The Trivialization of Death
In our death-sanitized society, authentic Christianity is marginalized and hope in resurrection is lost
BY: Lilian Calles Barger
In the last three years, I have attended five or six memorial services and only two funerals. The tone of these two events is very different. A traditional funeral seeks to comfort the living and to acknowledge the dead. The community comes together around a solemn processional. Sorrow and hope are juxtaposed.
A contemporary memorial service feels completely different. There is no corpse; death is little-mentioned; and the point is to have an upbeat celebration of the dead person's life. You get lively music, humor, and a nice spread of food. You could easily mistake it for a wedding.
I can't remember ever attending a corpse-less memorial service when I was young. Someone's death meant seeing a body at the dreaded obligatory viewing. People mourned with the grieving family in their homes; they brought food to help the family through the sorrowful time.
But funerals may be going the way of Victorian tear bottles, black armbands and widows' veils. These days, only if you are Princess Diana will your death be given any significant public acknowledgement. For the average Jane, with a plain vanilla death, out of sight and out of mind is how we like it.
In our death-sanitizing culture, authentic Christianity is marginalized because it embraces the cross, a symbol of death, and proclaims a bodily resurrection. But Christianity without the triumph and hope of the Resurrection is no Christianity at all. For Christians, coming to terms with death is an opportunity to appreciate the significance of Jesus' resurrection.
Death matters. And we need a variety of public ways to acknowledge this human experience. Funerals and mourning rituals not only provide us with psychological opportunities to deal with our loss, but they also provide us with opportunities to understand the meaning of our faith. The hope found in the Resurrection cannot be fully appreciated until we are willing to come to terms with the tragedy of death and stare it in the eye.
Our growing trivialization of death requires that we either make death invisible or attempt to make it more attractive. The defanging of death is a slow metamorphosis of the language and rituals associated with it. It is the process of denying mourning any public space and silencing the grieving.
This process begins early because death must be learned. We all remember those moments of our childhood when it dawned on us that death was real and that pets, grandmothers and friends die. We are born to think of life as eternal like youth. We are wired for the unending optimism of a life that keeps on giving. The reality is that death invades this pristine vision of life. Communities must deal with the pervasiveness and motivating power of death. Public acknowledgments of death--or lack of them--reflect our spiritual viewpoint.