A Christian funeral proclaims the fierce, happy truth that ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’. As Christians see it, Sin corrupts and depraves, Death annihilates and nullifies. Both are the spawn of Satan, who is Evil, the mortal (lit) enemy of God who is Good and, the theology goes, the victor in the end. It’s pure Star Wars. Nice idea, good plot, great movie, but, for so many people, no more than that. To believe, for them, requires an impossible feat of suspended disbelief resulting in that narked, defiant expression non-believers wear at religious funerals. There’s a good example of this over at Carla’s blog, where she reflects feistily and funnily on resurrection: “my caregiver Alexa wanted to know if my new perfect body would have red hair and great tits because otherwise it would be a downgrade.”
Once you’ve established the certainty of rising in glory you can look death coolly in the eyes and see it clearly for the howling, sneering, brutal, destructive hooligan it is. If you can beat this mindless yob up, you’re obviously going to whoop a bit. Thus, St John Chrysostom:
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?
Resounding stuff. Intriguing tense change. And at least Christians implicitly recognise that the death of the body is potentially catastrophic, rendering living pointless.
What, then of those who cannot assure themselves of victory despite the knockdown on the deathbed? Is death, for them, defeat? Is having your body brought to a funeral like being paraded, accompanied by your shamed family and friends, as a vanquished captive at an emperor’s triumph? Can you make of this catastrophe something at least acceptable? Can you make it all right by calling death your friend? Well, we try, don’t we, with all that stuff about circles of life and leaves falling off an oak tree and death is nothing at all and I am not there I did not die and death is only an old door set in a garden wall; on quiet hinges it gives at dusk when thrushes call? Secular celebrants have gallons of this emollient balm to slap on.
For all these brave, naff words, twenty minutes at the crem looks to an observer like sullen surrender, a huddled duty-shuffle past the Old Enemy.
You can at least deny the Old Enemy this public humiliation by not having a funeral at all. I’m surprised more people don’t.
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