The seriousness of a society’s funeral rites speaks volumes about the seriousness of a society, for the way we treat the dead is really a function of how we value life. That aborted children are disposed of as so much medical garbage is of a piece with society’s denial of their personhood. And that so many funerals are now cast as ‘celebrations of life’ [sic] reflects a childish refusal to acknowledge what we all know to be true: That death is universal, and universally devastating.
I was reminded of this basic truth last Friday when Justice Antonin Scalia’s casket arrived at the Supreme Court. My wife and I happened to be in DC for a visit to Georgetown and, hearing helicopters circling over our hotel, switched on the news to see what was happening. It was the arrival of Scalia’s casket at the Supreme Court.
Two things about the event struck me. First, that Scalia’s son led the funerary rites was remarkable and moving. Years ago my mother asked me to preside at the funeral of my father. I could not oblige. I knew that I would be unable to utter a word, let alone preside as minister. It was a good decision: At the service it was all I could do to hold myself together. By contrast, Fr. Scalia’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was simple, self-controlled, and somber. Only as he reached out his hand to touch the casket was the strain he must have been experiencing evident. The voice had been steady but the hand was clearly shaking.
The second was the evident seriousness of the occasion. The simplicity and the surrounding silence underscored the loss which the death of a loved one represents. The straightforward seriousness of the rites reflected the metaphysical depth of the Christian understanding of life and of its end. I could not help but compare the occasions with the growing penchant even among professing Christians for turning funerals into these ghastly ‘celebrations of life’.
Last year I gave a lecture to college students on modern society’s tendency to deny the reality of death. These were the comments I made on funerals:
I would suggest that Christian attitudes to death might well be a gauge of the church’s capitulation to the spirit of the world. If we often judge accommodation to the world in terms of attitudes to sex and sexuality, it makes sense given all that I have thus far said to argue that attitudes to death might also be a significant measure of our worldliness. Take for example the creeping intrusion of so-called celebrations of life into Christian churches as the default liturgy of death.
Such things deny death its due by attempting to numb the pain in the strangest of ways. If ever there was a way to underline the devastating trauma of a death, it is surely to recollect the joy and laughter which the deceased brought to the lives of others. If one is bankrupted, the devastation of one’s bankruptcy is not ameliorated by memories of all the money once possessed and now spent. Yet we seem to think this same principle is a cause for celebration at death. Perhaps Dante expressed it best through the words he put in the mouth of Francesca da Rimini in Canto 5 of the Inferno: ‘Life brings no greater grief / Than happiness remembered in a time / Of Sorrow.’ He was, of course, describing the Second Circle of Hell, not suggesting an appropriate liturgy for a Christian funeral service.
‘Celebrations of life’ and funeral liturgies which choose ‘My Way’ or ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ are interesting phenomena because they reflect the metaphysical superficiality of this present age and our childish inability to face up to the seriousness of death even when it is staring us in the face. They also represent the perfect paradox of an age built on so many fundamental contradictions. If the life was worth anything, then its end must represent a painful and permanent void for those left behind. Such a thing can surely not be celebrated with any honesty? And if the life was worthless or meaningless and ended without leaving a painful void in the lives of others, is it really worth celebrating at all?
Rites surrounding the dead demonstrate how seriously we take life. For a hedonistic society like ours whose primary purpose is personal pleasure and whose first priority is entertainment, death is a rather confusing, if somewhat unavoidable, embarrassment. ‘Celebrations of life’ are one of the results, both pitiful and incoherent. And that such things now even occur in Christian circles shows just how worldly we have become.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.