The viewing

April 4, 2008 | Atheism, Background | 11 comments

Yesterday I found myself alone in a room with the body of a deceased person.

My husband’s grandfather passed away this weekend after a long illness, and we went to the funeral yesterday. We arrived at the funeral home an hour early, and I went inside to use the restroom while my husband gave the kids some snacks in the car. As I walked through the lobby to the restroom near the little nondenominational chapel, I realized there was nobody else in the building. It was completely silent.

As I walked back toward the lobby, I saw someone in the next room. I was startled to realize it was my husband’s grandfather, lying in an open casket in the viewing room. I hadn’t expected there to be a viewing, and I only met him a couple times, but it felt somehow rude to just walk by. So I crept into the room and stood next to the white coffin for a moment. Everything was so still. My breathing was the only motion, the only sound in the whole building.

As I said a couple prayers for his soul, I realized that this was the first viewing I’d attended since I was an atheist.

What surprised me about that was that it didn’t feel all that different from the last time I went to a viewing before a funeral, back when I was a teenager. Not that I expected a chorus of angels or to hear the voice of God or anything, but I guess I thought it would feel noticeably different to see death face-to-face now that I’m aware of God’s existence. But it didn’t. It didn’t feel different because seeing death so close up, then as now, stripped away any high-minded theories or explanations I might try to invoke and left me only with a certain unmistakable feeling, a feeling that came from some primordial part of my mind.

Yesterday, I was able to put my finger on just what that feeling was. I realized in that moment, standing next to a body in an open coffin in a silent room, that I was aware of something at the very deepest level of my consciousness. It was something simultaneously obvious yet easy to ignore, like the fact that there was a ceiling above my head and a floor beneath my feet. It was something I’d felt before, when I looked at my grandmother in her coffin as an atheist teenager so many years ago:

This is only a body. The soul lives on.

In that room yesterday, I didn’t think that that man had an eternal soul because I’ve read about it in theology books or because it says so in the Bible. It wasn’t that I wished or hoped or wanted this death to be a separation of the corporeal body from the incorporeal soul; rather, it was something I was simply aware of. I was aware of it on such a fundamental, primitive level that it surpassed the need for words. It would have been easy to let more loud, conscious thoughts distract from it (as I did when I was a teenager). If there had been anyone else in the room, anything else going on in the building to attract my attention, I might not have noticed this awareness at all.

I’ve heard a lot of theories about why every known group of humans throughout history has had belief in some sort of spiritual realm. Some theories suggest that perhaps evolution favored people who were religious, others posit that the wiring of our brains gives us the need to come up with comforting stories about death, and yet others theorize that spiritual belief systems provide means for people to wield power.

Yesterday morning, it was so simple, so clear.

We humans don’t come up with spiritual beliefs because of some complicated interaction of evolved needs and wants. Cultures where illness and death are rampant don’t tend to be more religious because people need nice stories to tell themselves. Humans believe in another realm — and seek religion to find out more about it — because of the fact of the soul, a fact that one only needs to see a lifeless body to be aware of.

I realized yesterday that if I were to have lived my whole life in a cave, that if you stripped away all cultural and educational influences, even my ability to use language to make sense of the world, I would be left with only the most basic, ancient knowledge of only those things that are inscribed on the human heart. And one of those things is that life does not end at death. Even if I’d always lived in the most isolated and primitive of settings, when I saw the body of a deceased human being I would be aware that I was looking at a separation, not an end; that it is only because of the limits of my five senses that I can no longer see the life that once animated this body. I know this not because of books and philosophies, but for the same reason all my ancestors going back to the first man and woman knew it: because we’re human. To be human is to be aware of the soul.

I suppose this story wouldn’t be complete without adding a footnote to tell what happened next, which proves that even the most solemn occasions can be turned into what my husband calls “Jen moments”: I returned to the car to tell my husband about the prayers I had said for his grandfather, and the powerful time that I spent with him. He informed me that we were at the wrong funeral home. That wasn’t his grandfather. (Have I ever mentioned I’m really bad with faces?)

So, to the gentleman with whom I spent a few quiet moments in a little funeral parlor in Waco, TX on a misty Wednesday morning: requiescat in pace. I may not have known you in this life, but may we both end up in the place of peace, and meet again on the other side.

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Jen,

    I agree completely. My husband’s brother died suddenly last October, and as I stood at his casket with my 3 year old daughter, she got that this wasn’t Uncle Mike… that he wasn’t in that body anymore. I remember at the time being amazed that she understood that. (She didn’t totally get it. Some time later, she asked me why his legs went to heaven with his soul — the casket was only open from the waist up). But there is something basic in all of us that we “get it” at death… it is just a separation of body and soul. The person still lives, just not in a way we can see or truly understand.

    Your husband’s grandfather, and his family, are in my prayers.

  2. Marian

    The wrong funeral home? Oh, how funny.

