Though my wife finds my abiding interest in funerals rather odd, it is her fault that I have this interest in the first place. It actually began on our wedding day, and it greatly deepened five years later when one of her oldest friends suddenly dropped dead.
Our wedding, following the Byzantine rite’s practice, was a crowning: the couple are crowned as Christ was crowned. The crowns are reminders—especially, following the logic of Ephesians 5, for husbands!—that true love does not hesitate to die for the beloved just as Christ died for His beloved bride, the Church. So on our wedding day I was at least briefly thinking eschatologically, or perhaps thanatologically, if you will: rejoicing in our present together, but already casting a glance toward the future when we would be separated at the death of one of us, with the departed then judged by Christ in part on how the other had been loved and served. (See my essay “Married to Death” for further reflections.)
There is a good icon for this, and I always introduce it to people in my iconography lectures by saying it is especially apt for men: “Christ the Bridegroom” (sometimes also called “Extreme Humility”). It features an arrested, hand-cuffed Christ, eyes downcast, blood dripping from his forehead and the crown of thorns. The point, of course, is not to be gloomy at a wedding, but to be mindful of the paradox: genuine love goes to the end, even unto death—and beyond, precisely as Christ did for His Bride, the Church.
About five years into married life, my wife got a call late one bitterly cold February night. An old school friend was dead, to the shock of everyone who knew him. Without notice—without a chance to say anything to anyone—he was felled by a silent killer: alive and robust one day in his early thirties; dead the next thanks to a massive brain aneurism. (Truly we know neither the day nor the hour!)
What happened next was excruciating for all concerned. Though raised Catholic, he had fallen away from the Church for a while, as had his entire family. Not knowing what to do, and not having any pastoral guidance, his parents initially opted to have their son cremated almost immediately and then do nothing—no burial, no disposal, no service, not even any public notice. In this, they were reflecting a trend that is growing alarmingly common today, where funerals are increasingly to be found on an endangered species list.
My wife gently persuaded them that their son’s friends would like to mark his death in some way. So the local Catholic funeral home hosted a wake and the ashes were placed in an urn under a massive crucifix in the parlor. This only added immeasurably to the anguished awkwardness as everyone milled about, largely staring at their feet, totally unsure of what to do, what to say, what to believe.
But suppose they had had a typical funeral Mass. Would the confusion have been any less?
Recent scholarship clearly shows that contemporary Roman Catholic funeral rites are not, in fact, useful in challenging eschatological confusion. Too often the casual cultural assumptions—that the body, a meaningless shell, is now irrelevant; that the deceased is of course in heaven; that everyone makes it to heaven; that judgment and hell are too unspeakable ever to merit a mention in a homily or liturgy; and (my favorite) that everyone magically becomes an “angel” at death—are not challenged by funeral liturgies. Too often, those liturgies may reinforce one or more of these heterodox ideas.
Moreover, the hasty race to return to “normality” is reinforced by happy talk about the resurrection totally evacuated of any legitimate lament over the wrenching sorrow of separation in death. This, of course, serves nobody well. One cannot return to “normality” or “get over” something until one has gone through it and has suffered through it. Rejoicing in the resurrection can only come after lament at death. As the old cliché has it, you don’t get to Easter except through Good Friday and the Cross. Death must be faced squarely and honestly, without evasion and equivocation and euphemism.
Who does that today?
I recently attempted to answer that question in a lecture I gave at Baylor University in Texas at the end of February. In that lecture, “Eschatology and Funerary Practices Today: Byzance après Byzance?”, I argued that the Byzantine tradition has liturgical resources that may be helpful in assisting all Christians, especially Roman Catholics, in the recovery of a robust and orthodox eschatology.
The discussion after my lecture was especially interesting as several people proposed, and quite rightly, that if Christians wait until planning a funeral liturgy to begin to help family and friends understand death then we have waited too long. We need to begin far in advance of that, and any preparation must involve not merely liturgy, but also preaching and catechesis. (More widely, we need to rethink numerous cultural assumptions and practices, including medicine, nursing homes, and the role of funeral directors.)
In some of the literature I reviewed in my lecture, I was struck by the fact that nineteenth-century preaching in America showed, as one scholar put it, that preachers addressed death and judgment regularly, whereas they never preached about sex. The situation today is entirely reversed: we are more comfortable with and more likely to hear a commentary on sex than we are to hear anything at all about judgment or hell. For, as we are constantly reminded in today’s hyper-sensitive era, judgment is bad. We must tolerate everyone and everything.
And yet judge we do. All of us. All the time. Even though we have nasty little mobs that police our language, silencing people and politically-incorrect judgments (“Homophobe!” “Islamophobe!” “Misogynist!”), these wailing banshees and self-appointed Robespierres are themselves engaged in the very act of judging for which they persecute others. We judge and ostracize people for the most absurd things—“micro-aggressions” as they are now called. In this, Chesterton, in 1905, was prescient: “When you break the big laws, you don’t get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.”
I will go out on a limb here and suggest our society today is so prone to hysterics and so shrill in condemning others over the small laws precisely because we are no longer reminded of our impending judgment over the big laws of nature and nature’s God. We all need to know we will be judged, but nobody tells us that today—least of all preachers—in a way that is at once charitable but firm (and thus not harsh and Pharisaical). That is, we all have a deeply-rooted need to know—as the Byzantine liturgy puts it—that one day every one of us will stand before the “awesome and dread tribunal of Christ” as our life is weighed in the balance by God.
Let me suggest, then, that if Christian preachers today talked intelligently and serenely (and not luridly) about judgment and hell in the age to come, we might be less inclined to inflict judgment and hell on each other here and now. Let us have a little less of the happy talk of heaven—a little less of the instant canonization one so often hears at funerals—and instead a little more sober reflection on the impending trial awaiting us all. Only then does any talk of “mercy” (so much in the Catholic air today) make sense.
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