The morning before Easter I sat in a crowded church where we were celebrating the life of my friend Kim, a 41-year-old mother of five who I've known and loved since we were both 16.
"Celebration of life" services have become the go-to good-bye for pagans and Christians alike. When someone dies, especially after a prolonged illness, we are more than ready to move on, to get past the ugliness and messiness and dreariness of death. Focusing on the beauty of that person's life seems more palatable than dwelling on the dismalness of death, or so goes the argument. Death is bad. Death is the enemy. Death is to be covered over, put away, pushed aside as quickly as possible. Like Alexander Schmemann, said, "We live in a death-denying culture."
During the years my husband worked in the funeral industry, we saw more and more people choosing direct cremation (cremation without any service) for their loved ones. It was common for one of Ian's funeral directors to complain to him about the urgency with which many of the bereaved families wanted to "get this over with." "This" being the discomfort death brings: strong emotional display, looking at a dead body, notifying family and friends. As such, they often requested no viewing of the body, no flowers, no obituary, and no service of any kind. One director even told me that some families leave their loved one's boxed cremains at his funeral home for weeks or months after the death. Some never pick them up at all.
But if death is ugly and horrible, what is wrong with wanting to move on as quickly as possible?
At the grave of Lazarus, Jesus Himself, even knowing he was going to raise him from the dead, wept.
Schmemann writes, "If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity. . . . Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a 'mystery' to be explained."
No amount of "celebrating" negates the horror of death. Although we rejoice when someone's pain and suffering are over, we need not treat grief as the enemy.
Kim's service was beautiful, a true tribute to the woman she was. She now sits face-to-face with God, and in this I truly celebrate. I loved her and I always will.
But for now I weep.