Life and Death and Life In Death

It has been a long week.

By the end of tonight I will have been at the same suburban funeral home three out of seven days this week. One evening and morning were set aside to mourn the loss of Peter’s uncle, and one evening was set aside to mourn the loss of a friend’s father.

The two deaths this week gave way to opportunities to talk. I talked about my mother-in-law’s death with my husband and my sister-in-law – what we remember from the days leading up to and after her death, feelings and memories that rose to the surface after being together at the beginning of the week for Peter’s uncle’s wake and funeral.

I talked around death as my parents shared with me some details about their estate since it’s never a good time even though it’s always a good time to talk about life insurance policies and living wills.

All this talk, and I’m tired. I’ve been to many memorial services and wakes, but I have found those of first generation Korean immigrants to be some of the most mournful, sorrowful, and emotionally draining. Outward expressions of grief are limited to the occasional sob and cry, but the room is filled in black with a respectful, honoring, but heavy grief. No one but the presiding pastor speaks above a whisper, and stories are told without smiles or laughter.

Photo displays may include pictures filled with smiles and fond memories, but the photo by the casket, often marked by two black ribbons around the top two corners, is an expressionless headshot. It’s as if the person knows they will not be around to see this photo that captures life and death. It’s not unusual to see rather large flower arrangements adorned with messages of condolences written on ribbons or banners from the deceased’s or surviving family members’ Korean high school or college/university alumni association.

Some of the traditions, even in Christian Korean funerals, are connected to Korea’s Buddhist roots where the dead are wrapped in yellow hemp; the men of the deceased person’s family wear small bows made of yellow hemp and the women still wear small white ribbons (white being the color of death and mourning) signaling to the world around them that they are in mourning.

I once told my mother that I would not want to put my own children through that kind of memorial service when I die. My mother quickly shot back, “That is how you show respect to us when we die.”

The wake for a high school classmate’s mother was the first example of a different way to celebrate life and death. I walked in and was quickly alarmed and confused. People were sitting casually in small groups around the room, some dressed as if they were headed out to a nice lunch but there was enough color and lightness in the room that surprised me. I was wearing all black. (Actually, I wore a lot of black in those days, but that’s for another post.) They were talking, laughing, sharing tears and memories of my friend’s mother. There was talk about life in the presence of the dead, talk about life with life and laughter.

But in neither my Korean or American contexts have I found a good space to talk about death, particularly death in light of the living. I find it fairly easy to talk about those who have already died, but death and ways to celebrate life in death are more often than not reserved for the moments as families plan the funeral.

So it has come as some relief in the weightiness of the week’s events that this week began with Easter and last night was spent ┬ápreparing for Sunday’s worship service…

There’s a day that’s drawing near

When this darkness breaks to light

And the shadows disappear

And my faith shall be my eyes.

Jesus has overcome and the grave is overwhelmed

The victory is won, He is risen from the dead.

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