Changed, Not Ended by Death
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.
One of the realities of being a priest, similar to being a teacher or in other professions where you are constantly planning ahead, is that you live your life in two different times. On one side, it is the middle of October. The leaves are beginning to fall and the concerns of the end of the year are still far away. However, I’m also always living about a month in advance when it comes to church calendars, communications, and bulletins, so my mind and heart are already turning to those holy days at the beginning of November: All Hallow’s Eve (or Halloween, if you must), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day (or Día de los Muertos for my Spanish-speaking friends).
And so, I’d like to talk about the Christian perspective on death for a few minutes this week, perhaps breaking some myths about what Christians do and do not actually believe about this universal shared experience.
Each morning, a little before 9am, I walk down the darkened church aisle to our chapel near the front of the church, on the left. Originally it was the entrance to the historic church when it was constructed some 150 years ago. However, we have repurposed it into a small chapel we can use for Daily Morning Prayer during the week and our small service of Holy Eucharist and Healing at Noon on Wednesdays.
Once I get everything set up, I turn on Facebook Live on my phone and begin the daily morning prayers of our church. They take about fifteen minutes to say, when you include the daily Scripture readings and psalms, and usually it’s just me there in the chapel. There are also often two to four people on Facebook Live, praying with me, which is nice. But I am always aware of someone else.
We call our chapel the “All Souls’ Chapel” because the 150-year-old wall opposite the altar in that chapel houses a Columbarium: a place where people’s ashes can be deposited, along with a name plate marking the spot. We just put ours in a few years ago and there is currently just one occupant: Fr. Kenneth Michnay. Father Kenneth was an ELCA pastor who, because of our church’s ecumenical agreements with the Lutherans, was able to serve as a priest associate in our church. He died in the winter, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, from the virus. I miss him dearly, not only as a colleague but as a friend as well.
But his niche in the Columbarium happens to be right behind my head, when I am seated saying the prayers, and so I have a concrete sense that he is praying with me as well, wherever he is in the nearer presence of God.
I lost another friend this year, Chuck Wibert, the verger emeritus at our church. A verger is kind of like a Master of Ceremonies and Chuck made it a point, since he was retired and more available than other vergers, to serve and help me lead funerals. He died of heart failure several weeks ago and we buried him outside in our Parish Memorial Garden, another place where people can have their ashes interred. His ashes are actually buried in the grass, at the right side of the altar, exactly where the verger would stand if we were celebrating mass out there. And every time I stand at the outside altar, I’ll think of him and remember that he is right there, worshipping with me.
In the Eucharistic Prayer that I say whenever we have communion at funerals, there is a line that always stands out to me, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” For Christians, we do not believe death is the end of life, only that life is changed by death. The person still exists somehow, somewhere, held by the love of God until the time when God heals and restores all creation in God’s love.
One of the great questions I often get when new people join our church is why we pray for the dead. Most of them likely assume it’s because of something like the Roman Catholic understanding of purgatory. I always tell them that we pray for the dead because we believe they still exist. In the same way that I pray for those who I love who are living, after someone dies my love, my concern for them doesn’t evaporate. And so, I pray… I pray that whatever that journey into God looks like after death, they find strength. I pray that they feel my love and how much I miss them. And I pray that God will bring us all home together in the end.
At our church, these prayers all come together at the end of this month and the beginning of the next. On Sunday, October 30, our Latin American members are hosting coffee hour after the 10am liturgy and then, together, we will prepare the Día de los Muertos Ofrenda, setting up pictures of our loved ones in that All Souls’ Chapel. Then, on Tuesday, November 1, we will celebrate the great Communion of Saints at 6pm with a festive service of Holy Eucharist, complete with chanting and incense and joy. And on Wednesday, November 2, at 6pm, we will come together for a Requiem Eucharist to say aloud the names of those we miss, those we pray for during this holy and sacred time.
Because they are not gone. Their life has been changed, but their love for us, and ours for them, can never be ended by the power of death.
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.