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Graeme Hunter on Grave Entertainments
I am nearly fifty now and my older friends are starting to die. As when a few dry leaves blow around your feet and you suddenly realize the autumn season is upon you, so I find myself unexpectedly beginning the season of funerals. Unfortunately, I am not adjusting to it very well.
Do not misunderstand me. I have no objections to a few rehearsals before being myself the guest of honor. Neither is fear of dying the biggest issue so far. What worries me now is how even in death vulgarity intrudes. Even our farewell to the world, it seems, must be taken without much dignity or intelligence.
I am not speaking of those who choose to go into the underworld defiantly, like Don Juan, or of the ones who use even their death to advertise their adherence to popular culture. What troubles me are the spoiled farewells taken by well-meaning people of those who, in life, would have demanded something better, but who now just happen to be dead. Take, for example, my latest funeral.
A Mournful Affair
The deceased was not a man I knew well—we once served on the board of the same charity. He had been a physician, and I remembered him as a man with his heart in the right place and a good head on his shoulders. Though of a quiet disposition, he could be tough when toughness was required. He was also capable of spontaneous generosity, after the pattern of the “cheerful giver” St. Paul exhorts us all to be.
As the funeral began, I caught myself recalling a time when the little mission on whose board we served was in a real financial pinch. In the middle of a prayerful meeting, he suddenly announced to the board, with a chuckle: “It will be taken care of. That is a promise, not a prediction!” In death I was sure he was bound in the right direction, and so I had come only to wish him Godspeed on the journey.
At first things looked all right. Like the other geezers present I had worn dark clothing, and we were numerous enough to introduce a note of gravity. I didn’t mind that the younger people and many of the women appeared to be headed for a beach party directly following the service. These things happen. People are so busy. Really, I didn’t start to worry until the family with the young child arrived.
They sat in the front pew, as such families regularly do. It was as if they meant to be on show, and one just knew they would be. I sometimes wonder why the kind of child-exhibitionism we were about to endure has recently become so common.
Perhaps it is that too few churches nowadays make any sharp distinction between worship and entertainment, and parents are often pardonably disposed to think their own children far more entertaining than the dreary stuff going on within the sanctuary. In the conspicuous absence of reverence for anything else, the thought may occur to them that congregations must gather in these places to worship children. Children represent “life” and “joy” and spontaneity, and all the affirmations of which religion is thought to consist. Congregations and especially ministers of religion of course delight in playing along with this charming fantasy.
In the event, we hardly endured a solemn minute before the live entertainment began. Johnny, who seemed to suffer from acute attention deficit disorder, but not from shyness, was soon up boogying behind the minister, or talking to the organist, or racing up and down the aisles. “But hey, lighten up!” you say, “what do you think this is, a funeral?” And that was just the thought that must have run through the mind of the very sensitive and understanding pastor too. “Hi, friend,” he said, as the boy bounced up to the pulpit.
When I saw the politically correct pew hymnbook, I rejoiced that only one hymn had been chosen for the service. Even greater was my joy, however, when I found it to be one that the hymnbook’s tireless editors had mysteriously overlooked. It was the old Scottish paraphrase of the Twenty-third Psalm, which has comforted both the dying and the bereaved for almost four centuries. This we can sing, I thought.
I was wrong. The mourners, if such they may be called, were either not churchgoers at all or belonged to churches in which only choruses are sung. Or perhaps they attend the “Church of the Blessed Overhead Projector,” in which the labor of finding hymns in hymnbooks is abolished. Whatever the reason, it turned out that another geezer and myself were destined to sing an impromptu and well-nigh tuneless duet to an audience of 50 people. Fortunately most of it was drowned out by the organ.
Then came the sermon. Not surprisingly, some parts of it were lost to the antics of the prancing little entertainer darting before the pastor or popping up behind the coffin or among the artifacts up at the holy end of things. But what I did hear was a mixed bag. When the pastor stuck to Scripture, his words were comforting.
What was not scriptural became an embarrassing effusion that degenerated quickly from a mediocre sermon into an inept eulogy. Apparently the pastor found a humble physician to be an unworthy subject for his oration and declared him really to have been a scientist. The deceased’s having been a churchgoer and involved in charities was likewise the alchemical ground for making him a theologian.
Was this, too, perhaps, due to the pressure to entertain? Our society has been accused of “entertaining itself to death,” but this clergyman had discovered a need to go further and make death itself entertaining. If the dear departed cut too small a figure to engage our jaded minds, why, then, it is preferable to hear about a giant who never lived at all.
Not only were the homilist’s exaggerations needless and untrue, they also stifled his flow of words. He might have told us something interesting about the charitable medical man we had all known. But the pastor had only clichés to relate about the scientist-theologian of his own invention.
I knew no one at the funeral, so I didn’t stay for the reception. Sadly, the coffin was whisked away before I had time to pay my respects. I would have delayed my exit long enough to tap on the casket and whisper to the deceased: “Don’t mind the palaver, old chap. In your day you tended the sick, fed the hungry, and relieved the poor. They are your epitaph. Rest in peace.”
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.