This sounds like a morbid post, but hang in with me here. This book is a memoir of sorts of 6th generation funeral director Caleb Wilde. He shares his thoughts about death, life, love, and heaven – but perhaps not in the way you might think.
If you think about it, the descent into fall is a good time to write about death. Here in Ohio, the leaves are pretty much entirely off the trees. It is cloudy and gray most days. We have to gear up for a long winter ahead of us. Luckily, we still have the excitement of the holidays ahead of us, but most of us carry the awareness that winter will keep stretching out long after that. Moreover, for many, the holidays are a painful reminder of losses and people who are not with us anymore.
This is not a book about grief exactly, though it does go there at times. It is more a book about the theology of life and death. It is for people who have ever questioned the common American Christian narrative of being saved so God won’t send you to hell, and then when you die, getting to join God up in heaven. If the thought of questioning the simplicity of that narrative makes you uncomfortable, this book is probably not for you.
Caleb himself transitioned from that narrative, which he posits is a “death-negative” narrative, to finding a more open and death-positive narrative. A narrative where our own mortality is not something to be ashamed of, associated with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, but as much a natural and necessary part of life as birth is. As with birth, through death, it is possible to find genuine love and community.
I really enjoyed many of the points he makes in his book. Through watching many grieving families and communities, Caleb has witnessed how a heart broken open by death is able to love those who are different from them. Death is a great equalizer of sorts. Caleb theologizes how the pain, openness, and vulnerability a person experiences in death and grieving is really a form of worship. He asks what kind of a God we really believe in. Is it a God immune to our sufferings, who feels no grief about loss? Is it an immovable, invulnerable God? Are we too, to be stoic and strong in the face of death? Or is God perhaps deeply connected to our sufferings, grieving with us when we are in pain, vulnerable to sorrow? We can choose to believe in either God, but one might find that believing in one of those Gods leads to a more humane existence than the other.
The challenge we must confront is how to allow death to help us live more open-hearted and full lives. No one will escape it, so how will it shape how we live? The grief and mourning we encounter through others’ death can serve to break us open to our own selves and have compassion toward others. We do not have to “get over” grief: there is no timeline for healing. Caleb suggests doing “active remembering” as a way of acknowledging that the ones who have left us physically never really leave the ones they loved.
This book is heavy at times but also surprisingly manageable, considering the subject matter. It feeds the theological mind and the griever alike. I hope it helps all of us mortals approach the lives we have with freedom, love, and compassion.
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