WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- When my father died on the operating table, something extraordinarily beautiful happened. At the very instant of his death, a radiant and contented smile spread over his face. And there it remained until we buried him.
Those of us who believed that death was not the end of a man's existence, but rather a transitory event, found it easy enough to speculate about the meaning of this phenomenon.
Father was blind. At age 18, he had lost his eyesight in combat during World War I. He never saw his friends at university, his fraternity brothers, his girlfriends, two wives, and children. He was very bitter.
Blindness had prevented him from fulfilling his double dream of becoming a physician and a painter. The only secular profession open to a man in his condition in the early 20th century seemed to be the law; all his life he loathed being a lawyer. To him, blindness was a kind of prison that kept him from enjoying the visual beauties he remembered from his early youth.
So what happened in that split second his heart stopped 42 years ago? Presumably the same experience of liberation from suffering doctors, pastors, relatives and comrades-in-arms frequently observe at the death of cancer patients or wounded warriors.
Of course they don't always smile in death, but this occurs nonetheless frequently enough never to be erased from the memories of those who have watched hundreds succumb to their injuries, as I have witnessed in Vietnam.
In 20th century rational thinking this would doubtless have been explained away as the result of some physiological condition. After hours, days, months or even years of excruciating tension, decease relaxes the erstwhile sufferer's muscles, giving him merely the appearance of a smile.
This is how many liberal theologians of the 19th and 20ths centuries thought, and how some still think to this day, although they never convinced parish pastors, hospital chaplains or simple and anguished folk holding the hands of a loved one or a friend in pain.
But it is a sign of the shifting times that even many veteran liberals, including German theologian Juergen Moltmann, are rethinking their 20th century view that when the body goes, so does the whole person.
And it is particularly significant that younger systematic theologians, such as 47-year old Werner Thiede of Erlangen University, are asking the question if a dead person's smile should not be considered at least a sign -- though clearly not proof, which would be impossible -- of continued existence.
Thiede was particularly struck by the blissful expressions on the death masks of St. Philip Neri (1515-95), the "Apostle of Rome," and composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847). He linked these expressions with the astonishingly consistent reports of people who have undergone what is now called Near Death Experiences.
Neri clearly been through an NDE, and like so many similar cases studied by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross in this century, was disappointed by his reanimation. "Nothing bad has happened to me," he told those who brought him back to life, "except for what you have done to me."
In a telephone interview, Thiede was careful to stress that no more than a possible encounter with transcendence can be inferred from a dead person's smile.
"It would be wrong to consider this as evidence that he or she has moved on to heaven," he said, "and of course it would be equally false to interpret the lack of a smile on another deceased man's or woman's lips as evidence that he or she did no go to heaven but perhaps to hell instead."
Conversely, if a person has been near death and not enjoyed the harmonious and peaceful encounter with a transcendent figure of light -- an experience reported by astonishing numbers of people -- does not disprove life in the hereafter either.
"Nevertheless," says Thiede, the smile and the NDE reports may serve as indications to the believer that when his terrestrial time is up the reign of God's love will finally be revealed."
But what implications might this have for those who went through ghastly Near-Death Experiences, which also occur, although they are much less frequently told after reanimation? Have they received a taste of hell, as they moved though the icy cosmos, past shadowy historical figures suffering loneliness in the extreme?
Was this a warning? And how, Thiede wondered, does this square with the Christian understanding of God as the power of love? How does it justify God?
Now that the era of extreme rationalism in theology is past, the theological reflection about the soul that was disrupted in the post-Enlightenment era, has resumed -- especially due to the findings of contemporary thanatology (study of death).
Does the soul sleep until Judgment Day? Does it fast-forward to Judgment Day, given that God is beyond time and space and 15 billion years until the estimated end of the universe are meaningless to him? Is he beyond time and space, though? Has he not entered time and space with Christ's incarnation -- or even before that, due to the Holy Spirit's embrace of and liaison work within all of creation?
These are increasingly pressing questions for 21st century theologians who, like Thiede, are working in proximity with modern scientific discoveries. On a practical pastoral level, the perspective is a trifle different, however. "Can one draw a sharp line between the relief from pain at the time of death and the encounter with transcendence -- and if so where?" asked the Rev. Johannes Richter, former regional bishop of Leipzig in Germany.
And then with decades of pastoral care behind him, Richter went on: "The heart, too, has eyes, you know." That was perhaps what my father found out when his earthly life stopped. What his heart's eyes saw made him smile.