Thursday, March 8, 2018

Interview with Chris: Death & Dying

Sometimes people ask, "How has missions effected you?"  This is such a hard question to answer because change happens so slowly that it's often undetectable.  Most of the time I don't think much about how we've changed, but the other day was different.  We had a funeral to celebrate, but couldn't walk to the cemetery in procession like we usually do because our schedule was too hectic.  So, we drove.  Arriving early I had some quiet time to pray and found myself contemplating death and dying. In realizing that my feelings about death have changed dramatically, I decided to interview Chris about the topic.

Here are his responses:


Question #1: The depth of a grave depends on how many people were buried there before. Given the fact that this grave is neither deep nor shallow, we know that others were laid to rest in this same spot. How do you feel looking into this hole knowing that there are decayed bodies beneath the bottom of the grave?

Answer: It really brings to light the reality that we were made from the earth (from Genesis) and to the earth we will return. It’s a time to reflect on the end and to work backward to think about how I want to leave this world and what changes I need to make in my life to live that out, knowing full well that today could be my last day.

Question #2: We’ve been told that after 7 years a grave site is reopened and used again because the previous person’s body and casket have sufficiently decayed, leaving space for the next occupant. In preparation for the 7th burial a cement structure of varying design is constructed,which indicates that the space is “complete”. How do you feel about this custom?

Answer: At first I was taken aback by this because it’s so different than what is customary in the United States, but after experiencing it I can understand the reasons for it, which I don’t know all of them, but here are a few examples: due to the small size of the cemetery, the relatively short amount of time needed a body decays due to the warm weather, the benefits of having family members be buried so close together, etc…. Therefore it doesn’t seem so strange to me now. With seven being the perfect number, the fact that’s it’s seven years and seven bodies...it does seem pretty perfect.


Question #3: Today we arrived at the cemetery early and kids were playing inside the grave.  How did this make you feel?



Answer: When I was a kid,  I remember my parents going to a funeral and purposely not taking me because they didn’t want to expose me to that...and the kids here grow up with death being a part of life.  The whole community comes together to celebrate the life of the person and to support the family during the passing of a loved one from this life to the next. There is no filter.  







Question #4: What do you do to prepare yourself for a funeral service?


Answer: I pray. I ask the Holy Spirit to use me in whatever way He sees fit to be present for the family, to console them with the prayers in the service and I practice the person’s name a lot of times so I can get it right. I ask the family what order they would like to do things and when and then I try to do the best I can to respectfully live out what they requested.






Question #5: Since death is such a common experience here, people are constantly at the cemetery.  While there, they stop by the graves of loved ones to tear out overgrown plants, light some candles and pray. How does this compare to the experience you had visiting your dad’s grave once every couple years?
  
Answer: This is such a small town and we spend a lot of time in this small town’s cemetery . Whereas my dad is buried in a big cemetery that was about 40 minutes away from where we lived so it’s just different.  Also, here they have the custom after one week, one month, six months and a year you bring your family together to visit the cemetery, but this isn’t customary in my family in the United States. It’s a little weird to be on the other side of things and to spend so much time at the cemetery. I’ve spent more time at the cemetery here than I have in any other cemetery in my life.  I feel a greater sense of communion with the people here because of this experience. Each time we go to the cemetery and look around and remember burying so many other people it’s just so different… Usually in the United States lay people don’t bury other lay people, so it’s just very different.



Question #6: When someone here dies everyone in the entire community is invited to the family’s home to mourn. People work together to prepare meals for all those in attendance with whatever food items have been donated.  If family members live far away the burial is delayed as long as possible to give them time to travel. If the smell of the decaying body is unbearable or the swollen body is ready to burst they celebrate the funeral service without the missing loved ones.  If family members and friends can attend, everyone is grateful. If they can’t, there are no hard feelings. When the time arrives for the funeral service the whole town heads walks to the cemetery in procession. After participating in about 30 funerals we’ve concluded that people are grateful for what they have and don’t think about what might be lacking. This is drastically different than what we’ve experienced in the United States. How does it make you feel to see the community coming together to grieve the loss of each of its members?

Answer: It is beautiful how the community comes together to support the family of the deceased. The desire  to accompany the family and to forego sleep and other comforts of home, to stay out all night when it’s chilly and damp after a rain and to just be there for someone in need is very moving. I think it makes all the difference in the world.


Question #7: People definitely look to you for spiritual grounding during funerals.  They really appreciate having a “proper” burial for their loved ones and your presence makes it all feel so much more “official”.  How do you feel about this role that you have assumed?
Answer: Praise the Lord if anything that I do helps the family during their time of grieving the loss of their loved one.  Praise the Lord if anything I do or say helps them to draw closer to the Lord.


Question #8: During the burial the emotions are so raw.  How do you feel when everyone is wailing and fainting?


Answer: The saying here in the jungle is that “Men do not cry, only when their mother dies”.  But I disagree with this. Many times witnessing this raw outpouring of emotion I have been cut to the heart and tears just come… sometimes I try to stop them and other times I just let them come. I believe it is an experience that draws me closer to the other people. It is a very human experience.



Question #9: When your dad died the ceremony was very stoic.  You just stood off to the side and watched as the strangers from the funeral company buried him.  Here the family members and friends bring their shovels from home to help dig the hole. They carefully place the casket in just the right place and then cover their beloved with a mixture of tears, sweat and dirt.  How do you think this affects people?

Answer: I think participating in this corporal work of mercy in a more hands on way is very therapeutic.  The tradition of the family members digging the hole is also very powerful in that when someone here says, “I buried my father, mother, sister, brother, it literally means I dug the hole, I lowered them into the hole and covered them with dirt.”  All of this is done as an act of love for the deceased.


Question #10: It’s hard to know how long to stay at the cemetery because there is no official ending whereby someone says, “Thank you for coming. Please find your way to your cars so that the family can pay their final respects in private.”  Here, everyone just slowly disappears. How do you feel as it all comes to an end and people start to wander away?


Answer: I feel grateful to have been able to help the family.


Question #11: How has our time in Peru impacted your perspective on death and dying?

Answer: When I think back early on in life I didn’t really think about death. I was sheltered from it. Then there was a period in my life when I felt like I was fearless.  I thought I was above death and that I couldn’t die no matter what happened. It’s that sort of invincibility of youth. Then, I think I had a period where I was afraid of death. But now more than ever, I hope and pray for a peaceful death and I believe the key to that is living rightly or being the best version of myself that I can be and answering the call that all of us have to be holy.  I have a long way to go, but I feel I have come a long way and I continue to pray and to work on this each day.


Missions has definitely effected us. It's hard to know exactly how we've changed, but I thank God for all the work He's done in us these last few years. Although I know there are tough days ahead, I look forward to what Jesus has in store.

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