|Sorrowing Old Man, by Vincent van Gogh|
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
But the pangs of remembrance strike at the most unexpected moments. For me, one of those came this past weekend. I was with my 7-year-old son at a Halloween event. The kids, having loaded their bags with goodies from opened car trunks, were decked in their All Hallows' Best, and we were marching around the museum quadrangle in Springfield, Massachusetts. We tromped through the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden, and into and through the history museum, past the Indian Motorcycle exhibit and the shrine to John Brown. Blasting its way at the lead was the exuberant Expandable Brass Band, an ad hoc outfit that headlines festive events throughout the Pioneer Valley. ("You guys get around," I quipped to one of the leaders. "Yes," he replied. "That's what happens when you're in a marching band.")
The booming tuba and the crashing drums brought New Orleans funerals to my mind, and I was thrust into a reverie about the events at work over the past several weeks. "It's so unfair," a shocked friend of the deceased's family had told me at the funeral. He seems to believe (or perhaps vainly to hope) that this universe is governed by some greater moral order or karmic logic. "I don't think fairness really plays into it," I said. (At least my theology degrees are good for something.)
New Orleans funerals, though.... Now, I've never actually been to one. I did live in the Crescent City, but I was age 2 to 4, and I don't remember going to any funerals. At any rate, Cajun funerals aren't exactly in the Southern Baptist style. I used to believe a New Orleans-style funeral -- featuring a brash and brassy musical bash, complete with parade -- would annoy or even offend me. Now I crave them. I wish folks in the Northeast and elsewhere could somehow learn something from this tradition. I long to see a funeral like this jubilantly epic procession in honor of the great Allan Toussaint, who died about a year ago. Toussaint: What a wonderful name to remember this week, don't you think? Very apropos of the liturgical celebration many of our churches just observed.
I'm no cultural anthropologist, but my sense is that this style of celebration taps into a foundational, transcutltural phenomon that expresses something essential about human experience. Celebrations surrounding Halloween, the Day of the Dead, Mummers' Parades and Carnival, and (perhaps?) Purim are in a similar category, if my hunch is correct. What such transgressive celebrations have in common is that they express the only really appropriate human and humanizing reaction in the face of the power and ubiquity of death -- defiance, but with humor. Yes, death is contemptible and worthy of our mockery and our scorn.
The lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow went on tour with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne, trailing a circus in a station wagon as "theologians in residence" (See Bill Wylie-Kellermann, William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, Orbis, pp. 207-210). Stringfellow was obsessed with circuses and collected circus memorabilia. He considered the big top to be an image of the Kingdom of God, in that its animal tamers evoke humankind's rightful but lost dominion over creation and its trapeze artists and stunt masters defy death, literally. That's exactly right.
Many folks nowadays, no doubt with the best of intentions, tell us that death is "natural" and that is part of our vocation to reconcile ourselves to it, to make our peace with it. Rubbish. If contemporary Christian writers and preachers won't challenge this heresy, perhaps we must turn to to the philosopher Albert Camus, an agnostic (or was he?):
In a man's attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills of the world. The body's judgment is as good as the mind's, and the body shrinks from annihilation (see "The Myth of Sisyphus" and Other Essays, Vintage Books, p. 8).
To be sure, I'm not denying that death entails chemical and physiological processes; I am, though, contesting the notion that death can be identified with and reduced to these processes. I am speaking of death dialectically, and I refuse to dignify it with any positive ontological status whatsoever.
Nonetheless, I am imagining that some of you, gentle readers, object: What about the times when death is welcome -- say when it ends an elderly person's long struggle with illness and chronic pain? I get it, but I think there is a misunderstanding here. What we are affirming here is not death itself, but the end of the process of dying, for death has been exercising it's ineluctable power throughout the course of the sufferer's struggle.
All this defiance of death may be understandable, some of you might say, but isn't it ultimately futile? Each of us must eventually face this primeval beast head-on, and death always claims the prize. Fair enough. Still, I pray that when it comes for me, I may be graced to face it with a resigned yet joyful defiance, clinging to the goodness that is life. Peace with God? I pray so. Peace with others and within myself? Lord, let it be. But peace with death? Nope.
To be sure, we can't defeat death. We might hope, perhaps, that Someone else will do it for us. For all we know, maybe Someone else already has. But whether you believe in that possibility or not, I can only recommend this procedure: Don that costume, blow those trombones, feast and party, "live humanly" (as Stringfellow admonishes). And, looking death straight in the face, shout: "To hell with you!"
For Further Reading: On the subject of death, check out ...
-- These posts from other DET contributors.
-- This funeral sermon by Henry Coates.
-- My post from last year: "No Happy Mediums: Stringfellow on the 'Afterdeath'"
-- My Review of John Heywood Thomas' Theology and Issues of Life and Death, over at Jason Garoncy's fine blog.
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