Mother, what is it
like to die?
Sermon by Dr. Peter
means to be a Christian
Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Peter Marshall preached to the
regiment of midshipmen in the Naval Academy at Annapolis. A
strange feeling which he couldn’t shake off led him to change
his announced topic to an entirely different homiletical theme
based on James 4:14: For what is your life? It is even a vapour,
that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away. In the
chapel before him was the December graduating class, young men
who in a few days would receive their commissions and go on
active duty. In that sermon titled Go Down Death, Peter Marshall
used this illustration.
In a home of which I know, a little boy—the only son—was ill
with an incurable disease. Month after month the mother had
tenderly nursed him, read to him, and played with him, hoping to
keep him from realizing the dreadful finality of the doctor’s
diagnosis. But as the weeks went on and he grew no better, the
little fellow gradually began to understand that he would never
be like the other boys he saw playing outside his window and,
small as he was, he began to understand the meaning of the term
death, and he, too, knew that he was to die.
One day his mother had been reading to him the stirring tales of
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table: of Lancelot and
Guinevere and Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat, and of that last
glorious battle in which so many fair knights met their death.
As she closed the book, the boy sat silent for an instant as
though deeply stirred with the trumpet call of the old English
tale, and then asked the question that had been weighing on his
childish heart: “Mother, what is it like to die? Mother, does it
hurt?” Quick tears sprang to her eyes and she fled to the
kitchen supposedly to tend to something on the stove. She knew
it was a question with deep significance. She knew it must be
answered satisfactorily. So she leaned for an instant against
the kitchen cabinet, her knuckles pressed white against the
smooth surface, and breathed a hurried prayer that the Lord
would keep her from breaking down before the boy and would tell
her how to answer him.
And the Lord did tell her. Immediately she knew how to explain
it to him.
“Kenneth,” she said as she returned to the next room, “you
remember when you were a tiny boy how you used to play so hard
all day that when night came you would be too tired even to
undress, and you would tumble into mother’s bed and fall asleep?
That was not your bed…it was not where you belonged. And you
stayed there only a little while. In the morning, much to your
surprise, you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in
your own room. You were there because someone had loved you and
taken care of you. Your father had come—with big strong arms—and
carried you away. Kenneth, death is just like that. We just wake
up some morning to find ourselves in the other room—our own room
where we belong—because the Lord Jesus loved us.”
The lad’s shining, trusting face looking up into hers told her
that the point had gone home and that there would be no more
fear … only love and trust in his little heart as he went to
meet the Father in Heaven.
After Peter Marshall had finished the service at Annapolis and
as he and his wife Catherine were driving back to Washington
that afternoon, suddenly the program on the car radio was
interrupted. The announcer’s voice was grave: “Ladies and
Gentlemen. Stand by for an important announcement. This morning
the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was bombed…..”
Within a month many of the boys to whom Peter Marshall had just
preached would go down to hero’s graves in strange waters. Soon
all of them would be exposed to the risks and dangers of war,
and Peter Marshall, under God’s direction, that very morning had
offered them the defining metaphor about the reality of eternal
—Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter, p.