All Souls 2019 ~ Marking the end
Revelation 20:11-12; 21:1-8
When someone dies, one of the many realities that strike at the soul is the paperwork that is issued by civic authorities – the death certificate. It is a stark document, perfunctory and precise, stating simply that someone has died and that it is now official. It is also a necessary document, for without it funeral arrangements cannot be made. When my younger brother died suddenly in Spain, in May, aged 51, I had to travel to Alicante and make the arrangements for a swift funeral and to bring his ashes home within two days. Inevitably this was not easy, emotionally or practically, but it was possible, but could only be done if the relevant paperwork could be completed on time. The filling-in and signing of forms is a strange aspect of the business of death, which feels remote from the bald truth that someone’s life is over, suddenly. However expected someone’s death is, and whether one has seen them soon before, or after they have died, the paperwork is surreal. Yet, as time goes by it becomes the bare proof that someone who lived, has died. In a similar way a birth certificate proves that someone who did not exist, came into being, and lived until the date recorded on their death certificate. The Psalmist wrote:
“Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.”
Those handbreaths are marked by the space of time between the dates on the two certificates of birth and death, and our days measured by what the poet Linda Ellis has called ‘the dash’. The dash is the line between the date of birth and the date of death, and we often see it on the cover of a funeral service sheet. A death certificate, whatever language it is in, records the same, simple information. We shall all have a death certificate, just as we all have a birth certificate, and one day someone will be given that piece of paper, just as we ourselves have been handed such a certificate, to have and to hold, and to bear witness to the end of our existence on earth.
The administration of life and death can seem harsh, depressing even. Are we so narrowly accounted for as a dash between two dates, a presence on planet earth sandwiched between two documents, perhaps with a wedding certificate in the middle? It might seem so, and many do see their lives in such a hopeless way.
There is yet another document though – for while our lives may be recorded in the registers of births, marriages and death at a register office, and may even be in a burial register or memorial book in a church or crematorium, our names are also recorded in the Book of Life. For although it may be natural to think of a memorial book as the recording of a death, and the grave as a place of death, in fact they are the location and records of hope and life: resurrection life.
In Jerusalem one can visit the site of Jesus’ tomb: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Except that it is not to be thought of as the site of Jesus’ tomb, rather it is the site of resurrection – the place where Jesus rose from the dead. In the same way, every grave, every name in a book, is not merely a record of death, but also – more so even – a record of, or a place of resurrection hope. The memorial books in our churches are not books of death, but of life. They are books of remembrance for sure and as we turn the pages, the memories of lost loved ones come flooding back, but such books are also earthly versions of the Book of Life which record the names of the saints who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. For as we lay our loved ones to rest, we do so in ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ’.
This is the hope we have, when the dates and dashes of death stare at us from the page of a certificate; when we hear sad news; when we attend a funeral, and as time goes by as we mark anniversaries and peer into the memorial books of life. These serve to remind us of the bigger picture of resurrection life and greater hope to which we are all called in the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ ‘who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died, was buried, and rose again for us.’ So a death certificate is not a rubber stamp at the end of life, but rather a birth certificate into a new realm of resurrection and rest, and peace.
May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in that peace, and rise in resurrection glory. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/11/19