Sunday, 9 May 2010

Death in the 21st century

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

There was an old minister who, on his deathbed, asked to see the local MP and a prestigious lawyer who were both members of his congregation. They were puzzled, because they both knew the minister didn’t like them, but, out of courtesy, they came, and sat on either side of the bed. The dying minister, however, said not a word. Getting very uncomfortable, the MP and the lawyer finally asked him, “Why have you asked to see us?” “Well,” replied the minister, “I thought it would be a good idea to die as our Saviour did – between two thieves.”

We joke about death. Some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard are funeral anecdotes recounted by the drivers of hearses on the way to and from Morriston Crematorium. People have always joked about death, because people have always feared death, and jokes and laughter are a way of whistling in the dark on the way to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”. But things have changed. When people believed in God, they had a godly fear of “meeting their Maker”, even if the church sometimes exploited that fear in unconscionable ways. But now that most people don’t believe in God, but rather, with John Lennon, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky” – now the common fear is not godly, it’s atheistic. You might say that whereas once people were afraid of meeting their Maker, now they’re afraid of there being no meeting at all; not afraid of going to hell, but of going nowhere at all.

Another seismic shift in the landscape of death in the 21st century has to do with dying as much as death itself. How do people want to die? Almost unanimously people will say that, above all, they want to die quickly – in their sleep would be ideal, next best a stroke that kills you before you hit the floor. Traditionally, however, Christians have prayed to be delivered (in the words of the Great Litany) “from dying suddenly and unprepared”. “Unprepared”? Unprepared for what? Again, for “meeting their Maker”. But, again, no Maker, no meeting – and so no need for preparation: no need for repenting and amending, for cleaning up the clutter in our souls, for repairing broken relationships, for letting go. But how can it be that Christians themselves have slipped into this cultural attitude of indifference? Could it be that, for all intents and purposes, we have become practical atheists? Nowadays people don’t talk about preparations before they die, but they might talk about arrangements after they die. Simon Cowell, him of the X Factor, the richest man on television, said in an interview that “Medical science is bound to work out a way of bringing us back to life in the next century or so, so I want to be available when they do.” Thus has “eternal life” morphed into “unending life”, the resurrection of the body into the resuscitation of a corpse. Thus have the heights of the Christian hope been reduced to an abyss of morbid designer banality.

How ironic: we live in what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death” – war, abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide – and yet it is a culture in denial of death. We live in a culture of youth and beauty, with the chemicals and the cosmetic surgery to keep us artificially young and beautiful (actually, more like grotesque). Of course when you’re young, you think you’re immortal – it’s called being immature – but now so childish are adults that people spare no expense pretending that they are Peter Pan right into manufactured old age, “living the dream”. And when reality finally, inexorable strikes, well, freeze-dry me today and thaw me out tomorrow.

And with our changing attitudes to death and dying there goes – what else? –the changing face of funerals. Because it’s all about me and mine, funerals are now becoming customised “celebrations”, upbeat, nothing sad, no grief, no frank recognition of the grim reality of death – this is what ministers are hearing more and more when we meet the families of the “deceased”. Coffins are as likely to be draped with photos, flags, or sports memorabilia as with Christian symbols. One minute you’re singing “Amazing Grace”, and the next (never mind the inconsistency!) you’re hearing a CD of Frank Sinatra belting out “I Did It My Way”. And poems are read that are not only – let’s face it – mawkish and banal, but also completely untruthful: “Do not stand at my grave and cry: / I am not there, / I did not die” – but you did, you know. There is mounting pressure on ministers to collude in this make-believe, to direct and choreograph it.

And then there is the committal. Once the committal was the public climax of the service, now it is fast becoming a private affair, a family-only ceremony, in the US even an undertaker-and-minister-only ceremony. Sometimes the committal is no longer even a committal, rather the coffin is left on the catafol for discreet disposal after the people depart. Thus too “services of thanksgiving” are as likely as not to take place after the committal and so without the presence of the body at all. Reasons of convenience are usually given – so we don’t have to watch the clock, so we can take our time with the tributes – but I do wonder that there is a subtext here and it’s got to do, again, with the sub-Christian change of focus in the contemporary funeral. Ministers of course – me too – collude in this cover-up.

As the American theologian Thomas Long observes: “The assumptions here are that the funeral is not about theology but psychology, not primarily about the grand drama of the gospel but about the smaller tale of grief, not about the story of the resurrection but the story of us. The goal of the committal is ‘closure’, and that is best done as a more private matter …, freeing up the public memorial service to be about the business of enhancing grieving without the clutter of the body …” These are unprecedented developments in the history of Christian funerals. Imagine, if you will, a baptism without the baby, a confirmation without a new member, an ordination without a new minister, a wedding without the couple. I am concerned that these are not healthy developments at all. They are signs that not only is society becoming post-Christian, which we know, but also that even the church itself is becoming post-Christian – and we are not even aware of it.

I have often introduced funerals by saying that Christian don’t have funerals, we have services of death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis of all we say and pray and sing, the death and resurrection of believers for sure, and the death and resurrection of non-believers in the trust that there are no limits to the grace and mercy of God. We do not deny death. We recognise that everyone is mortal, that death is natural, and we pray, with the Psalmist, that the good Lord will “teach us to count our days / that we may become wise” (Psalm 90:12). On the other hand, the New Testament is quite clear that death is, finally, an alien and brutal force, not a friend but an enemy, indeed the “last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26), who steals our loved ones, breaks our hearts, and shatters our families and communities. “Death is nothing at all”? No one really believes that – and Christians least of all.

So no denial! Comfort and consolation? Yes, certainly. But what kind of comfort and consolation? – that is the question. And the answer to that question turns on the recognition that, fundamentally, our services of death and resurrection are not about us, they are about this particular person who has been a part of our lives and, if a fellow Christian, a part of the life of the church. Which is why of course the service of Christians should take place in the church, and why of course the body should be there. Christians do not believe that the body it is just a “shell”, a quite pagan idea, which is why Christians have always treated the dead not only with respect but with tenderness. Have you ever loved a “soul”? Of course not! You have loved this embodied person. In heaven, when we meet again, will it be as ectoplasm? Of course not! It will be as what St. Paul calls a “spiritual body”, which means that, while unimaginably transformed, we will still recognisably be the people we were. Here in church the dead was baptised, indeed baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. Here in church the dead was made a member, and perhaps married. Here to church the dead came to worship week by week, to celebrate Communion month by month, to hear the Easter message.

And here, I conclude, in church the dead should be brought on the last stage of his or her earthly journey, that the church family may mourn, yes, but more, that our mourning may be transformed, not just by memory but by hope, as in worship we accompany the dead as God draws them through the thin space between time and eternity. Funerals may be for the living, but they are about the dead, and they are in and through the dead yet living Jesus Christ. If we ever forget that Christian services of death and resurrection are about the management of our mourning only insofar as they are about the meaning of the message, then we of all people, in self-pity, are most to be pitied.

The world is in denial and confusion about death, dying, and the afterlife. The Christian Church should not be. Our teaching is clear: in the words of the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The church is not a public service industry. We are not here to meet people’s felt needs, to give their Jack or Jill a “good send-off”. We are here to proclaim the gospel that “Christ has died! Christ is risen! In Christ shall all be made alive!” – to show the world the way out of its fear and muddle and into the truth. The truth is often hard and always odd, but only the truth will set people free.


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