I left the cops and politics beat of a small daily newspaper in 1995 to join the communications staff of the World Council of Churches. It was an abrupt transition. One day I was interviewing witnesses to a grisly shooting at a decaying trailer park; the next day I was preparing a rambling press release on a Faith and Order dialogue. My lifestyle also changed abruptly. Chasing deadlines back at the paper, I often wondered when I’d find time to sleep. During WCC Central Committee meetings in Geneva, the challenge was to stay awake.
Central Committee meetings lasted nearly a fortnight and were covered by a half-dozen house journalists who churned out news stories in their favorite European language. It wasn’t as physically taxing as racing 21-year-old photographers over active railroad tracks to get to the scene of gruesome auto wrecks, but at the end of the meeting we were tired all the same.
On the final night of the meetings, Jan Kok, head of communications for the WCC, would take us out to a local pub to unwind over steak frites and beer.
I don’t remember how it got started, but on one such evening the conversation turned macabre. One of the journalists mentioned a horrific accident scene he had covered for the Manchester Guardian. The story sparked an orgy of ghastly reminiscences as we erstwhile reporters competed with descriptions of the bloodiest, messiest death scenes we had witnessed. I contributed details of a small airplane crash I covered in Pennsylvania in which three of four passengers were killed and the pilot was slumped over the wheel. The pilot’s chest had been ripped open and his heart – a perfect, healthy, beautiful organ – lay motionless on the zipper of his leather jacket. There was no blood because he had died so suddenly. For long moments, the chief of police and I stared with wonder and respect at the heart which, a short time ago, was pumping miraculous life through the veins of this recently vital man.
A younger reporter had been listening silently to these morbid accounts. When the last yarn was spun, he shrugged and cleared his throat.
“I’ve seen nothing really bad,” he said. “Once I followed the EMTs to a body on the sidewalk. It was this woman, but no one knew how she died. No blood, no wounds, no marks. She looked like Resusci Annie,” the pale blonde manikin used for CPR training.
There was an audible gasp as we contemplated the chilling image. All of us had seen, to varying degrees, death by violent trauma, and it was ghastly. At the same time, horribly disfigured bodies sometimes made death a little easier to take because it was obvious what had caused it and clear there had been no alternative to death, no hope of rescue. A pale, immaculate body left the mystery intact and made the death seem avoidable, wasteful, unnecessary. We stared silently into our steins and tried to erase the image from our minds.
By the time most of us have reached a certain age, we have seen death and are aware of its permanency. We’ve seen loved ones, friends, and neighbors in coffins and on hospital slabs. We may not be able to define death clinically, but we know it when we see it. There is no more vitality in a corpse than there is in Resusci Annie.
When I was 16 my mother sat by her brother’s side as he lay dying of cancer. “We had been talking together,” my mother recalled, “and he was following my conversation, nodding, moving his eyes. And then he was gone. I could see he was gone.”
“I could see he was gone.” At 16, I had no idea what that meant. Was there a change in the light? Did a haze of ectoplasm float over the bed and rise to the ceiling? I thought of the death scenes in movies. Did my uncle start to tell my mother something – “My keys – the keys to my safety deposit box are in the – in the” – and turn his head against the pillow with an expiring sigh?
But the mystery is intact. He was there one moment, gone the next. And when you see it you know it.
It’s comforting, in a way, especially if your loved one has been wracked with pain for months, to know that they have actually gone away, they have left the suffering behind, they are no longer there.
But it doesn’t answer the logical follow-up question: where are they now? It’s clear that when a loved one – when anyone – dies, they are gone. Clemenza says it plainly when asked about the fate of a snuffed turncoat in The Godfather:
Sonny: How's Paulie?
Clemenza: (Cheerfully) Oh, Paulie... won't see him no more.
The sudden absence of someone, anyone, can be painful. Loved ones become such an intimate part of our lives that we continue to hear their voices long after they are gone, or we believe we catch glimpses of them in crowds, or – more dramatically – see their ghostly figures in the quiet places.
Martha and I are convinced we share our house with a gentle spirit, a friendly ghost who bears us no ill will but sometimes wishes to be noticed, a fleeting glimpse in the corners of our eyes. This ghostly entity seems to me to be a red-haired teen-age boy, almost certainly not the previous owner of the house, an elderly man who died decades ago in our living room. But I’m convinced someone or something is there. Or perhaps it’s my errant imagination.
If he’s a ghost, he’s more subtle than most of his ilk. The ghosts of England are more in-your-face. During my days as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant, I worked for Father Joe McCausland, a Catholic chaplain who spent his free time learning to fly and re-wiring his short-wave radio set that connected him with friends all over the world. Father Mac was all wires and physics and aerodynamics – perhaps unusual for a priest – and generally he didn’t believe what he didn’t see.
