Saturday, May 26, 2012

Untidy dying...

Pr. Russ Saltzman has written something of the experience of the remains of his father's goods and the distribution of those things following his death.  He calls it the "residue of death."  I am sure that those who are placed in the position of cleaning up the loose ends and details following the death of a family member or loved one will resonate with his words.  I probably will too, someday.  But for now I resent the idea that death should be tidy and neat.

The minutia of the dead is a wonder. Depending on how well the dead prepared themselves for being dead, the countless bits and pieces they leave come in greater or lesser amounts. My father was among the former. He was untidy about dying. A will never made sense to him, and even if it had his distrust of lawyers put paid to that option.  So writes Saltzman. 

We want death to be tidy and neat so that we can put it behind us as soon as possible.  We don't want to be burdens to our children or heirs (though they were certainly burdens to us from the time they were born).   We feel the highest form of love is to keep those who come after us from having to bear the heavy weight of cleaning up from our untidy living and dying.  So we preplan our funerals, put the estate in trusts, add the names of our kids to bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and other assets.  We make it so that all they will have to do is remember us with thanks that our dying did not disrupt their lives too much.  It makes me sick.

This kind of love is not the love we meet in Christ.  He came to clean up all our untidiness and to care for the details that we, in our sin, had forgotten or chose to ignore.  The mark of the love God has for us is that the details of our death became His glad burden of love -- not because He loves to be burdened but because love carries the burdens of our all messes without regard to what He was getting out of it all.  He died for us while we were yet sinners and His enemies -- with nothing to offer Him and nothing to compensate Him for the priceless cost of His suffering and death.

Death is untidy.  It is always untidy.  We cannot insulate those whom we love from death's details by signing all the proper documents and disposing of all but the heirlooms we know our loved ones will want.  In fact, grief is not helped by having all these minutia carefully sewn up by those who die.  Grief and life is met in these untidy details.  They cause us to remember what is painful for us to recall.  They force us to live again the memories of those who have lived and now are dead.  This is not a bad thing.  This is love at work.  What kind of love do we have for those who die before us if we find dealing with their death (on any plain but spiritual) a terrible burden we should not have to bear?  Life is messy, too. Cleaning up the messes may be part of life but the pursuit of a life without these messes is the pursuit of what can never be, an impossible dream that will destroy us.  In the midst of our suffering, God is present.  That is the surprise of grace!

Now before you go ballistic, I am not saying we should make it hard on those who must deal with the residue of our death.  That is spite and not love.  All I am saying is that dealing with the untidiness of death is itself the act of love, the final act of loving those who have died.  We have turned over too much of those details to others whom we pay to act in our stead (from funeral directors to estate planners to lawyers, etc.)  All that left to us is to sign next to the post-it note marking the place, give away the few things we think worth keeping, and get on with our lives.  When we make death so tidy and neat we deny its reality, diminish the memory of those whom we have loved, and distort the very meaning of love.  Cleaning up the untidiness of death is our responsibility no less than those who hastened the burial custom for Jesus and then rushed to the tomb on Sunday morning to complete love's final duty.


Anonymous said...

What about making funeral plans with our Lutheran pastor? That's a good thing and keeps out theology and practice tidy. This is encouraged and needed more in our churches.

Barbara Ann Meier said...

"Any man's death diminishes me."

Anonymous said...

Why not take care of it as early as possible so that your kids don't have to go through probate? Death is annoying enough-get it in writing while you're still not in diapers. Sign the living will. Tell which kid/heir who gets what ahead of time so that they don't make claims and counter-claims once you're dead.
Sheesh, the next thing you know, you'll be wanting expensive funerals and have your heirs light candles and pay for "Requiems"!