What words are there to describe a death? What words, if any, should be spoken after a death?
Our lives are filled with words. When we speak with others, we exchange words, and when we are silent, words spiral around inside of our heads. Sometimes, words that we hear spoken by others can linger in our minds for the rest of our lives, whether good or bad. Words can build someone up and they can tear someone down. As James said, “Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
Imagine attending a funeral service where no words were spoken. No music was played, no speakers stood up to give eulogies. There was only silence. It’s a strange thing to imagine, because that’s not our custom. At funerals, we are all desperate for words, often because we are at a loss for words. We don’t know the right things to say to those who are grieving, and if we are the ones grieving, we don’t know how to explain the way that we feel.
We live in a society that does not enjoy being at a loss for words. When tragedy strikes, we wait for someone to speak up about it, to make sense of it all. We come to church services expecting to hear words. We greet friends and expect to exchange words. And when silence comes, we often retreat from it, or we try to fill it.
The gospel accounts don’t give us much detail into the words that were spoken after Jesus’ death. I can’t imagine there were many. Imagine being one of the disciples, having just witnessed the death of the person you have just given the last three years of your life to because you believed that he was the son of God.
I love Jose De Ribera’s painting “The Entombment,” because it captures something that many of the other paintings on this moment don’t. Most of the other paintings, most notably Michelangelo Caravaggio’s portrayal, show people wailing aloud, which I am sure happened at some point, as it was a custom in that time. But Ribera’s painting shows a different moment, one that seems much quieter. In the painting, Jesus’ followers are inspecting his body silently. One of them is inches away from Jesus’ head. Another is looking down at Jesus’ hands. In the background, still another is looking down at Jesus’ feet. We don’t get a sense in the painting that any one of these followers is saying anything. What could there be to say?
Often in our readings and discussions on the death of Jesus, we tend to jump ahead to His resurrection, and understandably so. Without it, we would have no hope. And yet, for those days that followed, that’s exactly where Jesus’ followers found themselves—without hope. They couldn’t see forward to the morning that awaited them. They only had the memory of all the words that Jesus had spoken to them, and now their task was to try and make sense of it all.
We too have been left with the words of promise, a promise that says we have not been abandoned, and as the Hebrews writer says, that we have “a sure hope as an anchor for the soul.” As Paul said in his letter to the Phillipians, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Until then, we wait as His followers did, and we look for Him.