link to Kris Capel’s blog I’m into Grace at Lutheran Blogs.