Am I going somewhere?

Where I live there are lots of old people, so, of course, there are a lot of deaths. I have written recently about the effect the high number of deaths has on how we take note of deaths and on how they affect the community here. Today, I want to think about the presuppositions that support the various expressions about death that we use.

It used to be common, for instance, to say that someone who had died had “passed on.” Clearly, “on” is the word of interest. It implies a destination and knowledge of that destination. It does not, of course, specify what kind of “place” or “existence” is to be imagined, just that there is one. “Passed away” on the other hand, takes our present world as the reference point and says that the person is not “here” anymore. That is the significance of “away.” And “away” is notably silent on some future destination.[1]

Now, very often, I hear “pass.” Just “pass.” It is as if we have been speculating together about the need for some further designation and had decided together that none was necessary. “He passed” we say, not implying even that his grades were good enough.

bon voyageToday I saw a new effort. It wished a recently deceased member of our community “bon voyage.” This is clearly part of the “pass on” line of thought and extends the metaphor as a voyage. This gives us the chance to wish the person we now know only as “departed” that the voyage he or she is undertaking will be a good one. This is entirely different than wishing the recently deceased person a good destination, which might be intended kindly, but which I am sure would be considered bad form

So I got to thinking how good wishes might be extended to someone like me. I have no sense of certainty about what, if anything, lies beyond this life, but I have complete confidence that if there is anything beyond this life, it will be in God’s hands. So I don’t trust that God will arrange something wonderful for me. I trust, rather, that if there is anything after this life, it will be under His care.

That seems to me a perfectly satisfactory solution for me, but we are considering here, what one might say to such a person. “Passing away” seems too little and “passing on” too much. [2]

I see two kinds of good wishes as possible in such a case. The first is retrospective. You take the occasion of the person’s death to reflect on his life. That’s what happens all the time when a very successful Broadway show closes. “What a terrific run it had,” says some drama critic, who goes on to talk about how many people saw it and how many careers it launched and how much money it made. You might say, “He lived a really good life” and instantiate [3] “good” with whatever you value: useful, courageous, kind. Whatever. [4]

The other approach I can think of is to place the death in the context of God’s providence.bon voyage 3
I don’t think it would work to say that he—that would be me in this case—was confident that whatever voyage he might be taking will be under the same loving care as his life here. I think the person who tried to say that would have to believe, himself, that there was a “continuity of care.” [5] as we say in communities like mine. If he did, he could say, “Don’t worry. He continues to be in good hands,” as if I were off on a trip with a travel agency that had always treated him well. My friend could say I was “in good hands” because of the travel agency without any idea at all about where I was going.

And I think I feel that way myself. I am not of the “bon voyage” school of thought. I do like, I have to say, the phrasing in Revelation 14, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord …that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” [6] The image that brings to me is that my labors, the investments of my life—the easy ones and the costly ones; the wise ones and the stupid ones—will be redeemed by God’s grace and will keep on working. [7]  I also like the idea of getting to rest from my labors.

Another phrasing of that same idea [8] is provided by Paul who says, in 2 Timothy 1, “I have no doubt at all that [God] is able to safeguard…what I have entrusted to Him.” I like that one particularly because it is something I can say, myself, and also something a friend could say about me.

“He had no doubt at all,” the friend could say, using the good travel agency metaphor rather than the bon voyage metaphor. I like that.

[1] It does call to mind the great triumph of environmentalists in challenging the meaning of “away.” In a physical system, “away” does’t really mean anything. Transferring and item from the home to the landfill or pouring it down the drain doesn’t make it “go away” because nowhere in the system is “away.”
[2] I took such pleasure in Hector Elizondo’s remark in Runaway Bride. The bride had escaped this particular wedding by hopping on a FedEx truck and as the bystanders watched her escape, one said, “I wonder where she is going.” Elizondo said, “I don’t know, but she’ll be there by 10:30 tomorrow.”
[3] Now there’s a word that just isn’t used enough. Obviously, it means “to provide an instance of.”
[4] And a really thoughtful person might instantiate “good” by naming the traits that youButterfly Competitions yourself valued, provided he knows them. It runs the risk of saying that he was one of the best caterpillars I ever knew, without mentioning that he never quite became a butterfly.
[5] I’m just playing, really. Here is what the American Academy of Family Physicians means by that phrase: Continuity of care is concerned with quality of care over time. It is the process by which the patient and his/her physician-led care team are cooperatively involved in ongoing health care management toward the shared goal of high quality, cost-effective medical care.
[6] Thank you, God, for the King James Version.
[7] The redemption part is crucial. I clearly would not want all of my works to follow after me.
[8] I say it is the same idea. Some translators are now flipping the meaning so that it is what God has entrusted to Paul, not what Paul has entrusted to God, that is safeguarded.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Getting Old, Theology, Words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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