Why Do Rainbows Remind Us of the Dead?

Like grass withers in circles in a field, sometimes we come to a season when it feels like people are dying all around us. In truth, people are dying every day. But in these past couple weeks, I feel the breeze from death’s scythe circling me as people I know are cut down in their prime.

On those days, clouds cover my heart.

Death and rainbows have been a theme of this week. After the spring storms flooding Northeast Ohio, social media is flooded with pictures of refracted light and attributions to the beloved deceased.

What is it about these bright, thin glimpses of color that remind us of our loved ones who have gone before us?

Monday, Memorial Day in the US, was a Rainbow Day. It’s already marked off as a day to barbeque and remember the dead. On top of that Ron Cramer of Jefferson fame had a fatal heart attack while running a 5K, an experience he survived exactly four years ago.

Ron leaning against a stone cross in a graveyard
Ron Cramer

The news added a litany of stories to our extended family gathering, and I just got quiet (which is very out of character!). That evening, our immediate family went cycling, training for a long distance bike ride. Rain was forecast, so we put on our raincoats.

Instead of asking not to bike, our boys wanted to get wet. They laughed about “getting skunked” by the water sprays that soaked their butts. We peddled through a sunshower, when the warmth was on our backs, but heavy drops still peppered our faces.

Then we came out the other side of the storm to a rainbow.

Full_featured_double_rainbow_at_Savonlinna_1000px
Double rainbow by Wikimedia user Lauri Kosonen

A rainbow by itself is just color, a distortion or mirage. We can’t touch it, but it reveals a hidden truth about the spectrum of light that is hidden from our eyes on ordinary days.

I believe it is the experience of a rainbow that reminds us of dying.

It is the experience of peddling hard through a storm, and being rewarded with beauty on the other side. It reminds us how to be grateful for things that can’t last.

The death of a friend reveals something to us that is usually hidden in our workaday world: that the spectrum of life is more than the sum of our works.

Simple drawing of a rainbow

It hints that there is something more, something deeper. There is something in a human life that disappears as soon as we try to touch it or put in in a box, but that stays with us long after the mirage has faded.

I found myself singing:

“Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly.”

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes also put this experience into verse (12:1,5,7):

Remember your creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come,
when one is afraid of heights,
and terrors are in the road;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails;
because all must go to their eternal home,
and the mourners will go about the streets,
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the breath returns to God who gave it.

Grief is a storm that comes in waves. But when mourners gather, we do so to remember the vanity of life with gratitude, and with a hope that at the end, there will be rainbows.

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