Grandma was the matriarch of a large multi-generational and chaotic family. At any given time, at least three generations of the family lived in her house just down the street from the church. The youngest members of the family would sometimes come to our vacation Bible school or show up at Sunday School once in a while. Babies were born into the family and the whole family would come to worship for their baptisms. The baptisms were important to Grandma, and I took that to indicate at least a mustard seed of faith in her life. “We should err on the side of grace,” I would say in defending our decision to bring the babies to the font. Whether we made the right decision is another question.
Grandma suffered multiple comorbidities as we now put it. For the last several years of her life a small oxygen tank followed her wherever she went. I remember her sitting on the front stoop of her frame house with its peeling paint and smoking her cigarettes. I think she had closed the valve on her oxygen tank, but still not a good idea.
Grandma’s death came after a week or so in the hospital and I thought everyone understood that she would not return to her house just down the street from the church.
The family waiting room at the hospital was furnished with a couch and a couple of side chairs. Five or six people could have waited comfortably in it. But there were probably fifteen or more of us in the room the night Grandma died. Her oldest daughter was in Grandma’s room when she took her last breath. The rest of us waited in the waiting room.
When the doctor came to the waiting room and told us that Grandma was gone, the sobbing and wailing and distraught cries of grief were discomforting to say the least, but people will mourn as they are going to mourn. It was late and there were few other visitors on the ward. It was okay.
As I tried to bring comfort and the hope of the gospel to the family members now spilling out of the waiting room and into the hall, one of the daughters looked at me and said, “But why? I never thought this would happen.”
“I never thought this would happen.” I have thought about those words many times during the 25 years since I first heard them. Yes, of course, grief and shock and dismay that this one who had held the family together through all its turmoil was no more.
But also, what did she think was going to happen?
Grandma was in her late seventies and in terrible health. Those comorbidities were serious and real. Death happens.
I thought about Grandma’s death and her daughter’s comment this past week when my newsfeed took me to a story about the death of the great actor Sidney Poitier. “The Devastating Death of Sidney Poitier,” the headline read.
Poitier was a great actor and represented something important as the first Black American to win an Academy Award for best actor. He deserves all the praise and the tributes he has received this past week. Surely many who knew him personally are grieving his death. But he was 94 years old. Should we be devastated by death at an old age? It is said that Poitier died of natural causes. That is, death is natural. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” the preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us. The thought is neither morbid nor is it calloused.
Death happens. It will happen for all of us (save for the 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 exception).
Following the funeral service, Grandma’s family in all its glorious chaos gathered at the graveside, and I spoke these words, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend (Grandma) to Almighty God, and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I don’t know how many standing there at the open grave understood or believed what I said.
For the Christian our hope of the resurrection to eternal life is sure and certain. As sad as a death may be, we do not find “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to be devastating.