Our smell announced our arrival before we’d hit the threshold. Teenage boys tumbled out of the locker room, doused in cologne to mask their gym class body odor. None of them had showered. Girls walked down the hall in groups, a cloud of floral shampoo fragrance surrounding them. “Women don’t sweat. They glow,” remarked the kindly, older teacher as we filed through the door and headed to our seats. An agreeable sentiment — unless you had to wear medicated deodorant. For at least one girl I knew, those words were laughable. For her, adolescence had hit like a Mack truck. Women didn’t just sweat. They stunk. No euphemism was adequate when the medical community had to be called in to help you tame your odor.
Death is the ultimate stink. We’ve got all kinds of genteel phrases to try to mask its horrid smell. Our pets cross the rainbow bridge. Our loved ones pass away or go to a better place. Become a Christian and the phrases multiply a hundredfold. Gone to be with the Lord. Crossed the river Jordan. Entered eternal rest. At peace with God. In the arms of Jesus. Called home. All phrases that help us avoid saying the word we really mean — died.
If you spend much time with me, you’ll quickly hear how vital my faith is to my life. Especially in these difficult days since Rob’s death, I have clung to Jesus and to the promises I find in God’s Word. Yes, I believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yes, I believe that those who have died in Christ now enjoy His promised eternal life. Yes, I believe Jesus has prepared a home for those who love him. These promises are the bedrock of my hope. But in a society that already doesn’t know how to talk about death, these promises can easily just become euphemisms — our attempt to deodorize death, take the edge off its horrid smell.
In our culture, our best employers often only offer three days bereavement leave. Our anti-aging health regimes attempt to forestall the visage of demise. Our medical system locates our last days in sterile rooms away from our communities. We hold Celebrations of Life instead of funerals. We do everything we can to curb the stink of death. Unfortunately, death’s horrible odor doesn’t go away. We walk around with our noses pinched saying, “Smell? What smell? I don’t smell anything.” But all of our attempts to euphemize and minimize death fall short. We’re not being honest.
If you have sat at the bedside of a loved one, if you have received the dreaded call in the night, if the chaplain has visited your doorstep like he visited mine, you have met with Death. We do no one good when we try to dress up that word. Dying. Died. Death. Dead. Avoiding those words doesn’t soften the blow for the grieving person. Avoiding affirms that death is so scary we can’t speak its name — even to someone well-acquainted with its presence. Instead, we need people willing to disarm death’s power by speaking about it honestly. When we are willing to talk about death openly and face its nasty smell, we express solidarity with those who grieve, and we teach our world a new language of honesty and compassion.
In July 2019, Rob went home to be with the Lord. He entered his eternal rest. He lives now in the arms of Jesus. All of these are true because Rob died. None of these promises soften the impact of Rob’s death. I don’t think that was ever their intention. Instead, these promises point to a larger reality, one we each will experience only by finally facing the word we fear most — death.