Since Katrina, our funeral homes have been busier than before. At first, it was “Katrina” deaths, with the newspaper notices announcing that “He died on September 1” or “She died of a heart attack in a shelter after the hurricane.” Now, judging from the obituaries, it seems to be the normal kind of dying. But with one third the population of what the city was before the storm, you would think we’d have fewer deaths. I have no answer to this.
A member of the Kenner church, a lady who had moved away some years ago and with her husband had been residents of a nursing home in Mississippi, died this week and the family asked me to do a brief memorial service for her in the local cemetery’s mausoleum. Standing in that little chapel waiting for everyone to gather, I heard a man say, “This place gives me the willies.” In slots all around the chapel wall, perhaps reaching 12 feet high, were remains of the deceased over the years. I never come into that chapel without going to the rear where a glass case, not unlike a china cabinet, holds the cremains and photographs of a number of people. I go to the pictures of three brothers side by side, all of them dying before they were 30 years old. I did every funeral. I can only imagine the pain their parents must still be experiencing to this day; you never get over that kind of grief.
On the way out of the associational office to the cemetery, Jennifer Smith called. “Can you run by here?” Something had happened at Highland Baptist Church where her husband Scott is pastor. When I arrived, police cars were everywhere. Scott explained, “A few weeks ago, two men came by, said they were trying to find construction work, and could they put their pop-up camper on our church parking lot. It occurred to me this morning I had not seen either of them for two weeks. If they weren’t going to stay here, we need to get that camper off the parking lot. We have some FEMA trailers coming in. I decided to see if the door was open.” It was.
Inside the camper lay one of the two men, a pistol in his hand and a note nearby. “I think he’d been dead no more than one or two days,” Scott said. The police were gathering evidence to determine whether it was a suicide or possibly homicide. Whatever it was, it was so sad. The other man has not been seen and no one knows his name.
So much grief. I said to the mourners at the mausoleum chapel, “There ought to be some good news! Anybody got any good news?” Letting it soak in a moment, I said, “You know, of course, good news is the meaning of the word ‘gospel.’ The message of Jesus Christ is the ultimate good news.”
I told them about a conversation via the internet I had with a friend recently. He had forwarded a statement from a friend on the afterlife, in which he pointed out that all people in every culture through history had believed in an afterlife and longed for it. He wasn’t opposed to the idea, I was glad to see, but felt it was all a matter of conjecture and hope.
I responded that I did not have the time or energy or inclination to enter the philosophical discussion his correspondent had begun, but that the whole point of Jesus’ coming into the world and dying on a cross and being raised the third day was to move the hope of Heaven out of the realm of conjecture and give it a firm basis in fact. That makes the resurrection of Jesus the most important issue in the world, it seems to me. He said, “Because I live, you too shall live.” It is true, of course, that we “hope” for Heaven. We have not attained that place yet. But the writer of Hebrews said it well: “This hope we have as an anchor for our souls.” We have a living hope, not a guess and not a hunch. A solid, confident, assured conviction that Jesus Christ has knocked out the ends of the other side of the grave, and that “to be absent from this body is to be present with Him there.”
In a day of death notices and obituaries that threaten to take over the entire newspaper, that’s good news. In fact, it’s the only good news.
The inimitable Kenneth Chafin used to say, “I tell my seminary student preachers, ‘When you stand at the graveside of a believer, say it right and make it strong, because you’ve got the only message in town.'”