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.


Daniel Hartley said...

This is absolutely wonderful!

Kim, I'm sure you've already read these things, but two texts came to mind when reading this: 1. Donne's 'The Relic' and 2. Don DeLillo's White Noise, which is one of the best fictional analyses of our modern fear of/ obsession with death I've ever read.

Many thanks for this great sermon.

Daniel Hartley said...

PS - check out the new John Lewis ad everyone's been banging on about. Same problems apply (I analyses it here:)

Geri Russell said...

Thanks Kim.

Meditations on the deathliness of death has been making a big comeback in, of all places, fashion. John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf and Martin Margiela have all exhibited "deathly" shows.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kim!


Karl Hand said...

Nice, orthodox! Still, Paul has "to zoan Christos, kai to apothanein kerdos" (Phil 1:21).

Over-confident orthodoxy always reminds me of Chesterton. Brilliant, but hard to take too seriously :P

byron smith said...

Thanks Kim - I had been thinking of writing about the de-gospelling of even church funerals myself and this post was a wonderful summary of some of the key points. I'd love to hear your thoughts on cremation and whether it (symbolically) undermines hope in resurrection by destroying the body rather than laying it to rest.

I was also interested in this comment:
We are here to proclaim the gospel that “Christ has died! Christ is risen! In Christ shall all be made alive!”
I appreciate how you've woven 1 Cor 15 into the traditional communion liturgy to make your point, but was this your move, or do you actually use liturgy that uses these words instead of ending with "Christ shall come again"?

kim fabricius said...

Hi Byron,

Thanks for your thanks.

On cremation:
The historic church, with its belief in the resurrection of the body, negatively evaluated cremation (which, widely practiced in Europe, waned as the church waxed). In the Middle Ages, the turn from cremation sharpened because of the association of burning with the punishment and execution of heretics. Of course fire can be positively construed (e.g., the fire of the Holy Spirit, or fire as refining, or fire as symbolic of passionate love), and even Rome now permits cremation - but only the burial, not the scattering, of ashes (both forms usually - and hideously - called "disposal"). I think the Catholic practice of burial makes good theological-liturgical sense, the urn (or other container) containing the body-as-ash, whereas scattering is suggestive of a kind of cosmic merging. I think the practice of cremation just crept up on most churches, which found themselves doing it without much thought, with any theology of cremation an afterthought. Not good.

On proclaiming the "mystery of faith":
"In Christ shall all be made alive" is a not liturgically uncommon in the United Reformed Church. I'm pretty sure its source is liberal discomfort with or disbelief in the doctrine of the Second Coming. I use it occasionally, as it reflects a strand of biblical universalism, and it seemed apt to use it here, given the particular theme of the sermon. However, I normally use the traditional form at Communion services (though my interpreation of it undoubtedly differs from the Left Behind brigade!).

Btw, one thing I forgot to mention in the sermon: cats. I believe in feline resurrection, and if my cats aren't in heaven, I'd rather be in the other place (even Cambridge).

Ben said...

Kim and Byron,
I also was considering the practice of cremation as I read this. My understanding is that the Catholic Church allows cremation as long as one's motivation is not deny or undermine belief in the resurrection of the body. I also think a theology of cremation might begin well by reflecting on Monica's response to Augustine when, as she was dying in Italy, he worried about her being buried away from home: "Nothing is far from God, and I have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world."

kim fabricius said...

Apparently, Ben, while Augustine acknowledged that God could resurrect an unintact body, he excepted a cremated body.

byron smith said...

"As for bodies that have been consumed by wild beasts, or by fire, or those parts tat have disintegrated into dust and ashes, or those parts that have dissolved into moisture, or have evaporated into the air, it is unthinkable that the Creator should lack the power to revive them all and restore them to life. It is inconceivable that any nook or cranny of the natural world, though it may hold those bodies conceiled from our detection, could elude the notice or evade the power of the Creator of all things." City of God, XXII.20.

Augustine goes on to problem that is "most difficult of all", namely cannibalism: who gets which bits? But even there, "even if that [cannibalised] flesh had completely disappeared, and none of its material had remained in any cranny of the natural world, the Almighty would reproduce it from what source he chose."

In any case, I (with Augustine) have little problem with God solving the eschatological mechanics of resurrection bodies, I am more concerned about the symbolic and pastoral aspects of burial practices. There is a difference between saying that God will know where to find me (or the bits of me) when he comes to raise me, and embracing a practice predicated on accelerating the disintegration of the body.

I actually quite like the Orthodox practice of temporary burial, then transferral of bones into an ossuary. This has the benefit of displaying due respect for the body while not requiring huge tracts of land for burial plots.

Pamela said...

