Sunday, October 14, 2007

On The Decline of the Funeral Homily

Followers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for a certain theology professor, Fr. David Lewis Stokes. Fr. Stokes recently wrote an article for the Providence Journal which has been picked up by newspapers across the country. The topic was how the decline of the funeral portrays our changing view of death.

Only Fr. Stokes could make the analogy that we view death as a cruise ship and heaven as "the predetermined destination of a cruise ship".

Of all the elephants galumphing around our culture’s living room, none is more significant than the change in our rhetoric of death. By this I mean the metaphors and similes by which we speak of the dead.

You have only to listen to a funeral homily, squirm through a eulogy, or read “verses” offered in memoriam to realize that there has occurred a seismic shift in our cultural imagination. Heaven now lies before us devoid of geography. Death has ceased to be a drama.

I’m not suggesting that our fascination about “spirits” and the “spirit-world” has diminished. Far from it. The trend of TV shows about angels, etc., reveals that this fascination with the “beyond” flourishes. Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife remains a bestseller. You have only to drive through a suburban neighborhood to see how Americans have transformed even Halloween into a bizarre kind of dia de los muertos.

To name the specific elephant in question, let me be blunt: However fascinated most Americans are in the “afterlife,” the fact remains that those grand themes, once the raison d’etre of mainline churches and pulpits — that is, death, judgment, heaven and hell — have vanished from the very religious communities that first articulated them. They are just plain gone. Preachers and theologians, politicians and toastmasters may trot out the occasional words — but now for ornamentation, not out of any necessity.

To understand just how dramatic this shift in our rhetoric, consider three examples. When a dying John Donne crawled into his pulpit in 1631, he preached a sermon entitled “Death’s Duel.” What makes it one of the greatest sermons in the English language is its rhetorical force. It is an explosion of metaphors and images of incredible specificity. Donne rendered life as a perilous journey and death as our foe “even from the womb.” He left his congregation in no doubt that each individual’s appointment with death is the most serious engagement in life.

When John Bunyan’s stalwart Christian of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) finally reached sight of the Celestial City, he finds himself plunged neck-deep into a river of dread. “And . . . a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him.” There was no immediate entrÉ into heavenly bliss. Heaven was a city to be won after arduous struggle, not the predetermined destination of a cruise ship.

As late as 1865 Cardinal Newman could publish The Dream of Gerontius, a dialogue between a dying man, angels and the demonic, which became something of a Victorian bestseller. Far from being a pious bit of Catholic triumphalism, he rendered death as no less than “this emptying out of each constituent / And natural force, by which I come to be.” The poem expresses a dread of death worthy of Dante or even Jean Paul Sartre.

Contrast these with the following contemporary tropes — gleanings typical of American pulpit: “Tom may be gone, but he will live on in our hearts.” “Aunt Bertha is in a better place.” “After years of hardship, Uncle Fred is finally home.” “We don’t know why Sally was taken from us so young, but someday we will.” Or, my own favorite, proclaimed over a woman who had made the lives of her children and grandchildren absolute hell, “For Edith the great symphony of life continues now among the stars.”

I have no doubt that many people have found comfort in such statements. The significant thing, though, is that compared with the specific rhetoric of a Donne, Bunyan or Newman, these tropes refer us ultimately to ... well, uh ... nothing.

They point to a landscape without topography or content. They imply that a human life is not so much a drama to be acted with the utmost ethical seriousness but a pleasant odor that will eventually dissipate. The only traditional image that seems to have hung on is that when we “pass” we enter into a bright white light. But within this light ... who can say? (Frankly, heaven for me has always been autumnal and filled with deep shade.)

But why should it matter? We forget. How a society renders death and the “beyond” says everything about how it renders life and the here-and-now. The ways in which we picture what happens to the dead determine the ways in which we picture our own lives — the ways in which we engage in ethical reflection.

A life pictured as a cruise that will encounter the occasional storm is very different from one whose destination is pictured as fraught with demands, uncertainties, and the abiding shadow of possible moral failure.

The reason that most mainline churches have ended up focused on politics or sexual expression or “an aesthetic experience,” is simple. Without a rhetoric of the “beyond,” what else is there to talk about?

And the reason that sustained ethical reflection is scarce among most theologians is obvious. Now that life’s drama has no final act of any depth, life itself cannot but be pictured as one discrete scene after another.

Sadly, our modern dilemma is that we cannot return to a lost rhetoric without making it artificial. Those well-meaning preachers and speakers who try to “follow an antique drum” have come to seem to me about as “genuine” as a costumed guide at some colonial theme park.

No doubt we may rediscover the rich and mysterious topography of the “beyond.” But if we do our rhetoric will be decidedly different.

Poets and novelists, painters and artists, as well as the itinerant mystic, are always stumbling into it. Just don’t look for it to come from the American pulpit.

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