Are the dead gone?
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
As we head toward the Memorial Day holiday, for many people it means the unofficial start of summer. Grills get uncovered, pools opened up, and many of us prepare for another beautiful summer by the gorgeous Lake Michigan shoreline.
I will admit that I’m not always grateful for social media, but one thing I do think social media has done over the years is increase the awareness that Memorial Day is not really about the start of summer. Instead, this is a holiday set aside to honor those who gave their all in service of our country. And its observance comes from a place of felt pain and grief at the death of loved ones who served in the armed forces.
So, this week, I thought it might be a good week to break the myth that those who have died are gone and entirely separated from us… because I don’t think they are.
Memorial Day began in the nineteenth century as a way of remembering those who perished in the civil war. Lost to the shrouds of time, it would be easy to underestimate the impact of that war upon our country. But truth be told, 750,000 people died from the Civil War. That would be 2.5% of our country’s population at the time. By comparison, if a similar conflict happened today, it would be like losing 7 million American lives.
In both the north and south, it became the custom in the late spring or early summer to decorate the graves of soldiers who died in that terrible war, with the day often being called “Decoration Day.” And it was after the horrors of two world wars in the twentieth century that the holiday most fully took on its present form as Memorial Day.
There was a similar movement that happened in my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, after the first World War. At that time, the Episcopal Church was one of the larger denominations in the country, but, like many other denominations, our members were crushed by the deaths of the first World War.
When we authorized a new prayer book in 1928, the prayer book included an innovation that had not been in Anglican liturgy since the days of the Reformation: prayers for the departed. While some rejected prayers for the departed as a Roman Catholic innovation that should not be part of properly Anglican liturgy, the truth is that these prayers were tremendously popular with the laity who were still grieving from lives lost in the Great War.
And these days, if you go to almost any Episcopal Church, whether high in the catholic tradition or more in the lower protestant tradition, you will almost certainly hear prayers for those who have died. While our church does not have the same very specific understanding of purgatory that the Roman Catholic church does, we have fully restored the practice and idea of praying for the departed. And the catechism of our church gives a good reason for why we pray for the dead. It says, “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”
And I know for me, when there is a brief pause in Sunday worship to pray for those who have died, I feel that connection. I pray for my grandparents, for my aunt who died of cancer just before her eighteenth birthday, and for a few other people’s whose absence I feel so acutely. As I pray for them, I am reminded that death does not win, that through Christ’s love I’m still connected to those who have gone before.
I don’t know what kind of a religious tradition you come from (or even if you have a religious tradition), but I would encourage to give it a shot, try praying for those who have died. You might find it a meaningful devotion in your daily life or Sunday worship. For me, I pray that God continues to hold them in God’s. I pray that whatever the afterlife looks like, whatever the journey into the foothills of heaven (as CS Lewis describes it) might be like, I pray that they will feel my love surrounding them… and I pray that their love will surround me.
I pray particularly that the words of the author of Hebrews will be manifest in my own consciousness, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Because make no mistake, we are not left alone. For those who trust in God’s love, life is not ended by death, it is merely transformed into something else. And their love for us, and our shared love in God, still holds.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.