Kim, the whole sermon was beautifully expressed and the final two paragraphs especially so. In our community, a number of funerals are not held in churches but at our local surf club (which is adjacent to one of the most beautiful beaches on the south coast of NSW). So these "celebrations of life" reflect the non-religious background of the deceased and, I would imagine, the wishes of their family. The Christian funerals I have attended are usually a mixture of sombre ceremony and joyful remembrance. I think many people have turned away from "the church" rather than "God" though. As a Christian, I take comfort from Paul's words in 1 Cor.15 but my joy comes from being part of God's kingdom here and now - not a place, but a state of being.

kim fabricius said...

Byron, my source on Augustine on cremation was secondary, but a footnote refers to his Retractions, Book ii, chapter 64.

Big Bob the Baptist said...

A real sermon should be much longer and involve me "nodding off" half way through.

byron smith said...

Kim - Thanks, I can't seem to find an online version and don't have a copy here with me, so I can't check. I knew the CoG reference since I recently re-read Book XXII.

kim fabricius said...

Big Bob, when I was starting out, an old Methodist minister told me, "Preach about God - and preach about twenty minutes." And you know the other old saw: "If you haven't struck oil in fifteen minutes, stop boring" (which gives you five minutes to shut down the well).

byron smith said...

Shutting down the well isn't always as easy as you might think, depending how deep you've tried to go...

I've also heard, "However long you go for, it should feel like twenty minutes." So if ten minutes of me feels like twenty, I should stop at ten.

Anonymous said...

I see that the old goat Jim West has criticised your sermon on his blog. He's obviously of the Big Bob the Baptist school of thinking, only without the humour.

kim fabricius said...

Yeah, Jim... Actually I take his point about "talks", i.e. "preaching" on a general theme rather than a text. But a biblical text, I think, may be more than just a sentence or even a passage (though, in fact, most of my sermons are the kind of CAT sermons - Close Attention to the Text sermons - that Jim insists all sermons must be). I would certainly deny that my references to scripture in this sermon were an afterthought to give an otherwise unbiblical address a veneer of biblical respectability. In any case, I think it is mistaken to equate biblical sermons with expository sermons. Several of the sermons I have preached with which I have been least unhappy were simply stories with no specifically biblical or even "religious" content at all. For which I think there is a precedent somewhere in the gospels.

Ross said...

Good thoughts there. I've bookmarked this blog, and will regularly visit it.

John Hartley said...

Dear Kim,

Thank you for an excellent sermon with very helpful reflections on the ways that the world and the church both avoid harsh realities in the ways they think about death. I thought this bit of what you posted was great.

However I must confess to being troubled about the focus on "the resurrection of the body" and its corollary that we shouldn't have funerals in the absence of the body for theological reasons (as opposed to pastoral reasons - I can quite see the point that the absence of the body in a "memorial" service is a further excuse for treating death as if it wasn't really so terrible). Is there any evidence that the first Christians believed that those who (for instance) were dismembered and eaten by lions in the amphitheatre, or drowned and consumed by leviathans in the deeps, were thereby somehow under threat of non-resurrection on the Last Day? I doubt it.

I can see the point that Jesus' resurrection was linked to his body: the empty tomb, the denial that he was a ghost (in Luke 24) and so on all make that point. The OT texts that say that he shall not suffer corruption are fulfilled in Jesus. And I can see that Christ's resurrection is a firstfruits of what happens to those who belong to him (1 Cor 15). But somehow I can't help thinking there's some logical fallacy in saying that our resurrections are therefore tied to our physical bodies, when they pretty clearly aren't in the cases where the body has been destroyed and then scattered to the four winds or to the digestive tracts of other animals. Help me out!

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

byron smith said...

John, what resurrection meant for those whose body was destroyed was an issue that many of the early fathers addressed (the Augustine reference above is one of many such discussions). Indeed, there is some evidence that hostile rulers, knowing this Christian belief, would deliberately destroy the bodies of martyrs for this reason. The answer generally given was that our resurrection is indeed of our body, and in cases where it has been destroyed, God can reconstitute it. Whether or not we share the same metaphysical commitments regarding the substance and form of human bodies as ancient Christian writers, I think that it is possible to affirm both that orthodox Christian hope is hope for the redemption and liberation of (not from) this body, and that bodily destruction is no barrier to the power of God.

So while I would say it is important to hold a funeral/memorial service where a body has been lost, this is nonetheless the exception. Where (as is usually the case), the body is still around, it ought to be present at its own funeral.

kim fabricius said...

Thanks, Byron. I got to the end of your comment, John (thanks to you too, mate!), and was about simply to refer you to the exchanges (above) between Byron and me, but then I saw that Byron had already replied with interest. I concur completely with his last two sentences.

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