Anna Ancher. The Funeral (1891). Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
It was a gift from the Sixties, our user-friendly funeral Mass. Every time I attend one, I come away convinced that resurrection is in the bag. In keeping with the confident, self-affirming modern cosmology that animates our memorials, it is as if the dead were already risen. So why not just strike a commemorative medallion and be done with it?
I remember the service arranged for . . . call him Stan. Friends and family stepped to the lectern with smiling eulogies. They told uplifting stories of Stans excellent fatherhood, his exemplary charity, decency, good humor, generosity, probity, modesty, dignity, and intelligence. All blameless merit and gentilesse was Stan. And successful, too. Especially that. If ever a speck of mortal dust were guaranteed a safehold on eagles wings, it was he.
His ex-wife was among the mourners. She kept mum. As the assembly filed out, she turned to me and whispered, If I had been married to that Stan, I never would have left.
Anonymous. Burying the Dead (14th C.). Florentine School. Vatican Museums.
Trusting the liturgy as a work of grace, we are inclined to forget that even gifts from God arrive in the hands of men. And men are susceptible to the tenor and blandishments of their time. Holy and unspotted oblation is offered for us by men spotted and nicked by creaturely interests, ambitions and illusions. Liturgical commissions, too, are pulled by the undertow of their cultural moment. What they left us, those men of the Age of Aquarius, were the means for a funeral rite drained of dread. By now, it is easy to imagine that the body on the bier is simply playing possum.
Lazzaro Bastiano. Funeral of St. Jerome (15th C.). Accademia, Venice.
We celebrate life in the living of it. A funeral, by contrast, provides a time to mourn, a time to solemnize the mysteryterrorof death. Time, too, to be reminded that our God is a consuming fire. Not a genial Rotarian. These obligatory celebrations of life instruct us in what Jacques Ellul referred to as in the last analysis, a theology of glory. But . . . a very strange theology of glory, for it is the glory of the world. Ritual expression leans toward the suggestion that the Kingdom has already arrived, realized here and now among us good folk, exemplified by the achievements of the decedent. A liturgy devised for moderns must sweep the sanctuary clean of diffidence, of any lingering taint of fear.
It is no surprise then, that as the pastoral associate of my parish tells it, families come to the parish office saying: Don’t give us anything too heavy. Or, Please keep it light.
Anonymous Photograph. Funeral of a French Soldier, France (c. 1916).
God, how I miss the Latin of the old Requiem! Discounting the tremendum that informed the imagination of previous generations, we bury our dead in the contemporary argot of profane exchange. We cheat them of a grammar that bespeaks their bond with the longue dure of saints and martyrs, of even their own forefathers. We deliver our beloveds into the earth severed from the grave realities of judgment and expiation.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine: Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Once we learned, in awe and wonder, what it meant to cry from the depths. Now, in the shallows, we encourage each other not to cry too much.