I had the great sadness of going to a funeral recently and yet it was one of the happiest funerals I’ve ever been to. Why do I say that?
Well, for one, my father-in-law’s funeral was one of the largest the church had ever held. The conference-type venue was almost packed. Not because he was particularly famous (although he did play rugby for Ireland back in the day), nor because he had a big family (most of the guests were friends from church and people who knew him from around town). It wasn’t even because he was just a really nice person (as his daughter said in her eulogy, ‘He could be a bit of a shite’). It was because, despite it all, he was massively loved. He had an infectious joy and charm that drew people to him, and he loved others deeply and genuinely. His passing was intensely sad and yet to those of us who knew where he’d gone, we had reason to celebrate. Let me expand.
Sam was born in a small fishing village in Northern Ireland, brought up mainly by his Grannie Martha, whom he loved fiercely. He was a man who could be gentle with dogs and babies and quick to confront anyone he thought was out of line. Sam loved music and would often be found belting out lilting Irish ballads on the piano, even years after he moved to South Africa as a young man. Go into almost any shop, gym or café in the part of South Africa where he lived, and people would grin and say, ‘Hello Sam!’
His life hadn’t all been smiles and ease, however. Sam had had a difficult childhood, with young parents who were often absent. In his later years he’d battled throat cancer – leaving him unable to eat or speak easily – and worst of all, he had lost his eldest son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in a terrible tragedy. His pain and grief were deep and affected him and others in many ways. One thing he knew, he was so hurt by it that he had determined that God had nothing for him.
Although Sam had had some experience of church, he hadn’t gone in years. Yet, when he was invited by an old rugby friend to a grief share group at their local church, for some reason, he decided to go along. Over the weeks and months that the group met, something began to change in the way Sam looked at the future and the way he saw heaven in particular. He began to talk expectantly of the room Jesus was preparing for him (although he hoped it wasn’t quite ready for him yet). Sam died last November, and his last few years had been a period of transformation for him. In coming to know Jesus he found not only a large community of friends at the church but more importantly, a contentment and a peace that he had never had before.
A couple of weeks ago, Sam’s ashes were sprinkled by his wife at the foot of a big old tree on the banks of Lake Naverone. It was their special place, quiet and still, ringed by the snow-draped Drakensberg peaks. They would play cards by the light of the log fire in the thatched cottage, and get up early to go fishing while the fog still hung low over the water (it sounds idyllic but there was definitely a fervent rivalry as to who had the bigger catch). Although they both loved taking the family there, this time we were all half a world away and could only watch the moment through WhatsApp.
Writing these memories of the few short years I had with Sam makes me wish for those days together again. I know it is only a tiny glimpse of the pain and wistfulness that my husband, his son, feels right now and will do for the rest of his life. But one thing makes it easier for both of us: remembering that we will get to see him again one day.
Jesus said ‘I am the one who raises the dead to life! Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die’ . He was talking about the life he offers to anyone who wants it, in the new world that will be created at the end of this one. It might sound fanciful, but it isn’t. Sam chose to go for it and his funeral was such a happy one because I (and his other Christian friends and family) now know that we’ll get to hang out with him indefinitely in that place one day. We can sit fly-fishing on a rowboat, dangling our fingers in the water and laughing about that time he got a hook stuck in his eyebrow (I think it’s safe to say he got the biggest trout in the lake that day).
No one wants to believe the sum total of their life will one day be sifted into an urn. No matter how much we might convince ourselves that’s all there is, I think if we’re honest, we want more. Merely knowing that people cared about us on Earth, receiving appreciative platitudes from colleagues or building up a healthy bank account to gift to our family will never be enough; we want something real and lasting. We want a chance to live on, but free of the pain and hardship we so often experience in daily life. We don’t want to just have our mortal fragments spread out over some peaceful spot and later forgotten, but to revel in an embodied and joyful life, eating, drinking, laughing and loving, in a place that will fulfill even our wildest dreams of the good life – life in all its fullness. If you want this, it’s there for you, all you have to do is say ‘Yes Jesus, I’m in!’