When my friend’s little brother died, his family performed rites that are rare nowadays. They brought the body of their boy back home. They dressed him and laid him out for a wake in their dining room. They built his coffin and carved his headstone. They dug his grave and buried him with their own hands. What an anomaly in this antiseptic age—but how natural. Death is not a part of life anymore, not as it should be. We have lost touch with death somewhere between the death-care industries and death-metal goths. Death is either an unmentionable in need of euphemisms and platitudes, or else it is a tyrant of screaming secular horror. Death is held in one of two cultural attitudes: denial or domination. Both extremes have something in common: fear. While Death should not be fearfully ignored or fearfully exalted, we must be in touch with the reality of death if we are to live forever.
It was early in the morning when I learned that my grandfather had died. I was in the kitchen wrangling a coffee pot and a baby after a bad night’s sleep. As the coffee finally began brewing, I glanced at my email and read an unexpected, solemn message from my father: “Tato passed away this morning at about 4:30. Mom was with him when he died. He died very peacefully. We will be in touch.” He was 98-years-old. The two-month-old boy in my arms was his 27th great-grandchild.
I made the trip home with my family for the memorial. Driving to the funeral parlor, my wife asked, “Will it be an open casket? The kids have never seen a dead body before. How should we prepare them?” I tried to think of what to say, but before I knew it, I found myself standing over the body of my grandfather in the midst of so many silent children—my sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces—the great-grandchildren of my grandfather. I could not see any of their faces as they looked with me on that waxen face.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“Can we touch him?” A child asked.
“Yes,” I said, “you can touch him.”
A dozen little hands reached over the side of the casket. They touched the hands, the chest, the arms. The children touched the body of their patriarch who had immigrated to Canada from Poland to raise a family after surviving forced-labor under the Nazis. They touched the body they had always touched whenever they saw him. But on that day, they touched death, and they knew it—and it was right.
Out of Touch
It is good to be in touch with death. It is good to know what death is so that we might think on it with Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” or Stevenson’s epitaph, or Chesterton’s poem where the skeleton laughs that “Death was but the good King’s jest.” Death is stripped of its sting and therefore all souls are called to die a good death and to prepare for it—even look forward to it, as the exuberant, colorful traditions of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos proclaim. Death is when life truly begins.
To a godless people, however, death is devastating in and of itself and a condemnation of the façades of an irreligious society. This devastation fails to extend to the recognition of the reality of death, reaching only to the soul’s struggle for some impossible, imagined compromise. For these, the touch of death can be like the touch of the grandmother on Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, that is, like a snake bite.
In Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan Ilych’s attitude toward life changed through dying, his emotions running the gamut from terror to triumph. Ignoring or psychologically denying death embodied Ilych’s environment, a delusion devised to ward off unpleasantness, which only breeds superficiality, frustration, and fear. Acceptance of death, on the other hand, together with the ups and downs of life, allows for confidence and contentment.
As they stand, though, death observances can be something like denials of the final fact. Everyone knows that they will die, but many would rather not face it. The sometimes-bizarre American funeral industry oftentimes seemingly attempts to negate or soften the reality of death with embalmed corpses, luxury coffins, off-point sentimentality, and musical smart caskets (coming soon to a cemetery near you). But increased contact and tactile truth are far more efficacious assuagers and healers.
Too Much in Touch
Despite its prevalent mitigation, death is, at the same time, widely hailed and paradoxically hallowed in a way that makes it terrible instead of tranquil. Death imagery prevails in movies, video games, tattoos, and edgy street fashion. Of course, it runs deeper than imagery: abortion, euthanasia, suicide, drug overdose, mass shootings. This has been called the “culture of death” for good reason.
In these death-swamped times, a growing trend promotes a perverse and eerie “celebration” of death as an object of dark and even oppressive fixation. There is a quasi-religious difference between the skull on a leather jacket and the one Charles Ryder owned at Oxford with “Et in Arcadia ego” on its forehead. The latter is mystic, the former is nihilistic. As strange as it sounds, there is a weird leaning toward a kind of death worship in the world, in a troubling instance of the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
For example, albeit an extreme one, in recent years a cult has risen out of Mexico (ironically) called Santa Muerte—Saint Death. One of the fastest-growing religious sects, the Santa Muerte cult venerates the image of a female Grim Reaper. With barren skull replacing the beautiful face, the Bony Lady is a mockery of Our Lady of Guadalupe, yet many Mexicans love the skeleton “saint.” Santa Muerte is revered as one who gives what heaven refuses. She is a proclaimed protector of outcasts, and the patron of homosexuals, transvestites, transgenders, prostitutes, and drug dealers. People cherish her “miracles,” sacrifice, pay homage, and pray to her, and sometimes find themselves unexpectedly endowed with money, escape, and license.
After all, Hades was the Greek god of riches who had a room in his house for all. Death does not discriminate—and neither do demons.
Without the Church, people are reverting back to the shadows of pre-Christian eras, giving death renewed sway. As the masses crawl further from Christ, the One Source of life, so they become more out of touch and permeated with the power that Christ overthrew—namely, death. Halloween, as it is currently observed, is one of the harbingers of this corruption, offering an exaltation of death rather than a derision of it. This is one of the reasons for the alarming concentration on slashers, the undead, sadism, and mutilation: the visceral fascinations of fallen nature. This fascination also engenders the faux ceremonials that prevail in the mortuary business.
Somewhere in the middle of death-denial and death-domination lies the human touch with death: the acknowledgement of what death must be and what it must bring. And it is this median experience that the extremes miss by a mile. If that middle ground is ever recovered, folks would again inter their dead with spades instead of leaving the task to impersonal backhoes. Do we truly bury the dead, as the corporal work of mercy commands? It is a good question. And one that is worth asking in a society segregated from the rites and realities of death, even as it struggles with the wages of sin, as though in mute denial or raging submission to some unbearable, untouchable fact.
The hands of those children on my dead grandfather offer solution and sanity. No matter how self-destructive the world is, people still want to live forever as the ancients did—this desire is the basis of all philosophy and theology. Death must, when all is said and done, play the right part in this desire for eternal life if it is to be fulfilled. Let us pray for all souls. Let us be in touch.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)