The Death of Celebration

Originally written Mar 18, 2005

I have had a few months to reflect on the tsunami that killed upwards of 250,000 people in Southeastern Asia . I have heard sermons, read obituaries, and seen images that evoked a range of emotions. I have talked to people that tell me we should celebrate the life of the deceased and not dwell on the death. And I have attended a memorial in the past with this same sentiment. The memorial service was celebrating the life of a former college professor of mine who died prematurely and in “celebration” the service was held on the beach at one of his favorite surf spots. I suppose this memorial service was intended to be a kind of subtle reminder of the new day we all have as we reflect on another’s death. I have also heard the plaintive conversation between a mother and her child:

    “Mommy, do you and Daddy love me?”
    “Of course we love you, Honey! Why do you ask?”
    “I was just wondering who will love me when you die.”

That child was asking a much deeper question than most of the commentaries and analyses I have read over the deaths that occurred that December 26, 2004 . That child did not realize the existential angst behind the question and if asked about the feelings that provoked the question that child would not be able to tell you why he asked that. He only knew, at that moment, he was scared of being alone. I know, because that child was me.

The idea of celebrating one’s life in the wake of her death is a tacit approval of a false belief. The false belief conjured up at the memorial service I attended can be called philosophical naturalism or practical atheism. Philosophical naturalism is the idea that this life is all we got. There is nothing beyond the universe, because there is no “beyond” the universe. It is a nonsensical statement. Philosophical naturalism is summed in Professor Sagan’s statement, “The cosmos is all there is, all there was, or ever will be.” The idea that there is no life after this one, and even if there is, we cannot know anything about it and therefore, since we cannot know anything about it, we shall live as if there is no life after death. So, without actually subscribing to atheism or philosophical naturalism, if one lives as if there is no life after death, one lives as if philosophical naturalism is true. She is a functional atheist. This is true of the naturalist and it is true of the avowed supernaturalist. Therefore, a person who is a functional atheist will live life as if there is no life beyond the grave.

Although it is certainly the case that a person who lives as if there is no life beyond the grave is a functional atheist, there is something more I would like to draw attention to; namely, this belief is betrayed in the face of death. You can see this betrayal in the faces of those at a funeral. The closer the face is to the deceased the more intense the betrayal. What I mean by closer is “relationally close”. I can attend a funeral of a friend or acquaintance and be saddened by his passing and not shed a tear. But the wife or lover of the deceased who had a deep and abiding love for him will have a much different countenance than I, regardless of her belief system. There are many explanations for this but if the explanation falls short of death being an enemy then the explanation becomes the enemy. This is so because the explanation conceals the reason for death: to chase us into the arms of the savior who came and conquered death.

Another manufactured false belief that is popular at memorial services is derived from Eastern religious thinking commonly associated with Hinduism and now adopted by practitioners of the “New Age”. The idea that, at death, life regenerates with karmic purpose, resulting in new life. This too is folly in the face of death and cannot be concealed with religious contortion. Again what is not concealed is the pain on the face of the one who lost the most at the funeral. This is why I said the mourner’s face betrays her belief. Her belief may be one of stoic understanding of karmic debt, not unlike the explanation of Mustafa’s death in The Lion King. Death is just seed for continuation of a circle, the circle of life. Upon this understanding death becomes not something to be mourned but something to be celebrated because in this death new life begins! How exciting a funeral should be if that is the case! Why then does the grief increase in intensity the closer we are to the body in the casket? Because death is an enemy, and as a mother wails at the sight of a broken and battered child her tears reveal death is an enemy regardless of her prior beliefs. Look at the face of the wailing mother and see what sin has done to a fallen world. It was not supposed to be this way. Did you hear that? Let me say it again. It was not supposed to be this way! Death exposes the barren landscape of this new dawn and reveals a circle that is bent and broken. This is what religion and philosophy attempt to conceal. If the ideas of men were true then death would just be a comma and not an exclamation!

My point is this: As a child we have not mastered the subtlety of concealing our fears and couching our contradictions; whereas as an adult, after years of mastering this masquerade, we are not rational enough to continue the deception when tragedy strikes because our pretended convictions contradict the created order. In this way the child and the grieving adult are the same. What I mean by rational is that it takes a certain amount of rational premeditation to speak according to one’s professed worldview. But can you walk the talk? This is wear the “rubber hits the road”. If the conviction fails to correspond with the action then it is time to revise your view. This is my accusation against false views of death, they fail to correspond when death is before us. For instance, if I understand that evil is without distinction in Hinduism I may say that evil is an illusion. Thus with sleight of hand I do away with brutality, suffering, and sin. And in the face of this statement one should accept death with stoic understanding as if to say “Chin up, life is but an illusion, Brahman is real.” A comforting balm issued from a Hindu temple secure in authority or in a university tower secure in tenure. But in the ruins of a heart shattering tsunami all rational premeditation is lost and man is truly existing in the moment and, it is at this moment, that he admits evil is real and death hurts. This moment is when our rational defenses are down and we find no consolation in false thinking, in fact we find just the opposite, pain with no hope. Death hurts because death is real, and death has a message.

As believers in the risen Christ we are the messengers sent out with the clarion call of Calvary . One came and died a terrorist’s death. One came to die so others may live. A seed fell to the ground and death has lost its sting. Death is satire. We can offer the hope to a dead world. We can offer the comfort to the walking wounded. We can provide the tourniquet to a hemorrhaging heart. Christ is the hope that hands, He is the stent that sustains and He is the tie that binds. In Him all things cohere and in Him is found freedom. Not freedom from death or pain or hurt but freedom through death, pain, and hurt. Come, all you who are weary and he will give you rest. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. If the Son of Man sets you free you shall be free indeed!

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