Saturday, September 24, 2016

Dearly departed

1. I'd like to discuss something I've never seen anyone else discuss. I expect one reason some Christians frequent cemeteries is to commune with the dead. To speak to the dearly departed. Whether or not public cemeteries, private cemeteries, or church graveyards were designed with that in mind, I suspect that's how many people use them. That's why some people visit the cemetery. It's an occasion to speak to their departed love ones.

That's not something Christians talk about. That's not something I hear preachers or theologians discuss. But I'm figure it's something that's common among Christians, as well as some unbelievers. And for that reason, I think we should assess this practice. Is it innocent? Permissible? Rational? Orthodox? Or is this forbidden? Superstitious? Occultic?

2. Admittedly, I don't have any statistical evidence for this practice. It's based on my anecdotal observations. So I might be mistaken. But given human nature, I surmise that it's quite widespread. A coping mechanism. 

Death is so abrupt. What happens when there's that one person you can't afford to lose, but you lose them anyway? Suddenly they are gone–all the time. You miss them–all the time. You won't see them again for the rest of your life. 

For some people, a cemetery is a way of maintaining some sense of connection. A pitiful substitute, to be sure, but death is pitiful. 

Since I don't have any polling data, I can only guess, but I assume most folks who talk to the dearly departed when they visit the cemetery do so, not because they think their loved one is lingering around the gravesite, like an invisible ghost. And I hope they don't think the soul of their loved one is consciously trapped in a coffin, six feet under. Rather, I assume they visit the cemetery to screen out distractions, visit because they associate the grave with their loved one, visit as a way to direct their thoughts and words. 

As cemeteries become less popular, and more people become secularized, that practice may be declining. However, it's not confined to cemeteries. In principle, a person could do the same thing at home, by talking to a picture of the dearly departed. They talk to their loved one by talking to the picture. That's a stand-in. I'm not saying they successfully communicate with the dead. At the moment I'm just describing the action and intention. 

3. I suppose one reason Christians don't talk about it is because they fear associations with the cult of the saints or holding a seance. I'll discuss that comparison shortly. But for the moment, is there anything else we can compare it to? Let's take two examples:

Consider a friend or relative who's fairly senile. Maybe they live with you, or you visit them in the nursing home. You don't know how much they understand. You don't know how much is getting through. Maybe their facial expression shows recognition when they see you–or maybe not. At best they respond to touch, or a warm, friendly tone of voice. 

In other cases the dementia is more advanced. They are outwardly unresponsive. There's no indication that they are even aware of your presence. 

An analogous case is a comatose patient. Maybe they can hear you. But a "coma" can be a euphemism for brain death or a persistent vegetative state.

Still, none of that prevents you from reaching out to them. From holding their hand, stroking their hair, talking to them, maybe kissing them when you enter or leave the room. You do it in part, not because you know that they register your presence or because you know that what you say gets through to them, but because, for all you know, that's possible. You do it just in case that's comforting to them. 

But that's not all. Even if they can no longer reciprocate your love, even if they don't understand, even if they are no longer conscious of touch, or the sound of your voice, that doesn't stop you from continuing to show them affection, because you continue to love them. There are some dramatic examples of terminal lucidity. But that's not a requirement for continuing to treat the demented or the comatose as if they had the presence of mind to appreciate what you are doing with them and for them. You hope that's the case, but that's not the only reason you do it. Indeed, we even show reverence for the corpse of a loved one. You do it because expressions of love are irrepressible. 

4. One question is whether there's any point in talking to the dearly beloved unless you think they can hear you. But how can they hear you? Well, maybe they can't.

To be confident that they hear you is presumptuous wishful thinking. By contrast, the question is whether God might pass that along to the dearly departed. Does God sometimes allow them to overhear you. Does he act as an intermediary? Perhaps–or perhaps not. 

There are people who believe in heaven for the wrong reasons, like New Age universalism. But for orthodox Christians, I think this is probably a harmless and edifying practice that sustains the bereaved during the tunnel period between death and reunion. Something to make bearable an otherwise inconsolable separation. 

5. What about the comparisons I mentioned? In necromancy (e.g. a seance), an attempt is made to summon the dead. To bring them into contact with the living. To establish a two-way conversation. That's very different.

Necromancy attempts to change the status quo. To transgress the boundary between life and death. It refuses to wait. 

6. As for the cult of the saints:

i) Supplicants ask for favors from the dead. Again, that's very different.

ii) In Catholic dogma, this is based on the merit of the saints. That gives them leverage with God. So there's a pernicious theology that underlies that practice.

iii) In addition, there's the dogmatic claim that the Roman knows who's in heaven. Rome knows the saints can hear you. Rome knows that certain people have God's ear. Once again, there's a pernicious theology that underlies that practice. 


  1. I'm reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote on a related topic. Lewis wrote:

    "Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him? On the traditional Protestant point of view..."- C.S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

    1. Lewis may have been haunted by WWI and the untimely demise of young friends like Paddy Moore.

  2. For some people, a cemetery is a way of maintaining some sense of connection. A pitiful substitute, to be sure, but death is pitiful.... I assume they visit the cemetery to screen out distractions, visit because they associate the grave with their loved one, visit as a way to direct their thoughts and words.

    Steve, this is right on the money. I visit the cemetary frequently, to see the grave stone of my wife (and it possibly may be mine as well). And there is nothing quite like it. I'm anchored by the thought that she knew and trusted the Lord with her salvation before she died. Scripturally, she is in the presence of the Lord. I know that the Lord hears and answers my prayers, and so I ask Him to tell her that I love her and that I miss her. There really is nothing else. To know that she is in His presence and enjoying the forever of Him is something that comforts me no matter how feeble my ability to understand it.

  3. Christ not only redeemed the soul, but the body as well. When our loved ones die, our love not not die with them. We go to feel that connection, though a part of them is "gone' nonetheless a part of them still remains with us. I like visiting the graves of my friends and family, knowing that they are just sleeping and death does not have the final word. These bodies that were buried will rise again.