The first funeral I recall doing some 30 years ago in the small mountain village to which I’d moved, was that of a county road worker who’d been a cat-skinner working a rock slide that repeatedly blocked the only highway running through the region. But one afternoon, as he and his ‘dozer were pushing boulders off the road, the whole mountainside slipped down again — so suddenly that the tractor and its driver were swept hundreds of feet down into a gorge to the river far below.
People talked about the incident for some time, many speculating (gruesomely?) on what might have been his “last thoughts” or the “last thing he ever saw” — all subjective since no one had any idea how long he lived in his terrible descent into the gorge. People shivered as they thought about his being strapped into the tractor seat with the world whirling around him, the crashing and bouncing he had to have undergone, the cold of the water in which he finally came to rest…
My children’s mother and my first wife, Janet (who died in ’94 after a prolonged fight against cancer), had an incredible experience back in ’72 during an accident we both endured. While coming down San Francisco’s twisty Twin Peaks road on a 350 Honda, a large Buick rounded a corner, out of control and traveling fast, colliding head-on with our motorcycle. I was thrown directly forward (scraping over the handle-bars and then plowing through the windshield) whereas Janet was catapulted up in the air to drop to the pavement with her back resting against a front tire of the car. Her “flight” couldn’t possibly have taken more than 1 or 2 seconds at most, but after we recovered consciousness at the city’s general hospital, she had the most amazing story to recount.
When the Honda “bucked” forward in the head-on collision with her sitting at the rear of the seat, it flung her upwards through the air in an arc before she dropped to the road. She sat there for a time with her back up against the car’s front, right tire, staring down at her left leg broken in five places.
But here’s the amazing part: not only was she acutely conscious during that short “flight”, her perception of time stretched out into what she later described as “hours and hours”. Throughout that “flight”, she said God met with her and the two of them “reviewed” her entire life and her relationship with Him — both good and bad — so that when she landed, she was a totally different person than just prior to the accident. Mentally, spiritually, she no longer saw herself or life in general through the same perspectives she had before. From that point on, she lived a more awakened spiritual life than before and made life-choices more deliberately and wisely than previously. (Including refusing to ride a motorcycle on city streets anymore!)
Knowing her so well as I did, I knew she hadn’t “created” that story just for attention or to “be spiritual” or for some other dysfunctional reason. She said it happened like that — it happened like that. And besides, for the next 20 years, I lived with the changes it brought about before she eventually passed away.
Knowing her experience has given me a perspective different from many people and certainly different from many religious leaders. Through the years I’ve had opportunity to speak hope to people suffering the sudden loss of loved ones. Simply put, even if a person dies unexpectedly, in only an “instant”, there’s no telling how long that person may have spent in the Presence of the Living God. A person could have been completely irreligious (which is generally a positive characteristic, from my point of view) and could have denied any interest in or belief in a “god” or “Jesus” or an “afterlife” and still (in a fraction of a second — stretched into an hours long “interaction” with the Living God) could easily have been a drastically changed person by the time life in this world ended.
Suppose for a moment that a person (religious or not, “Christian” or not, “God-fearing” or not) came face-to-face with an unexpected and even horrible death. One thinks of so many people through the centuries who were hideously tortured to death or killed in the midst of war or of a rape — and many people would shudder, remarking, “Isn’t it so sad that the last thing that person saw before dying was so awful?”
If — and again I say IF — a person dies (unexpectedly or not) and dies in the graces of knowing and pleasing God — then the best question changes from “What was the last thing seen before the Moment of death” into this: “At the Moment of death — what was the first thing this person then saw?”
Because once a person dies — a person who intimately and personally knows God — in That Moment, they move from this world which is inescapably filled with trouble into an everlasting world in which there is neither pain nor sorrow; in That Moment, they move from a body of flesh that is destined to grow weary, sicken and die, into a body that not only immortal, but which is “energized” not by killing animals or destroying plant-life for sustenance, but which is empowered forever by God Himself — the inexhaustible, energy-giving “Sun” of that new existence.
My father died 35 years ago as we stood at his bedside. At the time (my personal theology twisted by teachings that — though common — were wrong) I comforted myself by thinking that even though my father had passed away, at least he was “present in his spirit beside the Throne of God in Heaven…” Just last month, my step-father (of over 30 years) passed away. In these intervening years, I’ve come to understand better what truly happens at that Moment of physical death for any who believe God exists and that He is a good God and rewarder of those who desire Him.
In His goodness, when a person (who knows Him and confidently trusts Him) dies in this body of flesh, God immediately resurrects that person into an everlasting body — one that is just like Jesus Christ’s at His Resurrection. There’s no passing of time waiting for that Great Day of Resurrection; no “floating up to Heaven” as some sort of “naked spirit” having no body… In the Moment of the death of this flesh, in that Moment, one is immediately standing in immortal flesh, eyes beholding the Creator along with all other Resurrected (re-created) Human Beings — becoming at last what God intended all human beings to become: His divine Children, displayed before all the universe!
When someone near you dies — especially if it’s an unexpected death — rethink what’s been said in this blog. Try thinking less about what was the last thing your Beloved saw, and think instead, “What is the First Thing my Beloved sees now?”
Think as well of what can be the First Thing you will see at That Moment when you put off your own, earthy flesh…