One day Father Mac had taken the bus home to his little bungalow in Orford, a coastal town 10 miles from the base. He got off the bus and began his short walk home (as he told the story many times). As he walked, he saw a man standing in front of his bungalow. This wasn’t unusual because airmen often came to his home where they could talk unhindered by the bustle of the base chapel. The man’s clothes seemed a little unusual to Father Mac, as if they had been pulled out of an old trunk in the attic, and his brown hair was shaggier than an airman’s. As he got closer, Father Mac studied the man’s face and noted he had rosy and slightly pock-marked cheeks. Father Mac did not recognize him, so he hastened his pace to see what he wanted.
And then the man disappeared. Flat-out vanished. Father Mac was so startled he nearly tripped over the cobblestones. He stood for long moments, gaping at the empty space that had been occupied so clearly by a brown-haired man with rosy pock-marked cheeks.
What was this apparition? Father Mac never identified the man as a ghost or a spirit. He scoffed at suggestions from his fellow officers that he had been drinking (“I never touch a drop before 1800 hours!”). But the priest told the story often and without embellishment for the rest of his tour in England.
What are we to make of this?
We see death and know it is real. And some of us see ghosts and wonder if they are evidence that life in some form persists after death.
Death is one experience we will have in common, and equally common is a tendency – especially in the United States – to put it out of our minds. Our egos struggle to accept the possibility of extinction, and we live most of our lives thinking death is something that happens to other people. “Everybody has got to die,” said William Saroyan a few days before his death by prostate cancer in 1981, “but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Woody Allen, whose horror of death has inspired his best work, ironically questions the significance we give to our lives and the times in which we live. “What difference does it make?” he asks. “Every 150 years we get a whole new set of people.”
Allen has used black humor to express the icy fears we all have on lonely dark nights when we think about the end of our lives. “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work,” he writes. “I want to achieve it through not dying.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” Allen says. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And finally, “If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I’d like to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.”
We can laugh at death all we want, and many of us wonder about the architecture of our Father’s house which, Jesus said, has many mansions and a room prepared for each us. But the mansion metaphor sounds like an apartment ad in the New York Times magazine, and none of us knows what heaven is like, so we try not to think about death at all. This doesn’t mean we’re evolving into secular humanists.
According to the Pew Forum, three quarters of Americans surveyed believe in life after death and heaven, and most of us (59 percent) believe in hell. But in the final analysis, most of us are scared to death of death, and most of us wonder what death is like. Do we go to heaven, or are some of us doomed to wander the earth, Jacob Marley-like, as eternal ghosts? And what is scarier to contemplate: hell or extinction?
Life, death, and life after death. Once you get past the lilies and pastel marshmallow peeps and colored eggs, these are the real issues of Easter. On Easter we will pray and sing and proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead, that Jesus has conquered death. But what does that mean?
Allow me to quote a passage – one of my favorites – from C.S. Lewis’ 1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”
I heard a man say, “The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival, evidence that the human personality survives death.” On that view what happened to Christ would be what had always happened to all [persons], the difference being that in Christ’s case we were privileged to see it happening. This is certainly not what the earliest Christian writers thought. Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in ghost-survival. On the contrary, they believed in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that He was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse.” A new mode of being has arisen. That is the story. What are we going to make of it?
The question is, I suppose, whether any hypothesis covers the facts so well as the Christian hypothesis. That hypothesis is that God has come down into the created universe, down to [person]hood—and come up again, pulling it up with Him. The alternative hypothesis is not legend, nor exaggeration, nor the apparitions of a ghost. It is either lunacy or lies. Unless one can take the second alternative (and I can’t) one turns to the Christian theory.
If the Resurrection was simply a case of a man dying and living again, it would be hard to fathom. Once you’ve seen death, you understand it’s not likely to be reversed. Dead one minute and alive the next? That’s just too hard to believe. It’s no wonder that rumors circulated that the disciples had carried Jesus’ body away to enhance the rumors that he had risen.
But the miracle of Easter goes much beyond the passage from life into death and back into the same quality of life we had left behind. Why would we want to do that? “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back,” C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, a journal of his mourning following the death of his wife. The idea of returning to life after safely passing through the portal of death was appalling to Lewis. “Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back -- to be sucked back -- into it?”
But that is not the life we celebrate on Easter morning. What we are celebrating is that God, through Jesus, has ushered in a “totally new mode of being” in the universe, not just life but – groping lamely for words to describe it – a life abundant.
We shall never fully understand it until it happens, and we may never find words to express it. Christian F. Gellert tried to express it in 1757:
Jesus lives and so shall I.
Death! Thy sting is gone forever.
He, who deigned for me to die,
Lives the bands of death to sever.
He shall raise me with the just;
Jesus is my hope and trust.
For now, it must be enough to hope and trust. There is a new mode of being in the universe. And death and life as we have known them have been changed forever.