The Lord said to Moses, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. (…) The Israelites wept for Moses for thirty days; then the period of mourning was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses has laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34.4-5,8-9).
Our friendships are not limited to the people we meet. We can meet friends in books, films and poems: fiction or non-fiction, and occasionally feel a connection with them just as we would feel with those we meet in person. In this reflection, I will look at the way in which those who are no longer with us can continue to influence our lives in a similar way that our friends can. This ‘type’ of friendship is not about getting stuck in the past, but acknowledging that our present and future are shaped by it. Whether we have known a person well or not, their stories and memories can teach and influence us, inspire and guide us not unlike our present friendships can.
At every funeral I have taken or attended in these almost five years that I have been ordained, I have been left with the feeling ‘I wished I had known this person [better]’. Whether it was someone I knew well, or not at all, when I hear family and friends sharing stories, I feel that I have missed out. However, as they speak, I also sense that through their stories and their memories I get to know the person who has died a little bit. I have yet to experience such a conversation that does not make me want to know more about them, a conversation that leaves me thinking I’m glad I didn’t meet them. Despite the complexity of some situations, despite the pain that sometimes has been inflicted, in almost all cases the deceased meant something special to someone.
At most funerals, because of their immediacy, the overwhelming feeling is one of loss: a sadness and sometimes shock that the person whom we loved is no longer here. Even when a life was well-lived and there was a lot for which to give thanks, grief is what is felt primarily at first instance. But, as is illustrated by the story of the death of Moses, after a period of time, we shift from mourning, from a focus on the past to a focus on the future. As Richard Holloway writes in his most recent book Waiting for the Last Bus:
Gradually, almost without knowing it, our energy shifts from the past to the present; from the way things were to the way they are. The will to live that is in the heart of every creature asserts itself again. And life overcomes death, even a death we thought we would never recover from. We may even fall in love again. We may pour our hearts into another life as completely as into the one whose death we thought we could not survive. The future opens before us, and we turn towards it. We start living again.
Every death reminds us that we cannot live forever. Moses did not live long enough to lead his people to the promised land, but had to leave this to Joshua his successor and his friend. It cannot have been easy for Moses to accept that he was not able to finish the journey he had started. So also we may have regrets not being able to finish our projects, whether that’s through death, ill-health or retirement. However, there is another way of looking at it: Moses did reach his destination, as it was his friend, the person he had taught, who completed this work. It makes us realise that each of us is part of something greater, a story that transcends our individual lives. Hence, instead of regret over what we did not achieve, we can rejoice over that which our successors will, hopefully inspired by us rather than discouraged.
Friendship is not cut short by death, and we don’t need to have a belief in the afterlife to agree with this. The thought that we continue to live though we die, is often expressed by saying that we continue to live in the memories of those who loved us, and those whom we loved. I wonder if this we can extend this for those of us who do believe in existence after death? Could we say that one way of describing heaven is that it is our life in God’s eternal memory, as it is God who loved us first? That brings us to the fundamental Christian insight that our identity is rooted in our friendship with God, if of course we accept the possibility of a God who offers friendship; a God with whom we can be in relationship. There is a lot more to be said, but I would like to finish with a short passage from Rowan Williams’ book Being Human:
[B]efore anything or anyone is in relation with anything or anyone else, it’s in relation to God. And, said Augustine, the deeper I go into the attempt to understand myself, who and what I am, the more I find that I am already grasped, addressed, engaged with. I can’t dig deep enough in myself to find an abstract self that’s completely divorced from relationship. So, for St Augustine and the Christian tradition, before anything else happens I am in relation to a non-worldly, non-historical everlasting attention and love, which is God.