EASTER: Growing up with death
Charles S. (Chuck) Kelley Jr.
NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- My childhood was different than most. I grew up in the home of a funeral director. For the first years of my life, we literally lived in the funeral home itself in an apartment above the family rooms, casket room and chapel.
Far earlier than most, I learned an essential truth about life: Death is inevitable for all.
My father handled funerals for the elderly and the young, the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor, the unknown and the famous, including a service for the Big Bopper, whose huge hit "Chantilly Lace" made him a household name until a plane crash ended his life.
Some deaths were expected and natural; others were shocking and tragic. The causes of death varied widely, and the timing of death was often unpredictable. But whatever the cause or whenever the timing, death was, is, and ever will be the experience of all who live, whether we like it or not. Many seek to avoid this truth, but none can avoid its reality.
I walked into the back of the funeral home very early one Saturday morning during high school and saw the name Walter Portius on the board listing those who passed away overnight. We were in class together on Friday morning, but he died in a wreck that night. We chatted about weekend plans and then he was gone forever. Death is inevitable for all.
This child of a funeral director also learned a second truth early in life: People react to death differently. Some are calm and quiet. Others are hysterical and grief-stricken. Most are sad, but some are grateful, for a variety of reasons both good and bad. A surprising number of people die alone, unmourned. Some families go through the motions to get the funeral behind them as quickly as possible. Others take great care to celebrate and show respect for the one who passed.
I drove the limousine to and from the graveside for many families, who sat in pervasive silence, or with tears flowing freely, or with laughter and joy growing out of family memories and experiences. While death is a reality all must face, we will not face it in identical ways.
This opportunity to observe and serve those in the process of grief, loss and death over and over again through my adolescence made a third truth quite clear to me: The death and resurrection of Jesus makes a huge difference in how one handles the inescapable reality of death.
On Good Friday, Jesus died and was buried. Because He went before us, we need not fear what lies ahead. A favorite preacher once said, "He cleaned out the grave and made it a pleasant place to be!" Jesus died and was buried. However, He went one step further. Jesus overcame death and rose from the grave. He demonstrated that death may be inevitable, but it is not undefeatable!
As I grew up in the family of a funeral director, I saw again and again the enormous difference the resurrection of Christ makes to Christians when death comes calling on people of faith. Week after week and year after year, I watched 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 come vividly to life as Christians passed through my father's funeral home:
"So when this corruption shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?"
The experience of death and funerals was consistently different for those who embraced Jesus. The sadness was real as it is for most, but the certain hope of death's ultimate defeat was also present, and that hope made all the difference.
This is why you and your family need to fully embrace and celebrate Good Friday and Easter this year. In fact, don't call it Easter. Call it Resurrection Day. Death is coming for us all, but for every believer so is the unquenchable, eternal life of Jesus!
Charles S. (Chuck) Kelley Jr. is president and professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. After 43 years at the seminary as a student, faculty member and president, he and his wife Rhonda will retire on July 31. He will continue his research, writing and speaking on the Great Commission. His latest work is "Fuel the Fire: Lessons from the History of Southern Baptist Evangelism."