Acquainted with grief: The church’s way with death

In a famous scene in the film The Sixth Sense, a haunted little boy tells his psychologist that he sees dead people. The doctor asks, “How often do you see them?” The child replies, “All the time. They’re everywhere.”

As a pastor, I know how he feels. I see them too. At least, I almost do. Years ago, at the end of a three-week stretch that featured four funerals, I went for a jog through my neighborhood. As I ran past houses and apartment buildings, I glanced at the ones where my parishioners lived, and I thought, “They are all going to die. Each one of them will have a coffin.” I don’t see ghosts. But I do see people headed toward the grave. They’re everywhere, especially at church. That is one of the things that church does. It introduces us to a bunch of mortals.

This sounds ridiculous. Every person we meet is going to die. It doesn’t matter if the introduction is made at church or at a child’s birthday party. The difference is that no one has ever stood up at a child’s birthday party to read a list of those who have died in the year between today’s cake and last year’s celebration. But many churches do just that on All Saint’s Day. People are dying all around us. We would rather ignore this fact, but the church won’t let us. Indeed, if I didn’t go to church, I’d be tempted to believe that the only people who die are celebrities.