My aunt died. Suddenly and unexpectedly for all of us. A week ago we received the death notice from her husband. She had fallen ill a month ago, became more and more emaciated, bedridden and then – – died. My aunt did not want any medical help. The day before her death, she refused an emergency doctor called by her husband. The family is in shock. Not only because of the circumstances or just the suddenness of her death, but also because she was the youngest. At 55, she was the youngest of eight siblings whose oldest turned 76 this year. No one would have dreamed that Aunt Christine would be the first to pass away. Not the nestling.
So now we are standing on the forecourt of the cemetery on a Monday afternoon. Maybe three dozen people in mourning clothes. Depressed. Unusually serious. Even for a funeral. Deadly serious. The sun shines a mild September light. It rained the day before. The air is tepid and pleasant. A bird or two chirps. I stand with two uncles and a cousin in front of the large funeral hall. A modern brick building with large matt brushed metal doors. They give a peculiar impression of plastic. A matter of taste. Not so important.
My uncle starts, nervously: „It’s terrible! It can happen at any time! Every day you have to live. Live right! It can be over so quickly!“ He is a slim and small man. A Spaniard who came to Germany more than thirty years ago and married one of my mother’s sisters. He has a pale complexion. Unusual for the usual ideas of a Spaniard. He still emphasizes the „s“ in a way peculiar to the Spanish language. My cousin agrees: „Yes! Every day you have to live. Not to think so much. Some people can do that. I don’t know how they do it!“ I say, „Yes. Every moment can be the last.“ My second uncle joins the conversation, upset, „Yes. And don’t think about it! You’d go crazy if you thought about it all the time! Ohhh No, you’d go crazy!“ He is a strong and stocky guy. A former sailor with tattooed arms and a scar on his throat from a knife thrust into it in a pub when he was young.
They are all afraid. Death casts its shadow over these seasoned men and makes them shiver. I am frightened. For the first time, I really realize how helpless man is in the face of death. And with it also life. Don’t think about death! Just go on. Do nice things. Spend the short time doing something nice. Push away the worries – – – and the meaninglessness of life as well. Death comes soon enough and then it is there and then everything is over. Everything will have been in vain. But I don’t want to think about that now, I don’t want to think about it anymore and „live“ every day!
It is not the time to tell them that I think about my death every day. I would like them to understand that this is the only way to live life. Life is there. Death is there. Life is there. It is part of it and, next to birth, it is the most powerful force in the universe. But it is not bad. For the ego it seems bad because it does not want to rest. For the soul it is not bad, because it is eternal and in life and in death it is not subject to any change. My ego also fears death. It must fear it, because it is the weapon of our survival instinct and has the task to keep us alive as long as it is necessary and possible. But the ego, the mind, is not alone decisive. The voice of the soul has its own weight and it says ‚Be without worry. Life and death are one. They belong together and only in this truth can we spend our existence in meaning‘.
I cannot tell them all this. At this moment, I have to leave them to their fear and sense of futility. Here on the cemetery forecourt I cannot convey to them that they must hear the soul as well as their mind.
Christine’s family arrives. Her husband, two sons, a daughter-in-law. We shake hands in silence and file into the mourning hall behind them. The priest, a small bearded Pakistani, delivers a powerful service. He emphasizes once again the perplexity with which man faces death and the meaninglessness that results for him in the face of death. „But God catches us!“ he says. A sentence that must be heard with the soul. Taken with the mind, these words remain empty. That is always the dilemma. He who hears with the soul knows and does not need these words as consolation. He who hears with the mind doubts and wants to believe, but for him these words remain empty and offer him nothing to which he can really cling.
At the end we sing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s song „Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben“. I cry while I sing. I cry and I cry. They are not tears of sorrow. They are tears of touch. They are tears of gratitude, of security, and of my oneness with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this song in the concentration camp in the face of his imminent execution. Day after day he was in the face of his death and yet he was so full of spiritual knowledge. Lines full of truth. Not abstractly composed at home at his desk, but sprung from all the strength of his soul in his darkest hour. I feel the truth. I feel God and I am happy and full of love.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had no choice. He could not close his eyes and rely on the repression of death, as is the strategy of my uncles. And yet he was full of strength and secure in the spiritual knowledge. Now and here we should begin to accept death. To accept it as an essential force of our existence. If we do not do it, we will always be only half and exist without meaning. We will not be able to attain knowledge and will always remain perplexed.
The service is over. We leave the funeral hall, following the urn bearers. I step outside and the sun hits me right in the face with all its force, all its brightness, all its warmth and all its light. It shines right into the gate through which we step out. No longer mild, as it was an hour ago, but full of power. I lift my head, enjoy the light and the warmth and want to laugh! Everything is so wonderful. Christine. For you we can rejoice. It is the living for whom we must care… to whom we must bring knowledge.