When Words Defy Death

Loretta Lynn’s Words Have No Time Stamp

Duo Dickinson / 10.13.22

Loretta Lynn died in her sleep at ninety last week.

My first (very human) thought was “Not a bad way to die.” I am continually struck with my idiocy. “Bad” and “die” are conclusions that defy the gift of humanity.

On the Sunday before her passing, Lynn shared something on Facebook. Her last social media message would be a quote from Scripture, John 3:20-21:

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

We just passed the Autumnal Equinox. It is getting darker. And this season I have been to more funerals than ever. My friends are passing, and I have seen every type of grief and death: the long agony; the instant, unforeseen ending; and everything in between.

And with each death comes a different service or funeral: a grand Cathedral event with nine (!) bishops; a festive and completely secular gathering with somber remembrances; and everything in between.

Our lives consume us, literally. And death is, in the end, not about us. Lynn was thinking beyond herself. She could see her end, but she knew that life would not wither like a tree’s fallen leaves but dwell in its bare branches. Life has nothing to do with us, because it is a gift. My aging Boomer generation might see that gift as coming from an “Indian Giver” who eventually takes it back.

Our creation did not begin by the passion of our parents or even by the miracle of technology that can foster reproduction. We were made by God, and therefore leave by God. And at my end, the words of John will be spoken:

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

When these words are said in the silence of a funeral, we cannot ritual away the consequence of loss. Our eyes are drawn to whatever remains of the dead. The physical dead are easy to see — and we look, even touch or hold.

Anecdotes and eulogies are for the living, but the gatherings (born of high religion or low secularity) are but a distillation of our inadequacy. At these moments in a funeral, there is no doubt in the speaker of John’s words and no need for ascent by the listener. The words of John are not a memorial; rather they are God’s living presence with those who have died and those who are grieving.

Each of us struggle in our denial or acceptance of what we cannot control. The ultimate lack of human control, death, confronts every physical reality. And to give ourselves some semblance of comfort, we create realities that we can control, like funerals.

I imagine death for each of us to be the first moment of total silence in the din of living, and funerals can be a moment when that inevitable truth of death is laid bare. Like the sunrise or the wind, it is undeniably real. The words spoken at these times break the silence of death, and for a moment, break down our need for control.

Whether 600 or 6,000 years old, the words said by Loretta Lynn have no time stamp. They were a part of us when first said, and they are a part of us now. Ringing like the bell on a silent night, their penetrating reality is a truth beyond sound.

The words we say to address this silence are spoken by a human, but created by God — a squint at the light at dawn. The light of truth that reminds us of God’s redemption in his own death and resurrection.

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