On my final day in the United Kingdom, I took one last walk through the courtyards of my college at Cambridge. Its walls were the remains of a medieval abbey, some of the oldest operational buildings on campus. At its center, a green courtyard filled with jonquils gave way to a high brick wall split by a narrow arch, through which stood the heavy, dark door of my dissertation supervisor.
Given the hours I’d spent on my master’s dissertation—a long slog on Reinhold Niebuhr and Saint Augustine—I knew that door better than any other on campus. I couldn’t pass it by without knocking on the old wood and poking my head inside for a final time.
I was fortunate: John, my supervisor, was in. As the college’s chaplain and a much-beloved instructor, his days were usually booked tight with church duties and teaching appointments, but I happened to catch him at his desk that spring afternoon, squinting against the sunlight as he typed something up. Engrossed as he was, he still smiled when I called out to him from the open doorway.
Sorry, I said, I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m headed out today.
Is it today? John asked, and stood to meet me at the door. For a moment I thought he was going to shake my hand, which seemed like an oddly formal gesture for someone I’d spent the last nine months studying with, often late into the evening.
We both hesitated a little, trying to shape a suitable farewell out of my typically American effusiveness and his patently English subtlety. I said I would email him all the time, more than he’d like. He said he would see me soon enough at an upcoming conference. I stumbled through all sorts of thanks, increasingly blubbery and emotional, which John managed with modest reassurances that it really wouldn’t be long at all before we’d meet again. It all culminated in a hug, which felt more symbolic of my growth at Cambridge than, say, the submission of my dissertation. The warmth of it soothed most of the ache of leaving as I crossed under the ancient iron gate of my college for the last time.
* * *
Less than a month later John was killed in a car accident. He was thirty-five.
I learned of his death on a sunny Monday morning in Texas, when I awoke to a flurry of emails and Twitter notifications. It had happened on a Sunday evening. Two others were with him. They survived. These facts are seared, short and blunt, into my mind.
That morning, I sat alone at my kitchen table with a collection of digital facts and emailed consolation, the world around me as wordless and noisy as the roar inside a shell. When I told my family what had happened, they felt sorry for me, but none of them had ever so much as seen John. They knew about his role in my education, but they didn’t know who he was.
An ocean away, there were people as shaken as I was. But I couldn’t see or hear or touch them—an important part of Christianity.
Nor did anyone else around me. People on the street carried on, jogging and walking their dogs, pushing their kids in strollers as though they hadn’t felt the lurch in the earth. An ocean away, there were people as shaken as I was, heartsick and unsteady, dizzied by the brutal suddenness of loss. But I couldn’t see or hear or touch them, which is actually a pretty important part of traditional Christian mourning.
Or, at least, it’s been that way historically. Before the age of global mobility, mourning happened mainly in local communities, among people who shared a proximity to the deceased and to one another. The catechism of the Catholic Church describes funerals as efforts to create “communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community.” In other words, these ceremonies are partly about remembering the dead, but they’re mostly about providing strength to the living.
An ocean away, there were people as shaken as I was, heartsick and unsteady, dizzied by the brutal suddenness of loss. But I couldn’t see or hear or touch them, which is actually a pretty important part of traditional Christian mourning.
This affirmation of community life and community mourning is echoed throughout prayers and Bible verses that deal with death and solace. Prayers for the dead are consistently phrased in the plural, to be spoken in unison:
Lord, for those who believe in you,
Death is the end of poverty, and the beginning of riches,
The end of pain, and the beginning of joy;
The end of weakness, and the beginning of strength.
Do not let grief overwhelm us, or loss embitter us.
But out of our sadness let joy arise for so much given to us.
Cast out our fears and do not let our hearts be troubled or afraid.
In love and trust we commend to you John,
Whom you have called out of this mortal life…
Even in text form, this prayer seems to unfold in an echoing chorus of voices, diverse in accent and inflection. It conjures images of the low-hum and bent-neck posture of communal prayer—which is not always particularly comfortable, but nearly always moving. The individual bleeds together with the community, and the one voice gains strength from the many.