Let’s be honest. Death is not something we like to discuss. We don’t want to think about it, plan for it, much less talk about it. It is an uncomfortable topic of discussion, much like wearing a scratchy wool sweater in the heat of the summer — it’s neither fashionable nor comfortable.
I remember years before my parents passed away, my brothers and I sat down with them and talked about this most delicate of subjects. A lawyer friend came to their home to update and finalize their wills, financial powers of attorney, and end of life health directives. We discussed what extraordinary measures they wished us to take when they were in the act of dying and any specific requests concerning their funeral arrangements. One thing that no one doubted was where they wanted to be buried — the family plot at Rose Hill Cemetery in Winder, Georgia.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when my father died, that I fully appreciated mom and dad’s gift of planning ahead. Upon their deaths, we could focus on grieving and not debating what our parents would have wanted.
I know folks who shy away from making such plans. Hey, I get it. Talking about your death is not a fun subject. Perhaps some think if they ignore it, it will never happen.
Not me, I plan my life as if I am going to live forever, but I am ready in case I die tomorrow.
My will is current, my financial and health directives are in order, and I have instructed my family to lay me to rest in our family plot at Rose Hill Cemetery. More importantly, ever since I was eighteen, I have chosen to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, putting my faith in Him not only to lead me in the present life but, in the one to come as well. I have come to realize that, as someone put it – “we’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying, we’re in the land of the dying, trying to get into the land of the living.” It is amazing how losing the fear of death and seeing it as a transition to eternal life, allows you to truly live in the present.
When I lost my father in 2005 and my mother in 2009, I felt true sorrow but also a contentment in that they lived long and fruitful lives. But when I unexpectedly lost my wife in 2011 at age 59, I was overwhelmed with grief. As high school sweethearts who married while in college, I had never known a day as an adult without her. Following her walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I prayed for the Lord to take me too. The fog through which I walked did not allow me to see living without her. However, as time passed, I slowly realized that God was not finished with me yet. I eventually found a peace and a purpose to keep living. As the hymnist wrote in 1871, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll – Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”
After walking through my personal valley of tears, I had somehow lost the fear of death. I am not afraid to die, and I am not afraid to discuss it. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to catch that train anytime soon. Blessed with a boatload of grandchildren and a new wife, my life is good, and I hope it lasts for a few more decades.
Speaking of funerals…
My wife and I attended one recently. There we were at a small graveside gathering to honor the recent loss of a cousin’s wife. In this season of COVID-19, it was a rather awkward scene as some attendees wore masks while all of us maintained an appropriate social distance. In a brief but touching moment, my cousin Richard spoke of his wife and her burial at their family cemetery plot where his parents, grandparents, uncles, great uncles, and “not-so-great uncles” were buried. He recalled when this old country church used to be on a dirt road surrounded by farms, only now to be enveloped by suburbia’s sprawl.
His remarks reminded me of a funny but true story about family cemetery plots.
It involves my late mother-in-law, Zelma. First, you need to understand some family dynamics. My mother-in-law and I had an on-again-off-again relationship. I was never sure that she liked the fact that I married her only daughter. My late wife, Tootie, on the other hand, had a wonderful relationship with my mom. She was the daughter my mother never had, and they enjoyed a sweet and loving relationship throughout their lives. Something my mother-in-law did not always appreciate.
Zelma was also a woman of strong opinions. So much so that she felt like everyone should share those same opinions, and if perchance you did not, woe be it unto you. Tootie and her four brothers always knew that disagreeing with their mother inevitably put them in the proverbial “doghouse.”
Zelma attended my father’s funeral and burial service in 2005. A month later, she called her daughter with an opinion, disguised as a question – a question she was unable to keep to herself. When I got home from work, Tootie shared the conversational details. They went something like this.
Tootie: “Oh, hey mom, how are you?”
Zelma: “Fine. Tootie, I have a question. Where do you plan to be buried when you die?”
Realizing this question was prompted from a conversation the month before at my dad’s funeral, Tootie answered it directly.
Tootie: “Well mom, Buddy and I will be buried at the McElhannon family plot at Rose Hill Cemetery in Winder.”
In a rising voice that betrayed a mixture of resentment and fear, Zelma was ready to pounce.
Zelma: “You don’t want to be buried with all the McElhannons, do you? You should be buried with your family at Eastview Cemetery in Ellenwood!”
Tootie: “No mom, my rightful place is to be buried with my husband.”
In response to that comment, Zelma grew even more animated and testy. Tootie later explained that she realized her mom was just jealous as she argued that her daughter should be buried with the Smith family. Tootie quickly thought of the ideal response. After letting her mom rant for a few minutes, Tootie interrupted her.
Tootie: “Mom, now that I think about it, you may be right. I should be buried next to Pop in Eastview Cemetery.”
After a momentary silence, no doubt surprised at Tootie’s change of heart, Zelma responded: “Really?”
Tootie: “Yes mom, you are right about a daughter being buried with HER family. So, just so you know, when you die, we won’t bury you next to your husband, we will ship your body back to Kentucky to be buried with all the Hortons in Louisville.”
The next sound Tootie heard was a click and dial tone. The subject was never discussed again.
Recalling that conversation, I must confess to chuckling at the memory. Yet there is also an underlying sadness. It’s a good thing to make end-of-life plans, if for no other reason than to alleviate the likelihood of future family strife and conflict. But there are so many things far more important to discuss than where your body will rest.
As a Christian, I have a hope that transcends the grave. I will not deny the reality of death, but neither will I fear it. After all, living with hope offers a more fulfilling life than living in fear. Scripture reminds us that man is appointed once to die. It also speaks of heaven and hell. Maybe the possibility of hell scares folks enough that they avoid discussing life’s most significant transition. The longer I have lived, the more I have come to cherish the hope my faith provides.
Hope is such a beautiful four-letter word. St Paul tells us that “Christ in you is the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27) It was this kind of hope that helped me through the grieving process. And it is this kind of hope that makes planning life’s greatest transition much easier.
St. Paul also said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He didn’t say anything about where you should be buried.
That’s only temporary anyway.
“I pray that when my time comes, I may not grumble that my body has worn out too soon, but hold on to gratitude that I have been so long at the helm of the most wonderful creation the world has ever known, and look forward to meeting its designer face to face.” Dr. Paul Brand, “The Wisdom of the Body,” Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program 3428, April 28, 1990.