To Hell with Death!

Several weeks ago, I attended a very difficult funeral. (But are there easy ones?) It was for a beloved friend and supervisor, whom I had worked with for the past nine years. Pancreatic cancer. Very sudden.
Sorrowing Old Man, by Vincent van Gogh
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
She was a holistic nutrition enthusiast and one of the healthiest people, overall, I'd ever known. Devastating. What is a little disconcerting, though, after the initial shock wears off, is how quickly one begins to adjust to the missing person's absence.

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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Paul McCartney, The end of the end, comes to mind. One passage:
On the day that I die I'd like jokes to be told
And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets
That children have played on
And laid on while listening to stories of old
Nice! Thank you for that.
Lexi Eikelboom said…
I would be interested to know where fear factors in here. I think a lot of people think about making peace with death in terms of overcoming one's fear of death. Does this mean that you think fear is actually part of the appropriate response to death?
Thanks, that's a great question. I'll personally admit I'm afraid of death. I'm afraid of lots of things, actually, and I think many of those things, those natural human insecurities in an uncertain and dangerous world, are shadowed by the ubiquity of death -- fear of aging and sickness (and fear of the elderly and the sick!) for example.

This passage stirs my heart: "14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Clearly, if we take this passage seriously, those of us who profess faith in Christ are offered some kind of promise that associates Christ's work with overcoming the fear of death. Whatever one makes of this passage, it seems to me, at least, to be saying that overcoming the fear of death comes from trust in a source outside our own resources. Of course, I'm sure one can cite many examples of non-Christians who have faced death with stoic dignity and courage, perhaps even joy, so I wouldn't presume to rule that out. Perhaps, I would suggest, though, those folks are given this peace of mind through a gift of grace as well.

So I guess what I'm suggesting here -- and, really, I'm just thinking out loud -- is that the process of overcoming fear of death would involve not an embrace of death in itself but rather some sort of affirmation (even if subconsciously) of a greater reality, however that is understood.
Lexi Eikelboom said…
Thanks, Scott. Yeah, I'm afraid of death too, and a lot of other things, and I think most of those things have to do with my fear of death.

I really like your response about it being an affirmation of a greater reality that overcomes the fear of death. It seems to me that a lot of this has to do with the imagination. My problem is not cognitively knowing that there is a greater reality, but some sort of failure of the imagination to inhabit that reality. The fleeting moments when my fear is quelled seem to be when I am connected to this reality through the imagination.

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