A few years ago, I helped my mom sort through all the final burial expenses following my dad’s death. They included the cost of having his body flown from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Denver, CO, and having a funeral director make a 500-mile round trip to pick up his body. Mom had two words when she collected all the bills: “Holy Cow.” Followed by, “I’m going to be cremated.”
And she was. She died June 16 at age 86. Two weeks ago, in a simple service, we buried her ashes next to my dad at the Hoxie Cemetery in Hoxie, Kansas. As I stood at her grave officiating, I could see the baseball field where I played little league baseball. Just east of the baseball field sits the ranch house my parents built when I was in Kindergarten.
On one side of my dad and mom’s headstone is the gravestone of my little league coach. One day he told me it was okay to play catcher without a catcher’s mask. The very first batter tipped a foul ball that broke my nose. I walked home with my white t-shirt covered with blood. My mom was mad at that coach the whole summer for not being more careful.
My Grandpa and Grandma Follis are buried on the other side of my parents. Not far away is my cousin’s grave. He was killed in a farm accident at age 21. Near my cousin lies my old grade school friend. He threw a towel on my head one summer when I finally got the courage to swim across the deep end of the pool for the first time.
You can’t walk around a cemetery for long without realizing that the last real enemy we all face is death. Burying my mom’s ashes next to my dad really brought that home.
It’s true that most do not happily and willingly accept their mortality. No, death is an affront to nearly everything we cherish – our careers, our marriages, our children, our friends, our homes and our communities. All sorts of loss reminds us that we do not have the final word. Death does. In the end, it conquers all.
Meandering through the cemetery I thought how some face their mortality by living heroically in spite of their destiny. Others live for the moment, giving themselves to pleasure and power. En route to the cemetery, I drove by an exit on Interstate-70 where late one night two high school boys I knew decided how fast they could drive up an exit ramp and back down the entry ramp without slowing down. They rolled the car and one of the most popular boys in the high school was killed. Still others see the absurdity of life and end their life by suicide.
Over the years I have seen people who suffered loss but wanted to reverse their circumstances, even bringing family members back to life. That always makes me think of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I wonder when Lazarus died again if it was a long, painful death. Writer Jerry Sittser says, “We are deceived by our longings for what we once had, because we cannot have that way forever even if we regain what we lost for a while.”
No miracle can save us from death, which is why so many long for a life where death is finally and ultimately defeated. In fact, followers of Jesus believe the grave could not hold him. We believe Jesus conquered death and was raised by God to a life that would never end again. It is a life that says death does not have the final word. Life does. And though it is in the future, all tears and pain and sorrow will be swallowed up in everlasting life and pure, untainted joy. The present life we live often is full of sorrow and pain. We are creatures made of dust, and yet many speak of having a sense of eternity living in their heart, realizing they were made for something more.
Seeing the graves of those who have gone before me, I pondered my story and the heritage given to me at birth. I am part of a larger story, a story that I did not choose. Nor did my mother choose her story. As an infant, she was adopted into a poor farm family and assigned a role for which there was no audition.
And yet, we have the capacity to choose how we will live out the story given to us. Looking at my 4 siblings, my two uncles and their wives in their nineties and a host of 50 assorted family members and friends, I wondered what it means to preserve the heritage my mother gave to me, even passing on a tradition of faith and love that future generations will want and need. The success of the role I play – I hope with as much integrity and joy as I can – depends on the choices I continue to make and the grace I receive.