Friday, September 03, 2010

America's Great Denial

I used to really like the newspaper column, Dear Abby, at least when the original Abby was still in control of it. Her daughter has taken it over now, and I often in jest refer to it now Dear Scabby because the topic quality now borders on the bizarre and sometimes even the perverse. I read the column though for entertainment value, as it is a good glimpse into American culture.

I read this article a few days ago in the local paper. The column is largely reprinting letters received from readers in response to the Dear Abby column from July 14th, found here. The original letter in question is half way down the column after the ad. (You'll see what I mean about the topic quality in the first few letters from the July 14th edition.)

The more recent column was a truly fascinating glimpse into America's great denial that death actually happens. Perhaps I am unfairly targeting America because that is more generally the West's problem in particular. I was in a liturgy class in Britain a few years ago when I was at Westcott House, and the topic of funerals came up. The professor asked point blank who in the class had actually ever seen a dead body. This was a fairly large group of mostly Anglicans. Most of whom were in the 21 to 50 age range. An Irish guy and myself were the only two people in the class that raised our hands. Ireland still has a wake tradition, and America still sometimes has an open casket at the receiving of friends or visitation at the funeral home.

I was astounded by that, particularly coming from a group of Anglican church mice. One would think that they would have seen a body somewhere, sometime, if they had grown up around the church and gone to funeral masses at some point. But in Britain, it turns out that no one ever sees a dead body unless they stumble upon it by accident.

Westerners just seem to have an aversion to anything having to do with death. I think America is quickly going down the path that Britain and other places in Europe have already tread. The trend in secular circles is to not even call them funerals anymore. They are referred to as "Celebrations of Life" or such as that.  Even in Church circles, liturgical black is no longer permitted for funerals unless specifically requested. The liturgical color is white. I still have a black chasuble for requiem masses, if requested, but I'm a hold out. Even the Catholic priest in town has to come borrow mine if someone requests a requiem mass.

Trying to explain to people that the Eulogy is a relatively recent phenomenon in Anglican liturgy is truly a monumental task. "What do you we can't have a parade of people coming in during the funeral and talking about dear old So-and-so? And how dare you presume to tell us we can't play his favorite pop song at the funeral?" The very idea that a funeral liturgy is in fact a liturgy and that God, not the deceased person, should be at the center of the worship is becoming a foreign concept to even the most steady church goers. (I'm guilty of allowing this to some degree myself, don't get me wrong.)

I'm sorry, call me a grumpy old priest, but God is not being praised if we play Frank Sinatra's "My Way" or Van Halen's "Ain't talkin' 'bout love" at the funeral. If you must play that song (within reason) during the slide show at the luncheon, go hog wild. However, death is real, and God is real. As such, funerals serve multiple purposes, not the least of which is to praise God for the life of Mr. So-and-so but also to give comfort to the grieving and to point people to the Resurrection.

The knee jerk reaction they tried to teach us in seminary is to Blame the Church first. It's the Church's fault that we let secular culture take over. It's the Church's fault for not being hip enough. It's the Church's fault for not being relevant enough. There is certainly some truth to that, though I never bought into that "The Church must Change or Die" criticism.

I do not know exactly what my ultimate point in the blog entry is. In a culture that wants to deny death even exists, sometimes I wonder what the Church's actual message is in terms of death and what its meta-message is. I think clergy all to often cave to the desires of secular memorial services. Are we simply that unclear in our teaching about death and dying and resurrection? Or, is it a case that the world simply does not want to hear our message, in which case there is not much we can do about it?

I would be interested to hear comments.

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