Why can't we take a rocket to Heaven?
When I was a kid, about 12 or 13 years old, I had this running list in my head of all the people I knew who had died. These were people whose funeral's I had attended with my family. Most of these people I knew personally, although a few were family friends or acquaintances that I hadn't actually met. From what I remember there were about a dozen people on this list. I would repeat their names over and over while I counted them on my fingers.
By the time I was 12 years old I had been to a dozen funerals. Looking back that seems like quite a few. This is most probably due to the fact that I have a large extended and Southern family (meaning that our definition of "family" is a good deal broader than most people's definition). However, at the time I didn't know that was a lot.
Thinking on it, I don't remember feeling particularly sad while I repeated my mental list. I think I was mostly incredulous. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that all of these people had died. The sheer suddenness and finality and godforsaken randomness of death shook me. It didn't seem fair to 12 year old me. It still doesn't seem fair or okay or reasonable to me. Everyone dies. All of us. And that is something that we all have to try to come to terms with. We will all meet our maker. Or have our day of reckoning or go to Heaven or whatever it is you believe.
When my nephew was about 4 or 5 years old my Great Aunt Linda died. My nephew and great aunt (his great-great aunt) were the best of friends. When he still only spoke mumbo-jumbo-toddler-gibberish she understood him, which impressed him to no end. After she died, he would ask over and over and over again (as kids are known to do when you give them answers that don't satisfy them) "When is Aunt Linda coming back?" He didn't understand that she wasn't coming back. He also didn't understand why that question was so distressing to all of the adults in his life. I remember driving back home from Tallahassee weeping quietly while he kept asking all of us "Where is she that she can't come back?"
One of us in the car finally cracked and said she was in Heaven. In the clouds. With the angels. And that they needed her and she loved us, but that she had to stay there. My nephew seemed okay with that. He finally stopped demanding to know where she had gone. That seemed like that was going to be it on the death/heaven/afterlife discussion. We all breathed a little sigh of sad relief.
We should have known better. He wasn't satisfied with that answer either. He learned about the space shuttle in school. He was intrigued by the concept of the galaxy and rockets and all that stuff. That was all well and good until he asked why we couldn't take the space shuttle to get Aunt Linda back. Because in the mind of a 5 year old if Heaven is in the clouds and space is above the clouds and we can take rockets to space.... Then there shouldn't be any reason we can't take a rocket to Heaven.
How do you explain to a 5 year old that you can't retrieve people from Heaven? I don't remember what we said to him. I don't really think there's a good answer to that.
Nowadays I count the funerals that I miss. There have been too many. And that makes me sad. The people that have passed away while I've been gone doing this nomad thing are important to me.
Funerals are a way to honor those who have gone before us. It's important for our humanity to do this. It's important to recognize the impact one person has had on all sorts of otherwise unconnected people. It's important to reconize and share your grief. Sharing your grief doesn't lessen it, instead it releases the bitterness that comes with it.