The Academics of Death

I had known Mark for years. We worked together (he as the manager, I as an assistant) at a Laser Quest—you know, one of those obnoxiously loud laser tag arenas with the black-lit maze, thumping music, and the shady late-night customer base that sold weed in the parking lot. Over the click-slams of the air hockey tables, conversations amongst employees were never surface level. HR would tell us all, “Don’t talk about sex, politics, and religion at the work place,” and we would scoff immodestly. “That’s all anyone cares about; what else are we gonna talk about?” The strange bedfellows made amongst all employees at such a place is for another article another time; suffice to say that I was closer with some of those people than anyone else in my life. In fact, three of the men who stood up in my wedding also wear the badge of LQ Alumni. Even though Mark had kids my age, we were fast friends, and he regularly challenged me with theological conundrums in a fatherly attempt to strengthen my pre-seminary education (he was a Lutheran too).

Mark was there when Sketch died. Sketch was a fellow employee of ours. A week shy of her 21st birthday, she got turned around late at night in Detroit and accidentally drove into a retention pond of the power plant. A beautiful soul with the world ahead of her, gone just like that. We all met up at Laser Quest, numb from our sudden loss, and Mark sidled up to me. “Time to practice being a pastor,” he said.

Mark was at my ordination, and that first night as a pastor is burned into my memory. Friends and family had been slowly filing out of the house after the celebration, but a couple of them were still chatting in the living room when the land line in the parsonage rang for the first time: “Hello, is this our new pastor?” I looked behind me; no one there but me. “… Yep, I guess so.” “Well, one of our members died. Can you come out here?” I had been a pastor for exactly four hours. In a daze, I stepped back into the room and said, “Well, someone just died already.” Then I went to the bedroom to put my clerical shirt back on. When I came out, I said some quick goodbyes (“thanks for coming, see you soon, etc.”), and Mark hugged me goodbye, smirked a little, and said, “Time to go to work.”

Since that day, I have presided over the funerals of 110 saints of Jesus Christ. Most I knew personally, some not at all. Twice they were squeaked into heaven after a death-bed emergency baptism and confession of faith. I’ve watched with the family as the nurses pulled the plug several times, and I’ve done the Commendation of the Dying (the Lutheran last-rites) dozens of times. I’ve read Scripture to the unconscious, prayed into silent rooms, and made the sign of the cross on cold, recently-living foreheads. I’ve consoled loved ones with the gospel amongst summery trees, on frozen ground, in biting wind, in scorching heat, in churches, in funeral homes, and one time in an Elks Lodge (don’t ask). I’ve seen people crushed and broken by death, and I’ve seen people who were frankly glad to be rid of the person now in the ground. I’ve seen families move into their new normals quickly, and families who never recovered from their loss. I have preached both personally-tailored sermons, and stock-rote structures. Nothing surprises me anymore; nothing shocks me anymore. “Grief comes in many forms,” I say, with all the academic distance I can muster to protect myself from secondary trauma. Only one time in 110 did I have to struggle to contain my own grief, because for the most part death is an academic exercise for me. I do care—I really do!—but I also have Mark’s words ringing in my ears, “Time to go to work.”

One week many years ago I was stressed from the burden of all that death—no, I was stressed from the academics of death, from the work—so I blew town and went to visit Mark. He was working somewhere else, and for a couple of hours he listened to me blow off some steam. He empathized, but reassured me that the work I was doing was surely helpful to the people in mourning. “Sometimes you have to think of it as a job, but it’s no less important work.” He was right, of course. Sometimes pastors get caught up in the academics of death, burn out, even secretly resent the saints who pick the week before Christmas to finally give up the ghost. We can wear grief like a theatre mask that comes off after the last Amen. We know the importance of the work, but by sheer repetition it’s easier for us just to point to Jesus then go home for the day. Pastors just aren’t normal people when it comes to death. But … 

Last week my friend Mark died. Heart attack. Completely unexpected, totally sudden, 62 years old.

I walked up to the casket, and there he was. He looked like himself. The corners of his mouth perked into a slight, peaceful smile. His burdens are through, his soul is with Christ, and my heart is absolutely broken. Looking at him, remembering what he meant and means to me, I remembered another thing he said. Once, after sharing with him a particularly difficult time I was having at home, he shook his head slowly and said, “Dennis, I can’t imagine how anyone would be anything but proud of you.” I loved him for that, and I love him still. And as I turned away from the casket I thought, “I hope I can still make you proud, Mark.” 

All that training, all those academics, all that death, and someone else finally needed to go to work for me. Someone needed to console me. Someone needed to check up on me. Someone needed to preach to me. Someone needed to comfort me. And all those old friends who share almost nothing in common but a past with Laser Quest and a love of Mark were there to do it. We told stories, we laughed, we cried, we hung on to each other. I think Mark would have been proud to see all his “kids” together again.

Mark now rests from his labors, and I have comfort in the resurrection. I will miss him terribly, but even in death he reminded me how much pain the people I serve are in, and how important it is for their pastor to console them.

So until I see you again in the land of the living, Mark, I’m going back to work.