Entering life by facing death

Entering lifeby facing deathDeath is all around us. We deal with it almost on a daily basis. All kinds of deaths.

Deaths of dreams. Deaths of careers. Deaths of dignity and reputation. Deaths of the body. Deaths of the soul. Deaths of friendships and marriages and families.

Occasionally, a book or movie or song or other work of art will help me navigate the deaths I experience in my life. Departures is such a piece of art.

51GORHomF3LDepartures is a beautiful and wise movie, exploring a wide range of deaths with a subtle hand while diving right into the harsh reality of physical human death. The Japanese-language film won the 2009 Academy Award for foreign films by being a true and gracious exploration of death without becoming morbid or dark, always retaining a light and sometimes humorous heart while not failing to dig deep. This is not just filmcraft; it’s the message of the movie: real life is intertwined with real death.

Watching Daigo, the movie’s protagonist, receive the news that the second-rate symphony orchestra he’s been playing cello for will be dissolving due to high costs and low attendance, I thought about the death of my attempt at church planting. So much hope and so many dreams rolled up together only to disappear as if they’d never been there. A death without a bang; death with a wimper. As Daigo sold his much-too expensive cello for someone of his middling talent, I thought of how I sent out emails, letting people know our small church start-up would be meeting no more: notes of finality; obituaries. And my thoughts widened to all those who have started businesses only to have them fail; to all who have taken out student loans for college degrees they never end up using; to all who have been laid off with hardly an explanation. We know death.

Watching Daigo being berated for his job of “encasketment,” for touching dead bodies, I considered all who have faced the death of their reputations for all kinds of reasons. We know death.

Watching cracks form in Daigo’s marriage, I considered all those who enter marriage with wide-eyed wonder, never believing that the 50% of marriages that end in divorce would include theirs. We know death.

Watching Daigo rail against the father who abandoned his mother and him when we was a boy of six, I considered all of the families that have fractured and drifted apart. We know death.

And watching Daigo as he and his boss gently and with great care and attention prepare corpses to be buried or cremated, I envied the families in the movie for their ability to see their loved ones treated so well even in death. I envied the opportunity they had to sit in the face of death and let it crack open their defenses so they could truly grieve. I envied because I didn’t have such opportunities when my sister died 20 years ago. I wish she’d been treated so honorably. I wish I had been so gently led into grief. For whether it comes early or it comes late, we all watch those close to us die. We know death.

departures1But the movie includes many looping spirals, where death circles back on itself into life.

Daigo returns to the home he grew up in, just like the salmon he watches returning to the streams of their birth. This isn’t a true circle. It’s a spiral, working its way closer to the center, deeper each time around.

Through his unwanted and distasteful job, Daigo becomes a professional at death, acquiring a taste for and a love of honoring the dead in ways that only the grieving can appreciate. His manner is quiet. His moves are precise. His attention to the deceased is gentle and loving and embracing. Japan’s is an honor culture and the movie awakened me to the beauty of honoring the dead, of sending them on their way so the living can get on with their living.

We the living only live by eating the dead, says Daigo’s boss as they share a meal together which includes parts of dead animals. Not by denying death, but by taking it into ourselves do we stay alive. There is much to ponder in this.

Watching Daigo honor the dead through his practiced ritual, I realized how impoverished I am because I lack such a ritual.

During this past year, I have seen at least 30 corpses in the hospital I work at. In fact, I was with a family a few days ago who watched as a loved one breathed her last breath, her heart beat fading to nothing. And I longed to copy Daigo. I longed to lead them in a ritual which would create meaning out of this death.

So, I gathered them around her body. I had them hold hands and touch her. I prayed to the God of heaven to take her to himself, to embrace this woman who had embraced him, to draw near to this weeping family, to walk with them through their grief. And I had them speak their thank-yous to their loved one, letting her go as they named their gratitude. I’m not in Japan and I don’t do as Daigo did. I am in America and I did as Pete does. And it was good and honoring and I was privileged to be a part of it. And it was at least a little bit richer because I had learned from Daigo.

We know death. So there must be a place for grief in our lives.

We must face death or else carry around the dead with us like a stone, never letting them go and always being weighed down by them.

This is the way of resurrection.