The Visitation

How I dreaded the “visitation.”  Having to see my father’s dead body.  Having to meet and greet well-wishers while being in a highly emotional state.   What a horrible ordeal this is going to be, I thought.  And yet, the visitation on Thursday night was strangely healing.  I’m not sure why, but it was.  I do have some ideas, though.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote about the relationship between an “I” and a “thou.”  That is, between two persons.  This is very different from the relationship between an “I” and an “it.”  Sometimes we treat other human beings as if they were “its”; that is, as  objects rather than persons, and this is a moral fault.  I believe Buber also used the example of the difference between a live human being and the body of that person after death.  The “thou” is replaced by an “it.”  The living human being with a personality and an energy and a soul gives way to an inanimate–or rather, no longer animated–material.  When we see the body of a loved one, we look upon it with affection, but also with the sense that “this isn’t him.”  What made him who he was is gone.  This amounts to a perception of the immortality of his soul.  Not a rigid proof, I know, but a kind of palpable conviction.  And it’s comforting.

As for the visitors, their kindness is so good in itself that it counters the badness of death.  It has nothing to do with what they say.  It’s just the experience of coming into contact with so many other human beings (other “thous”) who care and who sympathize and who also loved the person we loved.

Also, the death of a father causes us to look back on our own lives, remembering our childhood, our adult life, and our own mortality; that is, to look at our lives as a whole.  It was so good to see people from my own history coming back to my awareness as they came to pay their respects to my father.  Here was a woman who was the teenaged girl who used to babysit me.  Here were members of our old neighborhood, former kids I used to play with.  Here were high school buddies, and we slipped back into the same old comfortable banter we shared over four decades ago.  I also met friends of my father’s whom I really didn’t know but whom I now see are interesting, thoughtful, witty men and women, like he was.  It was just all good.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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