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Tuesday, February 15 2005 19:00
Attending the wake of a friend is always a spiritual experience for me. Seeing, dead, a person whom I have known alive stirs in me an awe that never fails to raise the question of what it means to be human. When something so stupendous as death happens, how can it not provoke wonder at the fact of our existence?

The first time I ever saw a dead body was at the wake of an aunt. As a 13-year-old seeing her lifeless, I felt stunned. How could the person I knew and loved have come to this fate?  Something of these feelings have remained with me ever since.

Two weeks ago, I went to the wake of my friend, Dick. Kneeling at his casket, I wondered at the meaning of it all. Before me were the mortal remains of someone who had been in the second grade with me. We had also received First Holy Communion on the same day in the same church.

By what strange providence had this age peer preceded me in death? And how were things with him now?

It struck me, as it always does, how strange it is that a human being who was once full of life and moved in innumerable ways was now immobile forever. How could it ever end, that life with all its complicated and familiar habits of action and thinking?

In this instance, so much were we alike, in name, age, religion, social class, that my friend’s wake seemed like an apt preparation for mine. Though I was not dead yet, that certain fate awaited me, no matter how well my doctors and I took care of my health. The day would surely come when people would stand around my bier and converse about all sorts of things and, at least from time to time, about me.

In a prayer made next to my friend’s body, I reflected on the last time we had seen one another. On that occasion, we were about to board a boat where we would celebrate the birthday of a lifelong friend of us both. That festive cruise now felt far removed from the body lying before me.

Thomas Lynch, in addition to being a fine poet and essayist, knows a great deal about dead bodies. By profession, he is an undertaker who, as he says, buries some 200 of his fellow townsmen each year in Milford, Michigan. He is also a man of faith who recognizes the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

At the end of a recent essay, Lynch extols the ministers and priests who preside over funerals and burials, reverently giving honor to the bodies they commend to God. “They stand─these local heroes, these saints and sinners, these men and women of God─in that difficult space between the living and the dead, between faith and fear, between humanity and Christianity and say out loud, ‘Behold, I show you a mystery.’”

They recognize the mystery of death and the wonder of what happens to the human body. So do I now, as I have done ever since going to my first wake at age 13. Each succeeding time when I have seen the bodies of family members and friends, the sight stirs in me the same awe. How can any one of us ever get used to the death of people we have known alive?

But at wakes, I have noticed, not everybody seems to be feeling awe at death. Some people chat as they would at a party and look to be untouched by their encounter with mortality.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge these cheerful-looking people as detached. Beneath the surface, they too may feel some of the awe that the sight of death always stirs up in me.

My faith tradition has accustomed me to thinking of death as a mystery. That term here does not so much mean a puzzle as a reality too deep for words. Death has a meaning that is so profound that we can never entirely grasp it.

I have never been able to believe that human existence ends with death. Our lives are altogether too rich for me to accept such a negative fate. In my faith, the mystery of death leads to something unimaginably wonderful. Death looks, for all the world, like the end of everything, but I continue to believe it is the transition to fuller life.

Richard Griffin