    It just so happens that I was at a viewing last night as well (young family at church now without a husband and father after a simple fall down the stairs). And you’re right about that experience of being near a body whose soul has left.
    You know another time that I’m very aware of the immortal soul? When I catch the youthful gleam in the eye of an elderly person, especially as they enjoy something fully that we usually associate with younger people. I become so aware that the person inside has not changed a bit — learned and matured, surely, but still the same vibrant, eternal soul, housed in a body that is crumbling around it.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. Jenny

    Jen,

    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling lately. I went to the Easter Vigil Mass by myself because I was playing the music and the kids would not have done well for that long with me not in the pew. We are on a military post and share our building with other denominations. That forces our choir to be on the altar. So I am actually behind the altar. During the consecration, I had an overwhelming sense that Ben was standing beside the priest radiant with joy. I cried several times during the Mass, both happy and sad. I guess that is what I am struggling with… the sadness that he is no longer here, mixed with the joy of knowing that he is with his Heavenly Parents.

    And to Marian, I love to see that look in the eyes of the elderly as well. So uplifting.

  4. Abigail

    Beautiful post! I know this seems like just another “mistake.” Yet what if you were supposed to be there to say a prayer for that man’s soul? After all, we’re supposed to be doing all things “with Mary” this week.

  5. Seeker

    I love this story; thanks for the smile. I am sure that the gentleman (whoever he is) will be very grateful for your prayers!

  6. Anonymous

    Of course the body of the deceased isn’t the full person as it was when he was alive. However, we believe in the resurrection of the body. It is not just a shell, but is part of who God created us to be. The Christian hope, it seems to me, isn’t about a promise that we’ll float around outside our bodies after death, but that we’ll be resurrected bodily with Christ on the last day. I found this interview in TIME with N.T. Wright on the subject very interesting:

    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html

    Especially this part:

    TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?

    Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

    TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?

    Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.

  7. Catholic Bibliophagist

    If you’ve ever seen the recent corpse of a person whom you knew well, you’ll know how uncannily unlike that person it looks. That’s why it really creeps me out when people attend a funeral and exclaim over the embalmed corpse, “He looks so life-like!”

  8. Anonymous

    Funerals are ripe occasions for funny stories. My husband and I went to a viewing at a funeral home in the South Bronx for the mother of one of his co-workers. We were respectfully praying at the casket when someone came up to us and asked how we knew the deceadant. My husband explained that he worked with Maria. “Maria?” was the response. We were in the wrong parlor, being stared at by a group of total strangers.

    But, no prayer is ever wasted.

  9. Cajun Nick Jagneaux

    Jen,

    Great post.

    Accidents do not happen. You needed that prayer, and he needed that prayer. God does work in mysterious ways.

  10. mloustalot

    Let me piggy-back on what Cajun Nick just said, cos I think he and I are coming from the same place, literally .. . where I grew up in S. Louisiana, it is routine for people to make the rounds of the funeral homes praying
    at the caskets of complete strangers. I know my mom was greatly comforted by this when my dad passed away.

    Just another thing I LOVE about being Catholic!

  11. Laura Catherine Hanby Hudens

    Hi Jen – This will be my third try at writing this. Spill a little chicken noodle soup on your laptop, and the whole thing goes on the fritz!

    CONVERSION STORY (the short version)
    My husband and I were raised Protestant (Disciples of Christ). In 1998 my pastor asked me to teach a Sunday school class on worship, in order to explore some issue our congregation was having with a new worship leader. Looking for answers, I went to the local Catholic bookstore run by The Little Portion Hermitage (John Michael Talbot’s hermitage). Long story short, about a year later my husband and I entered the Catholic church. I read all the usual suspects, Hahn, Keating, Howard, and all moved me toward Rome. But the one that really clarified our decision was By What Authority by Mark Shea. Since our conversion my mother, my brother and his family, and my former pastor and his wife have all converted. Thanks be to God!

    DAILY LIFE IN THE ARKANSAS HILLS
    My husband and I live on a farm where we raise our four kids (2 boys 2 girls ages 9-17) and buffalo, goats, chickens, bees, ducks and dogs. I teach high school speech and drama but I fantasize about being a full-time writer and farmer – well, one who gathers eggs and tends a lovely garden. Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Isidore the Farmer pray for me!

    My favorite part of each day? I can’t pick just one, but if I had to, I’d say having a glass of wine with my husband and watching our kids, chickens and goats romp around or snuggling up and reading to my younger kids in the evening.

    SHAMELESS PLUG
    I have two blogs. One, charmingfarming.com, is where I write about my adventures as a farmer and whole foods enthusiast who loves Velveeta cheese dip and Coke. I also use this blog to spout off about issues surrounding parenting, education, and whatever else is on my mind.

    My other blog is whatkidsarereading.wordpress.com. There I review the good, bad, and in appropriate in children’s and YA literature in order to give parents a heads up about what kids are readng. I also use this blog to spout off about issues surrounding parenting, education, or whatever else is on my mind.

    Thank you for allowing me to introduce myself. I’m eager to get acquainted here.

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