Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.” At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.
Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner. Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.
To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:
What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well. It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death. A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.
Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic. To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.
Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either. For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place. Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death. As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant. Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning? One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality. But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential? Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea? What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant. So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life. Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours. Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.
Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair. There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest). There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.” Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate. If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty. Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.
In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me. I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).
What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own. Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.” In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”
But a death has occurred. Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything. This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.
My father died in 1987. On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.” It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.
Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’ Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’ As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation. It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English. At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life. That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).
As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good. Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully. Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.