by Matthew C. Harrison
Pastors see a lot of death. This is one of the most helpful aspects of a pastor’s spiritual life. It’s a blessing when a Christian loved one passes from this vale of tears peacefully without great struggle or pain. But even in those cases, death is not pretty. It’s horrible.
People often rally near the end. Eyes may suddenly open. A dying person may respond to a loved one’s words or affection. I think it’s God’s creative genius to allow final words, final forgiveness, final consolation in Christ. Breathing is often labored toward the end. The “death rattle” was at one time more common, but now less so as medication can reduce or eliminate it. Hospice and medical care can often reduce discomfort and pain greatly.
How many times I’ve seen loved ones, friends, parishioners weaken to the point of a few shallow last breaths, fall completely still, mouth ajar, paleness now … in moments turning to the morbid glaze of death. Last kisses. Last prayers. Last “I love you.” Hands held as the body grows cold. What profound privilege and honor it is to share these moments with family and loved ones, and as a pastor with Christians. A final hymn and prayers. “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today!” The beloved deceased was baptized, received the Sacrament, trusted in Jesus.
I know another who suffered, who agonized in the hour of death. I know another whose breathing was labored, who took His final gasp. I know another whose face fell white, who froze in the stillness of death. Jesus! Jesus, the Resurrected Lord. Jesus, the One who Himself tasted death for us. Jesus, who went to hell and proclaimed victory for us. Jesus, whose body rose again on the third day. Jesus, whose Easter is our Easter.
Sometimes death is sudden, tragic and shockingly unexpected. Sometimes the pain of the loss of a child or a suicide is unbearable. Why? Why, Lord? Why this, Lord? Where were You, Lord? The only answers come from His revealed Word. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments” (Rom. 11:33). “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
It’s such a fabulous blessing to be a Christian, and a Lutheran at that. I’ve done funerals of lovely, elderly Christians, whose extended family had left Christianity decades earlier. I’ve seen petty funeral fights, over-the-top emotional explosions, massive arguments. But we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Quite the contrary. We know that we shall die and live with Jesus, only to await the resurrection of the dead and a heavenly, physical eternity with Him.
Today, we often shield ourselves from face-to-face experiences with death. Viewings and funerals were conducted in homes a century ago. Viewings are becoming less and less common these days. (There are many circumstances which prevent this.) The hammer of the Law strikes by death, to be sure. And it’s fearsome. But all the more reason to gather family around the deceased and speak the Word of God and the Gospel of the resurrection so that each and every family member can see death for what it is and see what Christ has done for us. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).