Requiescat in Pace: The Naming Power of HBO’s The Leftovers

Last week, the Earth made a seismic shift, though mostly unnoticed. A gentle giant among […]

Jeff Hual / 8.7.18

Last week, the Earth made a seismic shift, though mostly unnoticed. A gentle giant among us in terms of Anglican church music, John Bradford Bohl, died unexpectedly at the young age of 37. I had the joy of serving with him at Saint Paul’s K Street in Washington, D.C., and when I took over the venerable yet ailing Saint John’s in the Village, Baltimore, he was always cheering me on, having happily sung there often as a chorister during his time at Peabody Conservatory and sometimes after.

When someone in my life dies, I am reminded of one of the Church’s great traditions on All Souls’ Day (November 2), which is the reading of the names of our deceased loved ones. The reason we engage in this practice each year is that we know that there’s power in a name. It’s fair to say that one of the few things left here in memory of us is our names. We leave a legacy, we leave love and the ones we’ve loved, but so much of that legacy and that love, and especially the memory of that legacy and love, is tied up in our names.

And so, when I lose one of those loved ones that I will name on All Souls’ Day, I nearly always return to HBO’s The Leftovers, which is built on an imagined event: an unexplained occurrence in which two percent of the world’s population simply disappears. The show becomes a study of how we who are left behind deal with the loss of our loved ones, the idea being that, if just two percent of the population disappeared, every one of us would be affected by it in some way. Thus, when I am affected by the disappearance of one of my loved ones from my life, it somehow makes sense to me that I nearly always return to The Leftovers, especially the final season, and mostly, the final episode.

At the beginning of the final season, it’s not explained why Nora Durst is wearing an arm cast. In the third episode, she goes to a doctor to have the cast removed, and underneath the cast is revealed a very large, somewhat tacky tattoo. It’s the logo for the Wu-Tang Clan. Nora then goes to visit a friend, who asks her how she broke her arm, and why the new tattoo. Nora’s reply is crushing from the standpoint of the names of the loved ones we’ve lost. She reminds her friend that she used to have the names of her son and daughter tattooed on her arm, but after seven years of missing them, and seven years of seeing their names emblazoned on her arm every time she looked down, she reached a point at which she couldn’t handle it any more.

So, she went to a tattoo shop, and asked for the names to be covered up. When asked with what, she pointed at the biggest thing on the wall, which turned out to be the Wu-Tang logo. She sat there for hours while the tattoo artist rendered the new tattoo, covering up the names of her missing children. By now it was night, she went to open her car door, then she looked down … and in that moment of now not being able to see the names of her lost children, whom she loved so much, and seeing their names for the first time replaced by this ugly tattoo, Nora begins to repeatedly slam her arm in the car door, in a mix of anger and madness, until someone sees her and calls 911 to get her help. There is that much power in the names of those whom we’ve lost.

But there’s more to our names than just the memories we leave behind when we depart this world. Twice in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Shepherd, and in the second version he says, “I know my own, and my own know me.” But in the earlier version of the parable, he points out that the Good Shepherd knows his own sheep by name. Our name isn’t just something we leave behind when we die. Our name is something that goes with us to the other side. It is by our names that we were baptized, and it is by our names that God through Christ knows us. Every one of us here on Earth, and every one of us who has gone before in the hope of the resurrection—Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name.

I think, though, that the bigger issue that we have to look at and consider when we lose a loved one is the very fact of the other side. The thing that causes pain for us in death and in losing loved ones to death is that barrier between life and the other side. In death, we know that our loved ones go to be with Christ, while the rest of us are left behind, which is really the deeper theme that The Leftovers sought to explore.

In the final scene of the last episode, the series finale, Nora has actually travelled to the other side, which turns out to be a parallel Earth where the two percent who disappeared now exist without the ninety-eight percent who were left behind on the other side of the barrier. Through the work of a scientist who figured out a way to bridge the barrier, she goes to the other side, and she eventually realizes that she doesn’t belong there, so she tracks down the scientist and convinces him to send her back.

And she says something about her experience on the other side that is extremely illuminating as to what happens in death. Nora says, “Over here we lost some of them, but over there they lost all of us.”

She realizes, that for every person who was in, say, a grocery store where one or two disappeared, on the other side those one or two people found themselves in the store all alone. I actually had this scene in my mind a year ago in May, the day my grandfather died. We were driving towards his house when we got the call to tell us he was already gone. We got there first, then other family members gathered. After a while, the house was full of people, and that’s when I realized that in his dying, we all lost the one person…but at the same time, he lost all of us.

That changed my perspective on death, and the pain that we feel at the loss of a loved one. We lose that loved one, but we still have each other. We were all gathered with his body, comforting one another. But for the one who has died, we believe that they go to a better place, we believe that they go to be with Christ, and that they are with the others who have gone before, but still…the barrier is there. The barrier is real.

But we don’t need to go to the other side of the barrier. What we need is for that barrier to be erased. And that’s just what we have been given in Christ. Through his Cross, sin is forgiven. And the penalty for sin is death, but through his Resurrection, death is defeated. And we have a promise that Christ will come again and make all things new. When he does, the barrier between life and death will once and for all be erased. This is God’s promise to his people. The names we remember, the names we cherish—we won’t have to choose between being with the living or the dead, or having that choice made for us. We will all of us be together. All of us will be reunited with our loved ones, and they will be reunited with all of us.

Just consider these words from John’s Revelation:

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and be their God; and they will be his peoples, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

That term, first things, is a reference to the Garden of Eden, to the original sin of Adam and Eve, which brought sin into the world and brought with it the penalty of sin, which is death. But remember what Jesus says every time he refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. He never says it without adding, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And Christ knows all his sheep by name. It is through his Cross and Resurrection that the first things have already been defeated. They haven’t passed away yet, but our promise from God through Christ is that someday they will pass away, as will death, as will mourning and crying and pain. The barrier between living and dead will be erased—all will be made new. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.