The day after the funeral dawns fresh, like the first day after creation. Black crows taunt one another and dart in and out in a game of tag. A breeze casts about, tumbling the bees and making the flowers turn their heads. In the distance, a mourning dove on a wire calls out to me, “Who?” “Who?” It almost seems as if yesterday’s brush with death has somehow rejuvenated everything so that the old world is made young again.
Yet to me it feels as if the world is emptying. I know this is not true. One generation goes and another comes. If the world is divesting itself of old souls, it is also filling up with new ones. But the day after the funeral, I feel the absence of the departed more than the presence of those who remain. In my mind, I run through the list of names I know of those who are already gone. Some are friends, some are family, and some are merely acquaintances. In this roll call of the dead, their absence presses upon me like a crowd.
People like to think that the dearly departed are somewhere nearby, hovering above our lives like a bird that is ghosting on a sea breeze. The silent dead watch benevolently as we go about our business, like invisible guests at our meals, weddings, and family reunions. I do not believe that this is true. Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. It is hard to see how the dead would derive much pleasure from them.
Yet there are times when the absence of someone who was once close to me presses in hard. There is no sight or sound. Only a sense of real presence, like the way it once felt to be in the same room with my father or to sit in comfortable silence with an old friend.
Taking note of the dead puts me in a calculating frame of mind. So I count up the number of years that I have worked and try to estimate how many years I might have left before I make my own exit. Could the ten-year smoke alarm I bought outlast me? It occurs to me that the house I am sitting in has seen generations come and go. The more I do the math, the shorter time seems. We are all hurrying toward the exit.
As a Christian, I believe that there is a life beyond this life. But I do not really know what form it takes. At least, not in detail. There must be some continuity with the life I now live in this world of earth and trees. When Jesus met the disciples on the road after His resurrection, His appearance was so ordinary that they could not recognize Him. It was only after the fact that they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
What I do know is that for now at least, this old earth is not a final destination. It is a point of departure. Those of us who remain watch as others leave, their lips pursed in the determined features of the dead. We bid them farewell as they set out on that journey to a distant shore. But if they return our wave, we do not see it. The sight of it is lost in the mist. On the day of the funeral, we are left with our memories and with the task of caring for the house they have left behind.
But the day after the funeral dawns fresh. As if the world has already moved on and I have moved with it. That is when it occurs to me, I am not really standing on the shore bidding farewell. I am standing in line.