While attending the recent Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, the choir sang a piece that really caught my attention. Entitled “In Remembrance,” it’s part of a larger Requiem whose music was written by Eleanor Daly. Requiem received the National Choral Award for Outstanding Choral Composition of the Year by the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors (ACCC) in May 1994. The music for “In Remembrance” is truly beautiful and moving. That alone would make this an attractive selection for funeral services.
However, there are problems with the words (which are attributed to an anonymous author):
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
A Church anthem or hymn is not just a piece of music with words added on. First and foremost, a Church anthem or hymn is a theological text. And so its purpose – with the aid of music – is to teach and communicate the faith of the Church.
So, what kind of theology does the text for “In Remembrance” convey? And is that theology in sync with the faith of the Church?
By summing up the whole, the first two lines of the text go a long way towards answering these questions: “Do not stand at my grave and weep./I am not there, I do not sleep.” This is a clearly stated denial of the reality of death (which is more emphatically laid out in the last words: “I did not die”). According to this text, death is ultimately an illusion. It’s something that happens only to the body, not to the “real self” or soul. And so the “real self” transcends embodiment and lives on beyond the demise of the body.
At a surface level, this may seem comforting and pastorally appropriate for those who have lost loved ones in death. But, in somewhat Gnostic fashion, what it’s really saying is this: “Your grief is unfounded because your loved one hasn’t really died. He/she has just lost his/her body, which isn’t really who he/she is anyway. So grieving and crying are for those who don’t really understand the truth of what has happened. Death isn’t real. If you’re enlightened enough to see the reality behind the appearances, your grief will vanish.”
In other words, your grief, your pain, your tears, your suffering over the loss of a loved one - it's all a mistake.
If that’s true, then unless he was putting on a show, Jesus was wrong to have wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And our Prayer Book would also be wrong to affirm that grief is compatible with Christian faith because “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 507].
The text of “In Remembrance” entails a body/soul dualism which privileges the soul as superior to the body, and which envisions the soul as intrinsically immortal. But it goes a step further by envisioning what happens after apparent death as the dispersal of the “real self” or soul throughout the world. And so in addition to its Gnostic overtones, this text resonates more with a Hindu than with a Christian post-mortem vision. Huston Smith’s explication of this aspect of Hinduism resonates with the text of “In Remembrance”:
Underlying man’s personality and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is without limit in awareness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is not less than Brahman, the God-head [The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), p. 27].
Contrary to the view grounded in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the body is not an intrinsic part of the “real self” from this perspective. Smith explains: “In the Hindu view, spirit no more depends on the body it inhabits than body depends on the clothes it wears or the house it lives in. When we outgrow a suit or find our house too cramped we exchange these for roomier ones that offer our bodies freer play. Souls do the same” [ibid., p. 75].
While it is certainly true that a body/soul dualism found a niche within Christian theology, it’s also true that this dualism contradicts the biblical teaching that human beings are created in the image of God. Reformed theologian Shirley C. Guthrie explains:
In the Bible human beings are not essentially spiritual or physical. Whatever else our basic humanity is, it has to do with our whole being, spiritual and physical, body and soul in their inseparable interrelatedness. It is as embodied souls (or life) and besouled (or living) bodies that we are created in the image of God [Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 195; emphasis in text].
Along similar lines, Guthrie offers biblically-grounded reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the immorality of the soul which “In Remembrance” implicitly entails. It's worth quoting in full:
Biblically informed Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life. If the concept of the soul’s innate ‘divine’ immortality is unbiblically optimistic about the future that lies ahead of us, its contempt for the body is unbiblically pessimistic. The Bible does not teach that the body is a shell or prison in which we are trapped and from which we long to escape. It teaches that we are created and are body (male or female body!) as well as soul, and that bodily as well as spiritual life is willed and blessed by God. It also teaches that our hope for the future is not for the soul’s escape from bodily-physical life into some higher and better spiritual realm but for the renewal of our total human existence as embodied souls and besouled bodies. So it was with Jesus: The New Testament does not tell us that his soul left his body and "went home" to be with God; it tells us that God raised him b0dily from the dead and that the same earthly Jesus his disciples had known before (to be sure with a transformed "new" body) returned to the God from whom he had come. So it will be with us. … Biblical-Christian hope for the future is hope for human beings who are body and soul in their inseparable unity [ibid., pp. 380-381; emphasis in text].
The Christian hope is a far cry from any perspective which either denies the reality of death in all of its pain, tragedy, and ugliness, or which views human post-mortem existence in terms of disembodied eternal bliss and/or as the dissolving of selfhood into the ocean of being. For the Christian hope is centered on resurrection. And by definition, resurrection includes the body. Drawing on the 15th chapter of the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Anglican bishop of Durham N. T. Wright puts it like this:
This is ... a theology in which the present physical body is not to be abandoned, nor yet to be affirmed as it stands, but is to be transformed, changed from present humiliation to new glory (Philippians 3.21), from prsent corruption and mortality to new incorruption and immortality. This is indeed the defeat of death, not a compromise in which death is allowed to have the body while some other aspect of the human being (the soul? the spirit?) goes marching on [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 358].
In light of Guthrie’s Reformed theological perspective and the work of Anglican theologian N. T. Wright, I submit that the text of “In Remembrance” conveys a (perhaps somewhat confused) mixture of Platonic, Gnostic, and Hindu ideas about death and post-mortem existence that contradict the faith of the Church. It is therefore inappropriate for such a text to be used in the context of a Christian burial service.