On Wednesday 13 February 2008 I found myself standing beside a coffin in a parish church in a northern English city in the presence of four hundred or so people and looking into the face of a diminutive girl in the front row. Her mother had died of throat cancer, and she was sitting between her father and her older sister. The service had begun and her mother had requested that I speak to Angela (as I will call her) so that the funeral service connected with the youngest member of the grieving family. There was also a specific message that mother wanted me to pass on: otherwise it was up to me what to say.
I wonder what you would have said in these circumstances. For the record, here is a transcript of my words.
“Angela, when I was last at your house, a year or two ago, you were a little girl, and you reminded me of the stair where you liked to sit. It was half-way up. I still remember it even if you have found somewhere you now like more.
“I haven’t seen you since then, but you have been very much in my thoughts and my prayers. In fact I didn’t see your mother at all during her illness, but she too was very much in my thoughts and prayers, and from a distance we often talked about you. I say, talked, but actually we did it by email and Daddy was mummy’s scribe or secretary! Mummy was so sad that she wouldn’t see you grow up, and be there for you as you developed into a young woman. She wanted me to be here today to tell you that, and for you to know that though we will never replace mummy, there are lots here today who want you to know that we won’t ever forget you.
“Angela, please remember that people hold you in their thoughts and prayers even if you can’t see them. That is what Jesus is doing for us all the time, even though we do not see him. And although I am not sure about this, I would be very surprised if Mummy is not holding you deep in her thoughts and prayers all the time, right now.
Caterpillars and butterflies
“But today I can see you, and I want to say a few words about caterpillars and butterflies. Yes, that’s right! And the reason is this: they help me as much as anything else on earth to understand what happens when a person dies. There’s a lot that no one understands, but they can help us a little.
“As you know from your own garden and lots of other places, caterpillars are good at crawling and eating. I expect you know the book about the very hungry caterpillar! As far as we know they are not very good at looking around them, especially looking up. They are very busy crawling and eating, and don’t seem to have the least interest in stars, clouds, rainbows, birds…or butterflies. In fact we’re not sure if they even know that there are such things as butterflies!
“Well, there comes a time when a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis or pupa. And to put it simply that is the end of its life as a caterpillar: the caterpillar dies. If we could see inside the pupa we would discover the cells dying one by one. It’s not a very pleasant process. I’m not sure whether it is painful, as it was at times when your mother was dying, but it’s certainly not pleasant.
“And I guess that as far as caterpillars are concerned that is the end of the story. As I have said already caterpillars don’t look up much, and so they have probably never thought about butterflies. After all, caterpillars crawl along the ground and on leaves, and butterflies can fly through the air, borne by the wind and choosing where to land. And there is really very little comparison between the shape, colours and textures of the caterpillar and the butterfly. But the fact is that when the caterpillar dies in the chrysalis, a butterfly is about to be born! For caterpillars are destined to become butterflies.
“There is a big word to describe this sort of change: it is “metamorphosis”. (There’s no reason why you should want to know this word, but if you do, then ask Daddy about a piece of music by Richard Strauss for 23 solo strings with this very name!)
“This long word describes the way something changes from one thing into another. So a caterpillar dies, but at the same time is changed into a butterfly. And this is what may help us to understand what has happened to mummy. In some ways human beings are a bit like caterpillars. We move along the ground, and we try to be busy with finding shelters, eating, and getting on with life. And most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what happens after our bodies die.
“For this reason many people don’t realise that we are born to fly! We are not earthbound creatures: our life, like that of caterpillars, is only the beginning of the adventure! Jesus came to open our eyes to all this, but a lot of people haven’t taken in what he showed us.
“Mummy’s body became weak and tired. And last week she died. And that was the end of her life here on earth. We are saying goodbye to her body today. But that is not the end of mummy’s story. That is the end of the beginning. A new creation has taken place, and she is now as free and beautiful as a butterfly. For she, like you, was born, (she was created), to enjoy a whole new realm, with many new dimensions.
“Now actual caterpillars simply can’t understand all this, but human beings can understand a little more. And thanks to her love of Jesus, mummy was one of those who understood that her death as a human being on earth, although it was a very real end, was also the start of a new stage of eternal life (that is, life that goes on for ever).
“One day all of us here will come to the end of our human lives. Until then whenever we are in the garden, or in the open air, God has given us caterpillars and butterflies as reminders. Or you may prefer water bugs and dragonflies!
“But you will find lots of reminders around you, not only of mummy and all that you used to do together, but also of the change that comes with death.
“I expect that there will be many things, including caterpillars and butterflies that will bring tears to your eyes when you think of mummy. But she wanted me to be here today (and so did daddy) to assure you that she will always hold you in her heart, and that God holds you both in his heart, and nothing will ever separate you from his love in Jesus.
Ending and beginning again
“My dear Angela (and family), I didn’t see mummy in the chrysalis stage, as her life on earth was coming to an end. You did, and at times I know it was so painful for her and for you. But please trust that for her now it is like the pains of childbirth, forgotten as new life emerges. For you it is more trying and testing. So drink deep of all the precious memories, and be alert to all the signs that God gives, until the time when you too will come to the end of the caterpillar stage, poised to become beautiful and gracious like butterflies, ready as it were to fly together with her.
“Just in case you ever want a reminder of what I said today, Angela, I’ve written it all down for you as a little thanksgiving gift in memory of your very special mummy. Please feel free to share it with Daddy, and your two brothers and sister.”
I heard from Angela’s father that later in the evening she was sitting in a corner reading this letter, before she fell soundly asleep.