That stage of life when one starts attending more funerals than weddings was passed long ago for my wife and me. But this week was exceptionally busy with three ceremonies to honour the deceased.
Funerals, like weddings, are occasions when ultimate values and beliefs are brought into sharp focus, even if fuzzy and vague. Giving lip service to a traditional Christian understanding of life and death is no longer the norm, at least outside of conservative Christian communities.
For the first time in my life I experienced a funeral ending with the congregation (is that what you still call it? let’s say, family and friends) humming along to Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’.
As soon as the opening bars were recognised, a ripple of giggles swept across the church–yes, it was in a church, one of the first protestant church buildings in Amsterdam, designed without an altar end to make a protestant point.
Many of those present could be described as post-Christian, educated and engaged in media. They had come to pay respects to a journalist friend of ours who had died of cancer in her early fifties, her doctor having dismissed her symptoms as imagination.
Death is always sad, as if deep down we know it was never meant to be. But premature death by the negligence of others is extra sad.
So how do we handle it if we believe, as the Monty Python song goes, that ‘life is quite absurd and death’s the final word’? Well, basically, we might as well just laugh it off. Mournful faces don’t help, do they?
In post-modern language it’s called laughing in the dark. Like Captain Kirk, in StarTrek: the Next Generation. When fate finally catches up on him and he is fatally wounded, he shrugs it off saying, “Well, we had fun.”
It helps to ease the pain, I suppose. You end the service joining Brian (in your imagination) and a whole bunch of his friends on the cross, in the closing scene of that well-you-have-to-call-it-sacrilegious film The Life of Brian; whistling in the face of death, and encouraging each other to ‘always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath’…
‘Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ‘em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.’
Wait a minute! What’s that last line supposed to mean? Well, nuttin’ really. It’s British humour, innit? Irony. Like life. Not supposed to be taken seriously.
The ceremony finished with the closing words of the song echoing through the church: ‘you come from nothing–you’re going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!’
The stark cold reality of the meaninglessness of life and death in these post-Christian times is still softened by the memory, stronger or weaker, of Christian hope. Christianity is still the reference point for much Monty Python humour, and is the source of the fuzzy ideas of good, love and virtue westerners still cling to.
Serious atheists like Nietzsche, however, understood how terrifying it was to abandon God, to reject the story of Jesus and to dismiss the ‘Sunday-school’ stories of his resurrection. He understood all too well that losing Christian faith meant abandoning Christian morality, any teaching of loving your neighbour, of championing the weak and vulnerable. We’re left with the will to power, the law of nature, ‘might is right’. Such is the emptiness of the secular soul.
A second funeral in which we participated last week had been planned largely by the deceased herself, an octogenarian ready to meet her saviour. Despite a life-long physical handicap, she radiated hope and encouragement to others–to the end. Although excellent with children, our own included, she had never been married and had never been a mother. Yet she was always pregnant–with God’s future. She expected the best was yet to come. She lived her ‘today’ in the light of God’s ‘tomorrow’.
For all of us, our view of the future shapes the way we live in the present. Our friend’s hope was pinned on one thing: the resurrection of Jesus. Every time we lower a body into the grave, we are confronted with how we stand on this central belief of the Christian faith.
For, as Paul told the Corinthians, if Christ did not rise from the dead, we are to be pitied more than all men. But if he did–and this is the only satisfactory explanation for the radical transformation of that scared bunch of disciples–a previously unknown new dimension of life has broken through, our guarantee of resurrection, our hope!
The alternative is Nietzsche’s savage nothingness.
And frankly, that’s not very funny.
Till next week,