We Die as Those Being Born
Some further thoughts on death…
At the conference I attended last week, our attention was drawn to an article from a few years back where Thomas Lynch, an undertaker, was interviewed about changing funeral practices in the postmodern West. We are increasingly uncomfortable with actual bodies at funerals—too morbid, too grim a reminder of our own inevitable fate—so we deal with them before the service, often in private ceremonies attended only by close family and friends. That’s if we even have a service. Many don’t anymore, preferring to slip away quietly, not wanting to burden people (financially or existentially) with their death. Others prefer a “celebration of life,” which often amounts to an extended eulogy with only saccharine references to God and the afterlife or none at all. This is how, increasingly, we are choosing to die and to deal with death, both inside and outside of the church.
There are all kinds of reasons for this trajectory and these are the subject of considerable cultural analysis. But one little line from the article stood out. According to Lynch one of the reasons we are dying the way we do is because
We’ve lost the narrative of redemption, salvation, heaven and eternal life, so we are left with the downsized narratives of personal biography.
Ah yes, the downsized narratives of personal biography. As God recedes from the picture, we inevitably assume center stage. In a perverse inversion of John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness, “he must decrease and I must increase.” In a world where we think little of God, where our faith hangs by a thread, where it has shrunk from a robust all-encompassing hope to a thin justification for an ethical system or a private consolation, our funerals predictably become mostly about ourselves. This is not to say that personal biography should not be part of how we grieve and honour our dead. Far from it! I’ve been to funerals where the deceased hardly made an appearance, and these are very often grim affairs indeed. I want to hear stories of who this person was and what they meant in and for the world. But for the Christian, at least, biography ought always to be contextualized within the context of theology at a funeral. We need this narrative of redemption, salvation, and eternal life. Our personal biographies can be truly inspiring. But as far as funeral narratives go, they’re no match for death.
I’ve been picking my way through Benjamin Myers’ little book on the Apostles’ Creed over the last little while. In his chapter on Jesus’ descent into hell and resurrection from the dead, Myers has this to say about death:
Where others see only defeat, Jesus’ followers see a paradoxical victory. Where others see only contamination, we see the sanctification of human nature. Where others see only darkness and despair, we see broken gates. Where others see an end, we see new beginnings. Death is serious: but not as serious as life. It has been placed in a wider context of meaning. We bury our dead under the sign of the cross. We lay our bones to rest not in horror but in peace. The dominant sound at a Christian funeral is not mourning but the singing of praise.
It should be, at any rate. In the face of even the darkest and most apparently hope-starved tragedy, the Christian should be able to summon a word of hope and praise—often through clenched teeth, closed fists, and rivers of tears—if only because the darkest tragedy is the soil from which our faith has taken root. Death was and is the doorway to life.
By nature we are all on the way from birth to death. But by grace we are traveling in the opposite direction. The Christian life is a mystery that moves from death to birth. At the beginning we are baptized into Christ’s death; and at the end we are born into the life of the resurrection. We are born as though dying; we die as those being born.
This is the Christian hope. It should be, at any rate. Perhaps one of the tasks of the church in our time and place is to remind Christians that, as Myers puts it, “We die differently because the Son of God has touched our frail mortality and has drawn it into the wider context of his life.”