Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Larger than death

The Michael Jackson memorial has, thankfully, concluded; it was a star-studded extravaganza with a thin spiritual veneer, a sendoff Egyptian kings might envy, a parade of public grief not seen since...well, since the last time a superstar celebrity left this earth, and it won't be rivaled until the next time some e-tabloid screams that we've lost another epic figure.

None of this is to be unsympathetic to the handful of people who actually knew Michael Jackson and are truly mourning him, his family included. But even his family was pressed into service by the demand for public obsequies; their grief had to be shown to the masses, to help the screaming crowds find "closure" or some such thing.

Our culture is as twisted when it comes to death as we are when dealing with issues involving life. We don't respect life; we give ourselves the power to destroy the unborn, the ill, the elderly; we commodify and de-mythologize every aspect of human existence. And like the materialists we are, we tend to do the same in regard to death; funerals are sparsely attended, people who are dying demand to be cremated and scattered instead of buried and mourned properly, and there is a sense that old-fashioned rituals of grief are absurd and even macabre.

But those old rituals had their purpose. The widow wearing black for a time after her husband's passing, for example, could be assured that those whom she encountered respected her grief and her need for both privacy and comfort. No heavy social demands were placed on her or on her remaining family for that time. And a widower was similarly respected when he had suffered such a loss, as were all who mourned a loved one; their degree of relationship and depth of mourning could be quickly determined by whether they were swathed in black garments, or only wore black gloves.

When at the beginning of the twentieth century the enlightened people began casting off these old social notions and rituals around death and grief, a new attitude crept in. Death was, said the Smart Set, a joke, not a disaster. Beings composed of materials that were prone to decay eventually decayed--all the more important to focus on life and the living, instead of wasting precious time mourning the dead. The soul? A myth, and not worth worrying about. Eternity? Balderdash. Family connections that made it necessary to travel out of state for Uncle Elbert's funeral? Silly, and a waste of time. Nobody liked grouchy old Uncle Elbert when he was alive, so why the hypocritical pretense the minute he had shuffled off this mortal coil, so to speak?

But a funny thing happened on the way to apathetic
insouciance in the face of death. In a word, death happened--that is, it kept happening. And for all the modern tendency to ignore it or shrug at it or laugh at it or to shed a few tears and forget it, death's power to affect the living remained, and remained a great mystery.

The spiritual moorings that people of faith cling fast to in times of bereavement have eluded the grasp of many in our times. The mask of cheerful unconcern worn at the very quick McFuneral Home service provided for an elderly relative one hasn't seen in years slips away when some relatively young celebrity icon dies unexpectedly. The pretense which must be maintained at all costs, that death is something far away and avoidable, something that may never come to one's own self, is torn away in a flash of the blindingly obvious; the death of the well-known and wealthy and popular sends a supernatural chill down a materialist's spine, and he almost hears the voice which whispers "Remember, Man, that thou art dust..."

At all costs that feeling must be overcome, or at least turned into something less dreadful--and so, quickly! Quickly! On with the show, the songs, the poetry, the speeches! On with the noise and confusion, the public orgy of pseudo-grief to distract the mind from the dreadful reality that one day we, too...

It's not enough that our celebrities be larger than life for us; they must also be larger than death. Because Death will tap on our shoulders too, one day, sooner than we'd like to imagine, with the chill summons to the only fate a materialist can believe possible: oblivion. And at least the public parade of wailing and gnashing of teeth for the famous can make a materialist hope that he, too, won't be forgotten.

But in dusty antique stores and dustier cemeteries lie the last relics of the millions of unremembered dead. If this life is all there is than even a circus like the Jackson memorial will soon enough be nothing but a trivia footnote known by a handful of people who collect odd knowledge, until the waves of time sweep over even them, and no one remembers him--or any of us--at all.

There is, for a believer, though, the immeasurable comfort that there lived on this world One Who truly was larger than death--and that the worth of our lives will be measured not in the number of mourners who weep at our passing, but in the faithfulness of our attempts to follow Him, the sincerity of our sorrow and repentance when we failed, the joy that is ours in the midst of sorrow because we know He waits for us--and that His Mother, so often addressed in our prayers, will be interceding with Him as we ask her every day, "...at the hour of our death..." The showy vulgar public rituals designed to push the thoughts of our mortality out of our heads do nothing for us; a single Mass attended well in our lifetimes will do more for us at the hour of trial than we can possibly imagine. And if we fix our eyes on Him who is not only larger than death, but Who conquered death once for all, we will not falter as we embark upon that final journey across the turbulent waves of our own last hours.


Magister Christianus said...

I would have lauded this post if only for the phrase "apathetic insouciance," but of course, there was so much more. I had thought once of blogging on the whole Michael Jackson spectacle, but will instead refer readers to your post. Thank you.

Charlotte said...

Excellent, Erin. It has always bothered me that funeral rituals seem focused on the living, never mourning for or praying for ther dead. Never about the dead (other than celebrating them as if they ARE in heaven, for sure, for sure.)