As a child, I attended a number of funerals in which this verse from Corinthians was read, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory,” usually at the end of the service, when the bereaved family most needed it. At the time, I found this Bible verse very reassuring, but like most children I wanted to know more—the why, not to mention the how, what, when and where of the victory so eloquently asserted.
As an adult, I am still uplifted by this powerful affirmation of eternal life. And as a parent, I am grateful to have the Baha’i scriptures to draw upon in providing detailed answers to some of my daughter’s questions about death, especially several years ago when our family faced loss twice in one year, first of my brother and then of my father.
It was a difficult year for our family. There was much talk about the meaning of death, the nature of the soul and of our own experiences with our loved ones as they were dying. My daughter, then 10, was full of questions.
What happens when you die? How does it feel when you die?
Death, I told my daughter, was not to be dreaded, but looked forward to “with hope and expectation,” to use the words and metaphor of Abdul-Baha in one of his talks in London, as one would “the goal of any journey.” We might feel sad when someone leaves us, I explained, but death itself is, as Baha’u’llah writes in the Hidden Words, “a messenger of joy.”
But why would it be a happy thing to die?
I tried to translate into simple language Baha’u’llah’s evocation of the joyful condition, the dynamic progress of the faithful soul once it leaves the body by explaining that the steadfast soul is filled with gladness and renewed strength and is able to exert a powerful influence on the world.
When it [the soul] leaveth the body, however, it will evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equal. Every pure, every refined and sanctified soul will be endowed with tremendous power, and shall rejoice with exceeding gladness. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 154)
Where do you go after death? Do you just disappear or become invisible?
“Is the bird still alive after it is freed from the cage?” I asked her, using Abdul-Baha’s simple but cogent analogy. I told my daughter we could not know what exactly it would be like in the next world. “The world beyond,” Baha’u’llah explains, “is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 157)
How can we talk to the dead or help them?
The souls of those who have died, I told my daughter, can benefit in the next world from the prayers and charitable work we do in this world in their names. And through prayer, we can stay close to them, for “in prayer there is a mingling of station, a mingling of condition.” (Abdul-Baha in London)
Do dead people recognize each other?
Yes, we will recognize one another in the world to come and any love we had shared on earth will not be forgotten.
After all her questions, I wanted to give my daughter a practical example of a situation where death was faced with joy and radiance. I remembered the last time I saw my father–an encounter I had long dreaded. When I left the intensive care unit to return to my family in Maine, I knew I would never see my father again in this world. But far from feeling devastated and sad, I was overcome by a sense of wonder and awe. My father’s spirit was so vital, so alive–how could I not rejoice as I witnessed his transformation and watched his face shine with peace, light and love?
Death–the goal of a long, often arduous journey, the liberation of the bird of the soul from the cage of the body–I think my daughter understood. And in answering her questions, I had reminded myself of a truth more reassuring than any I have known: death truly is “a messenger of joy.”