Wall Street Journal writer Stephanie Simon reported Thursday that cemeteries are increasingly sponsoring events --- everything from cook-outs to film screenings on mausoleum walls --- to keep their services in the minds of potential future customers. "It gets them into the cemetery, but not in a scary way, and if they have a nice experience, maybe they'll say, 'I want my family there,'" explained a cemetery superintendent in Connecticut.
It's a great irony of modern America that the rise of violence porn --- films like the Hostel and Saw series at the extreme, with a general rise in bodycounts for action films overall --- coincides with an aversion to pondering death. "Keep your mind in hell, but despair not," wrote St Silouan. Today's maxim might well be a more cowardly one: "Keep your mind on rainbows, lest you despair."
Indeed, can we imagine a more telling indicator of a man's soul-sturdiness than his willingness to contemplate his own death? A century ago, the WSJ's Simon goes on to relay, Americans were much more likely to visit cemeteries, in many cases picnicking by the gravesides of their lost relatives. A rise in cremation has contributed to a decline in cemetery visits. Economists point to the lower expense of cremation as a driving reason for its precedence over full-body burial; perhaps an underlying reason is simply that an urn of ashes -- whether it rests in the ground or on a corner shelf -- is less likely to draw our minds to the reality that someone we love is buried in darkness, as we one day will be as well, awaiting the resurrection to Judgement.
Burial, resurrection, Judgement -- none of these are popular ideas, especially in a society so insulated from danger and suffering, and so saturated with entertainment and distraction. Churches are too often participants in this delusion, making funerals into celebrations, and frowning on extended grief. I doubt Christians have led the exodus from cemeteries, but the emergence of rock-concert worship and a pop-therapy patina suggest many of us are just as likely as non-Christians to be repulsed by the great prayer of St. John of Damascus: "Suddenly shall come the Judge, and the deeds of every man be revealed, but with fear we cry to Thee at midnight, holy, holy, holy…"
It is a sobering thing to contemplate the coming grave, to ponder whether we have been stingy in our forgiveness even as we gird ourselves to beg it from God, whether in our hearts we have been hypocrites the Lord will say He does not know.
But it's a good thing, such sobriety. Perhaps even a soul-saving thing, this turning of our eyes away from the distractions of the world to the centers of our hearts, to consider whether they are filled with love or are instead empty tombs, and to embrace the responsibilities entailed by either answer, which is to take action while we still have breath, to pour ourselves out in love, or humble ourselves in hopes that we will learn to love. The unbelieving world has every reason to avoid death, but it seems to me that we Christians have every reason to look it full in the face, now, while there is still time act on what we see.