Unfinished Business

Mark Clemens shares his reflections on death, memory, hope, and resurrection, on the occasion of All Souls Day 2020.

I am now a few weeks into the private liturgical season that marks half of every year for me, from early October, when my mother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, to the middle of April, when she died. “Liturgical” is not the word, maybe. Besides a visit to the cemetery or two, I perform no outward actions of commemoration. I pray, when I think to, but mostly what I do is remember where I was and where she was and what we were doing at the corresponding time nine years ago—now she was in the ICU, now the outpatient ward (at the same hospital where she tended to AIDS patients twenty-five years earlier), now the hospice bed unfolded in the living room.

When I rehearse these events of those six months, I find they are not just the past—nothing is ever just the past—they are the ground and origin of my present life. I live where I do and work where I do, I have my dog and not another, I maintain a certain quality of relationship with my father, because of my mother’s illness and what came after. My life before that time, the one where I taught high school and lived hundreds of miles from my family, feels increasingly like it happened to somebody else. Grief, on the other hand, has mellowed but never disappeared. In fact, it grows and finds new expression, simply because life continues. Things keep happening that I’d like to talk with her about: my father’s remarriage, my divorce, my return to the church. This facet of loss predates her death; the tumor began in her speech centers and she became aphasic almost immediately. More than almost anything, I wish I knew what she thought about as the end approached.

Another way of saying all this is that our life together is unfinished, and becomes more so every year. So I find it helpful that, about a month into this period, the church’s calendar arrives at All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of its own unfinished state. It is something of a downer, coming immediately after All Saints’ Day—a celebratory feast for those whose life and death and afterlife are triumphs in one way or another. All Souls’ Day transposes this to a minor key, taking absence as its theme. We are reminded that those of us who gather on Sunday mornings are only some of the church, perhaps a minority: the greater part lies in the grave, unseen by us. The faithful living and dead are a community, however imperfect. My mother’s absence, felt sharply or subtly, does not affect me alone: it is felt by the whole church, by those around me in the pews, just as I share their grief. When I pray for my mother or anyone who has died, when I hold them in memory, it is not really a private act. I do it from inside this community, one of many.

Memory has to suffice to hold this fraternity of living and dead together in its present unfinished state. This is how the first few centuries of Christians conceived of the relationship, as Peter Brown explains in The Ransom of the Soul. In the ancient world, Brown says, to remember was “not to store away a fact: it was to assert a bond.” It is the duty we owe the dead of our community, as we have different obligations to the living: “Memory was as much a gift to the potentially forgotten dead in the other world as almsgiving was a gift to the all-too-easily forgotten poor in this world.” If we like, we can call memory a work of mercy, noting the last prayer Christ grants before his death is the penitent thief’s request to be remembered. Or consider the Gospel reading for All Souls’ Day: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” In remembering the dead we imitate Our Lord, who forgets no one.

“At the last day”: that is hard to hear. It is a commonplace to speak of the Christian life and the work of salvation in terms of already and not yet; All Souls’ Day heavily emphasizes the latter, more than anything else on the calendar. Even Good Friday is leavened with the promise of Easter in two days. All Souls’ makes a promise, too, but one that will not be fulfilled until, quite literally, kingdom come. This is not entirely good news, if we’re honest. When my mother died, well-meaning members of her church besieged me with assurances she was in heaven. Maybe so, but the whole problem was that I wasn’t, and no one could say when our reunion might be. We know, or at least profess, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, that death itself will pass away, but as St. Paul is careful to say, it is the last thing to be destroyed. This is one thing the faithful dead do for us: through their persistent absence, they call to our mind how much still must be put right.

Grief is a kind of desire, or the consequence of a desire, and thus, Augustine tells us, is a clue to what God intends for us. It lets us feel in an intimate way what we can observe from anywhere, that the world is badly broken. At this moment, a million people around the world have died from a disease that was unknown a year ago. In this country, corrupt and negligent medical practice has allowed half a million opioid deaths this century. The police continue to kill unarmed black people with near-total impunity on the street or in bus shelters or asleep in their own bed. Whether we are personally touched by any of these dead (and if we aren’t yet, we certainly know someone who is), we are bound to them, and each of their absences diminishes us.

If we can grasp the catastrophe of death, we see that nothing short of resurrection will mend it, and we begin to take seriously the promise that nothing will ultimately be lost. Which is not to say there can be no redemption in this life. Through the mercy of God we may repent of vices, recover from addictions, mend relationships. It is even possible, however unlikely, for a society mired in oppression and greed to become more just and peaceful—may it be so. But what will restore the dead to us? Only a miracle.

My favorite image of this miracle is Stanley Spencer’s painting The Resurrection, Cookham. It depicts a small English churchyard, the kind where the cemetery adjoins the church building, at that moment when “the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” Spencer’s resurrection is not too different than waking from a particularly long and restful nap. The scene is suffused with the quiet joy of the dead (black and white) reacquainting themselves with the physical world and with each other—”little ordinary intimate happenings,” is how Spencer described their actions. People wipe the sleep from their eyes and stretch. They read the inscriptions on their grave with curiosity and smell the flowers that have grown on top of them. A woman brushes dirt off her husband’s jacket. Christ is here, too, though not as the great and terrible judge we might expect. Instead he sits under the church porch, his gaze fixed on an infant in his lap—the work of restoration is so peaceful it doesn’t even disturb the child’s sleep.

Spencer has set his painting in a real place—Holy Trinity church, his boyhood parish—and dotted it with real people—his wife, his friends, and himself are among the risen dead. They take delight not just at their new life, but at seeing one another again: a community is being restored. Friends and lovers make their way leisurely to the top left corner of the painting, where riverboats ferry them up the Thames to eternal blessedness. I don’t expect the actual event to look much like Spencer painted it, but when I stood before the massive canvas on a November day two years ago, tears filled my eyes. I wanted to skip ahead to that moment, the fulfilment of what All Souls’ Day only promises: when we are raised, it will be together. But not yet. For now I must remember the dead, and remember that promise. Still, even this delay may be a kind of grace. Waiting for resurrection, we have time to learn how much we need it.