Giving in life and death


By Richard Gammill
Special to The PREVIEW

My son, Brian, and I were in Chennai, India, with nearly four hours between flight connections. We left the airport not suspecting the unusual experience that awaited us.

We first went to St. Thomas Mount where the Apostle Thomas, who brought the gospel to India in AD 52, is thought to have been martyred. Then I called my friend Solomon, who is a pastor and director of an orphanage, and told him we were in the city.

“Where are you now?” he asked.

“At the foot of St. Thomas Mount.”

“That’s close to me. I’ll come and pick you up in just a few minutes.”

He went on to tell me that his mother had passed away the day before and he was sitting in her funeral service.

“Then don’t worry about us,” I said. “You stay where you are.”

“It’s no problem; I’ll be right there.”

Thirty minutes later, we followed Solomon into the large sanctuary. His mother was in a glass-domed casket in the center of the room, surrounded by mourners. Solomon led Brian and me to seats at the front.

I learned that this service would go on for three days. Solomon’s parents founded this church in 1970 and now pastored more than 1,000 members. Brian and I sat and watched as several families came and stood by the casket, then tearfully spoke of their gratitude and affection for a lady who had cared for them for nearly a half-century. Several neighboring pastors came forward and offered lengthy prayers. Groups of musicians and singers ministered with some of the most beautiful music I have heard in India. At one point, Solomon stood and asked Brian and me to say a few words. Ours were the only words spoken in English.

As I sat and looked at this dear woman dressed in white, I suddenly realized that the bottom of the casket enclosed a compressor. She was at repose in a freezer. I had never seen this before, but it was appropriate for a three-day viewing in that climate.

Many thoughts went through my mind as we sat quietly for more than an hour. The life of this pastor’s wife was a gift to her community. Now in death, she imparted a final lasting gift to her family of faith. This congregation was remembering a life of service and sacrifice. She had woven her loving deeds into their lives. Hundreds of families honored her for the role she had played at their times of special needs and celebrations. She had supported her husband in the face of relentless opposition from those in the larger religious community opposed to the Christian message.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “There is such a thing as a good death.” Her life will keep on giving long after this lengthy memorial service. Because of the way she chose to live, her death, sudden and unexpected, is her final gift to those who knew her in life. It is a gift even to me, who did not know her at all. I could not understand the words spoken in that service, but I understood the sentiment. It inspires me to give thought to the way I am living.